My recent post "An Absurd Supersition", related how a motion by Benjamin Rush that the Pennsylvania convention on ratifying the Constitution appoint a minister to open the convention's business with prayer was shot down.
I am further along in Pauline Maier's Ratification, and have since read the section on the Massachusetts convention. In a stark contrast from the opening of the Pennsylvania convention, in Massachusetts, the well-known American patriot and convention delegate Samuel Adams introduced a motion "that the Convention will attend morning prayers daily." The motion passed. All I can say is that I'm glad I wasn't attending that convention.
What was of interest to me in reading about the Massachusetts ratifying convention was whether there were objections raised to the portion of Article VI of the Constitution, which states "no religious Test shalled ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." In a nutshell, yes, there were quite a few objections raised.
Maier touches on the dispute in her book, but the lack of a religious requirement in the Constitution was just one of many issues that opponents raised in their objections to ratifying the document.
In terms of the debate over the language in Article VI of the Constitution, one of the biggest villains, at least from a secular perspective, is a man named Amos Singletary. Maier describes him as "a man in his Sixties whose Protestant faith was influenced by the preaching of the revivalist Jonathan Edwards." He would have been quite at home in today's Republican Party representing a district in the Bible Belt. Maier quotes him several times fuming about "Infidels", "Mohammedans" and "Papists" Even when the discussion was about giving Congress the power to tax, Singleton fretted that such power may end up in the hands of "an atheist, pagan, Mahommedan."
Reading such things, I can't help but wonder how many atheists, pagans or Muslims there could have been in the new nation that the Bible thumpers of the day displayed such concern about it. Or perhaps Singletary and his ilk were just thinking ahead to some time in some future era that would see the likes of the ACLU and Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
Clearly, the explicit lack of a religious in the Constitution was considered controversial at the time, particularly when many state constitutions contained religious requirements to hold office. Therefore, it is interesting to read what supporters of ratification said in defense of the language in Article VI.
The quotes I cite below come from this website, which features the debates from the Massachusetts convention. Several of the defenders of the Article VI language were themselves pastors and ministers and some of their arguments were couched in Christian language, which may have assuaged the fears of some that the Constitution would open up the floodgates to having the country governed by atheists and pagans.
One of the defenders of the Article VI language was Daniel Shute, a Congregationalist minister. Below are his remarks reproduced in full, with portions underlined and bolded by me for emphasis.
Mr. President, to object to the latter part of the paragraph under consideration, which excludes a religious test, is, I am sensible, very popular; for the most of men, somehow, are rigidly tenacious of their own sentiments in religion, and disposed to impose them upon others as the standard of truth. If, in my sentiments upon the point in view, I should differ from some in this honorable body, I only wish from them the exercise of that candor, with which true religion is adapted to inspire the honest and well-disposed mind.
To establish a religious test as a qualification for offices in the proposed federal Constitution, it appears to me, sir, would be attended with injurious consequences to some individuals, and with no advantage to the whole.
By the injurious consequences to individuals, I mean, that some, who, in every other respect, are qualified to fill some important post in government, will be excluded by their not being able to stand the religious test; which I take to be a privation of part of their civil rights.
Nor is there to me any conceivable advantage, sir, that would result to the whole from such a test. Unprincipled and dishonest men will not hesitate to subscribe to any thing that may open the way for their advancement, and put them into a situation the better to execute their base and iniquitous designs. Honest men alone, therefore, however well qualified to serve the public, would be excluded by it, and their country be deprived of the benefit of their abilities.
In this great and extensive empire, there is, and will be, a great variety of sentiments in religion among its inhabitants. Upon the plan of a religious test, the question, I think, must be, Who shall be excluded from national trusts? Whatever answer bigotry may suggest, the dictates of candor and equity, I conceive, will be, None.
Far from limiting my charity and confidence to men of my own denomination in religion, I suppose, and I believe, sir, that there are worthy characters among men of every denomination — among the Quakers, the Baptists, the Church of England, the Papists; and even among those who have no other guide, in the way to virtue and heaven, than the dictates of natural religion.
I must therefore think, sir, that the proposed plan of government, in this particular, is wisely constructed; that, as all have an equal claim to the blessings of the government under which they live, and which they support, so none should be excluded from them for being of any particular denomination in religion.
The presumption is, that the eyes of the people will be upon the faithful in the land; and, from a regard to their own safety, they will choose for their rulers men of known abilities, of known probity, of good moral characters. The apostle Peter tells us that God is no respecter of persons, but, in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him. And I know of no reason why men of such a character, in a community of whatever denomination in religion, caeteris paribus, with other suitable qualifications, should not be acceptable to the people, and why they may not be employed by them with safety and advantage in the important offices of government. The exclusion of a religious test in the proposed Constitution, therefore, clearly appears to me, sir, to be in favor of its adoption.
Another minister who spoke in defense of Article VI was Samuel Phillips Payson, who also couched his defense in religious terms, and who also provided me with the title for this post.
Mr. President, after what has been observed, relating to a religious test, by gentlemen of acknowledged abilities, I did not expect that it would again be mentioned, as an objection to the proposed Constitution, that such a test was not required as a qualification for office. Such were the abilities and integrity of the gentlemen who constructed the Constitution, as not to admit of the presumption, that they would have betrayed so much vanity as to attempt to erect bulwarks and barriers to the throne of God. Relying on the candor of this Convention, I shall take the liberty to express my sentiments on the nature of a religious test, and shall endeavor to do it in such propositions as will meet the approbation of every mind.
The great object of religion being God supreme, and the seat of religion in man being the heart or conscience, i. e., the reason God has given us, employed on our moral actions, in their most important consequences, as related to the tribunal of God, hence I infer that God alone is the God of the conscience, and, consequently, attempts to erect human tribunals for the consciences of men are impious encroachments upon the prerogatives of God. Upon these principles, had there been a religious test as a qualification for office, it would, in my opinion, have been a great blemish upon the instrument.
A third religious defender of the Article VI language in the debates was a Baptist preacher named Isaac Backus.
Mr. President, I have said very little in this honorable Convention; but I now beg leave to offer a few thoughts upon some points in the Constitution proposed to us, and I shall begin with the exclusion of any religious test. Many appear to be much concerned about it; but nothing is more evident, both in reason and the Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and, therefore, no man or men can impose any religious test, without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ministers first assumed this power under the Christian name; and then Constantine approved of the practice, when he adopted the profession of Christianity, as an engine of state policy. And let the history of all nations be searched from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world. And I rejoice to see so many gentlemen, who are now giving in their rights of conscience in this great and important matter. Some serious minds discover a concern lest, if all religious tests should be excluded, the Congress would hereafter establish Popery, or some other tyrannical way of worship. But it is most certain that no such way of worship can be established without any religious test.
Another prominent defender of Article VI was Theophilus Parsons. Parsons was a jurist, not a clergyman, though his father was, so Parsons' rhetoric was also couched in Christian terms.
It has been objected that the Constitution provides no religious test by oath, and we may have in power unprincipled men, atheists and pagans. No man can wish more ardently than I do that all our public offices may be filled by men who fear God and hate wickedness; but it must remain with the electors to give the government this security. An oath will not do it. Will an unprincipled man be entangled by an oath? Will an atheist or a pagan dread the vengeance of the Christian's God, a being, in his opinion, the creature of fancy and credulity? It is a solecism in expression. No man is so illiberal as to wish the confining places of honor or profit to any one sect of Christians; but what security is it to government, that every public officer shall swear that he is a Christian? For what will then be called Christianity? One man will declare that the Christian religion is only an illumination of natural religion, and that he is a Christian; another Christian will assert that all men must be happy hereafter in spite of themselves; a third Christian reverses the image, and declares that, let a man do all he can, he will certainly be punished in another world; and a fourth will tell us that, if a man use any force for the common defence, he violates every principle of Christianity. Sir, the only evidence we can have of the sincerity of a man's religion is a good life; and I trust that such evidence will be required of every candidate by every elector. That man who acts an honest part to his neighbor, will, most probably, conduct honorably towards the public.
It should be clear that the prohibition of a religious test in the Constitution was not put there because the drafters and the supporters of the document at the time specifically intended for atheists to be allowed to serve in public office. Rather, as the defenders of Article VI spoke above, a religious test would not serve as an effective bar to dishonest men while potentially keeping out honest and capable ones, and that such a test would cause disputes about which was the proper form of Christianity in a country filled with diverse denominations and could turn the country on the path to tyranny. Still, the explicit language in Article VI forbidding a religious test for public office, as well as the lack of any language that requires a candidate to profess any religion at all, does create a space for atheists to be eligible for public office in the United States. And for that, those of us who are atheists are indebted to those religious supporters of ratification of the Constitution who played a vital part in creating that space.