No religious test to be an American

By William Martin, Ph.D.
Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow in Religion and Public Policy


From its inception as one of the original components of the Baker Institute, the Religion and Public Policy Program has consistently espoused and defended the separation of religion and government (AKA “church and state”) as mandated by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The earliest paper on the program’s website was William Martin’s “Secular State, Religious People—The American Model.”

In that paper, he notes that the two men most responsible for the wording of the amendment were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In earlier writings, Jefferson had contended that the government should not compel people to support a religion in which they do not believe; that there should be no religious test for holding public office; [and that government establishment of religion] bribes (and thereby runs the risk of corrupting) religion when it offers it reward from the public coffers. In his landmark document “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” (1785), Madison concurred, adding, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects.” He further extended freedom of conscience to unbelievers: “While we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny any equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

More recently, Baker Institute Nonresident Scholar David Brockman has written a number of articles on the topic including “Christian Rule in the Texas Legislature” and ”Christian Americanism Bias Remains in Texas Curriculum.” He is currently working on a new report, “Christian Americanism and Texas Politics Since 2008.”

In defining Christian Americanism, often alternatively called Christian Nationalism, Brockman explains that “As the United States has grown more ethnically and religiously diverse in recent decades, calls for the nation to return to its allegedly Christian essence have become increasingly common, and increasingly vociferous, on the Right.” Full-blown, this ideology comprises two fundamental claims: First, the Founders intended to create a nation that would be guided by Christian beliefs; second, law and public policy should once again be governed by Christian teaching based on the Bible, giving Christianity a privileged position over other religions and over people with no religion.

If the First Amendment, shaped by the writings of Jefferson and Madison, leaves any room for belief that the Founders intended to establish a Christian nation, a treaty with Tripoli, a Muslim region of North Africa, signed in 1797 when John Adams was president, less than 10 years after ratification of the Constitution, provides an official reminder of their true intent. Article 11 of the treaty states, “[T]he Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] …”

The second claim of Christian Americanism, that Christianity should have a privileged position over other religions and people, manifests itself in myriad ways, with some of the most visible reflected in conflict over prayer and Bible reading in public schools, manger scenes on government property, and support for legal measures that allow some businesses and professionals to claim their religious beliefs gives them the right to refuse service to LGBTQ persons. These efforts provide clear examples of the inequality of faiths their proponents presume.

Consider the continued support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools, courthouses and other government buildings, despite the Supreme Court’s having ruled such displays unconstitutional.[1] However one regards the wisdom of the commandments, several violate the principle of religious neutrality. According to a 2018 Pew Research poll, 44% of Americans do not believe in or worship the “God as described in the Bible,” Jews and Muslims don’t believe in the Trinitarian God of the classic Christian creeds, Hindus believe in a plurality of Gods, and Buddhists do not believe in a personal God. Graven images, forbidden by the second commandment, play a significant role in Hindu, Buddhist and Catholic observance. Only a small majority of Americans keep the sabbath day holy, and if coveting could somehow be eliminated, it would cripple capitalism.

It is common for Christian Americanists, particularly politicians such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to speak of advocating or restoring Judeo-Christian teachings and values, since both are seen as drawn from the Bible. In so doing, they are ignoring the fact that Jews do not regard the Christian Testament as having religious authority over them and are assigning an inferior legal and social status to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and unbelievers. These politicians know they are preaching to a receptive choir. According to a 2017 Pew Research poll, “about a third (32%) of Americans say it is very important for a person to be a Christian in order to be considered truly American.” The figure rises to 57% among white evangelicals.

There is considerable irony in that assertion, since according to other Pew polls, adherents to the four major non-Christian groupings — Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims — consistently rank higher in socio-economic status than the members of most Christian denominations, indicating an acceptance of mainstream American values and contributing importantly to the nation’s health and wealth. Hindus, for example, have the highest educational level among all religious groups, with 77% holding college degrees, 10 percentage points above Unitarian Universalists, 18 above Jews, 21 above Episcopalians, 30 above Presbyterians (PCUSA) and Buddhists, 33 above atheists and agnostics, 38 above Muslims, 40 above United Methodists, 51 above Roman Catholics, and 58 points above Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ. Buddhists lag Hindus by 30 points, but are essentially equal to Presbyterians (PCUSA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) members; and Muslims at 39% are higher than all but Jews, Anglicans/Episcopalians, PCUSA, UCC and Orthodox Christians. Further, nearly half of Hindu adults and almost a third of Jewish adults hold post-graduate degrees. Buddhists (20%) and Muslims (17%) lag a bit behind but lead Mainline Protestants (14%), Catholics (10%), and Evangelical Protestants (7%).

Not surprisingly, measures of household income tell a similar story. Jews are at the top, with 44% pulling in more than $100,000 annually. Hindus, Episcopalians, and PCUSA follow at 36, 35, and 32 percentage points, respectively. Atheists, agnostics and UCC are essentially tied at 30 and 29 points. Evangelical Lutherans and United Methodists are close behind at 26%, trailed by Unitarian Universalists at 23%, Muslims at 20%, Catholics at 19%, Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ at 16%, Assemblies of God at 10%.

Since Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarians and assorted unbelievers or “nones” do not subscribe to “Judeo-Christian beliefs and values,” are they not to be regarded as equal under the Constitution, free not only to practice their own religion or none at all without hindrance or opprobrium, but also freed of obligation to support through their taxes religious beliefs and practices not their own?

The U.S. has long had two mottos. “In God We Trust,” after appearing on most coins minted since the Civil War, was made the official motto in 1956 at the height of the Cold War with the Communist (and atheistic) USSR. The First Amendment absolutely permits whole-hearted endorsement of this official motto by those who wish to affirm it. But the same amendment also exempts them from that or any religious profession, and the same Founders who created the Constitution provided an earlier and alternative motto: E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “Out of Many, One.” Made part of the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 and included on most coins and currency ever since, this motto originally symbolized the federal nature of the new nation, but it has long been understood to reflect the remarkable and laudable diversity of this country. It is also faithful to the stipulation in Article VI of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

[1] The operative decision in this matter is McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 545 U.S. 844 (2005) ruled by the Supreme Court on June 27, 2005 by a vote of 5-4. On the same day, the Court issued a 5-4 ruling in the other direction in Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005), which allowed a sizable monument featuring the Ten Commandments to remain on the Texas Capitol grounds in an area containing nearly 40 other monuments and historical markers.