As I read Super Tuesday coverage this morning, I was struck by a short piece in The Washington Post (“Dirty Tricks, Version 2.0: E-Mail Sent to Friends“) that examines the relatively new practice of sending misleading, smear-based emails shortly before a vote. Sadly—but not surprisingly—many of these attacks have strongly religious themes. I decided to use this as an opportunity for Constitutional reflection.

Article VI of our US Constitution is an interesting one. The first two (of three total) clauses establish the authority of the new federal government and Constitution as “the supreme Law of the Land.” The third clause, though it seems to address a different issue entirely, contains three very important words:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

No religious test. According to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, although the “no religious test” clause was “a dramatic departure from prevailing state governmental restrictions,” [it] was adopted with relatively little debate” (link to blog) at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I’ve read through various legal and historical analysis of the clause, and one thing stands out: while it proscribes formal religious tests, as might be applied by a government body such as a legislature or court, there’s no legal or practical way to make it binding on individual voters. And so I ask: even without legal authority, should not applying a religious test be a widely-accepted social norm among voters? If so, what are we doing to make it so?

I’d like to suggest that we start with personal reflection. Consider: If I were running for office, how would I explain how my religious values relate to my political and policy views? How might a religious fundamentalist answer this question differently, and what’s the significance of those differences to me? Does it matter, for example, if a candidate cites a religious text as a source? Why or why not?

I will wrestle with these questions myself in the coming weeks. As we develop answers, I think we’ll have a better sense of both what it’s like to be a candidate and how we can talk to family, friends, and colleagues about the role of religion—and religious tests—in elections.

In faith,

Rob Keithan

PS: In February the Unitarian Universalist Association will release updated election-year resources, including information on relevant IRS guidelines and how to mobilize your congregation to register, educate, and get out the vote.

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Rob Keithan

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