No Religious Tests

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a Catholic, is critical of Senate Democrats’ attempts to apply religious tests to Roman Catholic judicial nominees. “I thought we got away from religious tests,” he remarked this year during (you guessed it) Pepperdine University School of Law’s annual banquet. Thomas was referring to Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It’s one of my favorite parts of the Constitution. I cite it frequently. 

But Thomas is confused about what “no religious test” means. It means not compelling a person to swear an oath to a religion or to profess a belief in religion at all. It doesn’t mean finding a person unfit for office because of his ideology. That would require turning off one’s brain. Ask yourself: Does it matter whether a person is a fascist? Hell yeah, it does. We are only obliged to tolerate somebody’s beliefs. If the man keeps his religion to himself or merely expresses a religious point of view at the appropriate time and place, then we are in no position to oppress him. At the same time, we are under no obligation to enable or welcome or respect his religious opinions. And we are free to ask him about his religious views and reject his candidacy on account of them.

There is nothing oppressive about keeping Catholics off the court if they can’t keep their Catholicism out of their judgments (and it appears they can’t). Nor is there anything oppressive about keeping Muslims out of government if they can’t keep Islam out of politics (ditto here). Why on earth would any rational person expect other persons to disregard what candidates for public office think about the world in determining whether they are fit to judge the affairs and fates of other people? We’re now supposed to ignore facts and rubber-stamp the installment of demagogues and zealots in power? Pardon me, but this is an insane interpretation of secularism.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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