Is it “religious” to acknowledge the existence of a supreme being? The language of state constitution religious tests reveals a great deal about how religion is conceptualized in America.
Article VI of the United States Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In the context of the framers’ world, of course, such a religious test would have been designed primarily to weed out undesirable forms of Christianity. As the nation became more religiously pluralistic, interpretation of the clause expanded to allow for citizens of any religion or no religion to hold employment in the federal government. This provision did not prevent many of the separate states from requiring religious tests in their own constitutions or other founding documents, some of which predate the U.S. Constitution.
While cases such as Torcaso v. Watkins and Silverman v. Campbell have established that religious tests are unconstitutional for the states as well, eight states retain language in their constitutions that—rhetorically, at least—limits public sector employment to the religious. Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all retain this language. The specific wording used in these clauses shows that the belief in deity holds a privileged position in the definition of a citizen. (To be fair to Pennsylvania, that state actually provides protection for believers, but does not explicitly disqualify non-believers.)
The expressions used for deity include: “a God,” “a Supreme Being,” “God,” “the Supreme Being,” and “Almighty God.” The first two are the most inclusive terms, even though it is apparent that they derive from a Christian conception of deity, what with the capitalization and the monotheism. The last three can only refer to a particular deity: the one that every reasonable citizen of these states knows to exist. While it is possible to stretch the interpretation of these terms to encompass all monotheisms, that was certainly not the intent of the original writers; nor is it an acceptable interpretation for many today.
The religious tests generally disqualify anyone from state employment or office holding if he (or she—but again, when these were written…) denies the existence of one of the above forms of deity. This means that no non-religious person could be governor, but neither could he be a notary. Arkansas and Maryland expand this prohibition to service on a jury as well. Even as other, non-Christian, forms of religion began to be acknowledged as legitimate phenomena for Americans, a lack of belief remained alien. Besides, none of these clauses required membership in a church or affiliation with a denomination—those are to be considered religious; belief is a given for Americans.
Maryland and Texas most clearly demonstrate this assumption. Both states’ constitutions explicitly promise that no religious test will ever be required. Why, that would be downright un-American! But wait–both immediately go on to say that well, of course you have to acknowledge the existence of God (Maryland) or a Supreme Being (Texas).
Of course you do. One of the most pervasive notions in American religious thinking is that all people, regardless of their religiosity, implicitly or explicitly recognize the existence of deity—even if they say they don’t. To challenge the existence of God is to challenge the very basis of American ontology. Those who profess a lack of belief run the risk of being labeled intellectually dishonest, because of course they know deep down that God exists, and thus any denial is inherently a lie. In this context, belief in God is part of being human.
So no, you don’t have to belong to any church to hold office in Maryland or Texas. That’s a religious test and a requirement we got rid of when we shook off England’s shackles. You do, however, have to be an honest person, and thus must acknowledge the ultimate truth. According to this legal and cultural tradition, belief in God is not religious—it’s just part of being human in America. Want more proof? Look at your money.
The applicable clauses from state constitutions:
Arkansas: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.”
Maryland: “[N]or shall any person, otherwise competent, be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God, and that under His dispensation such person will be held morally accountable for his acts, and be rewarded or punished therefore either in this world or in the world to come.”
“That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God…”
Mississippi: “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.”
North Carolina: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
Pennsylvania: “No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.”
South Carolina: “No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”
Tennessee: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.”
Texas: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”
Interesting discussion and I largely agree, but perhaps you could clarify a point –
What part of Torcaso v. Watkins and Silverman v. Campbell allowed for this seeming “loophole” that states use?
Great question, and thanks for asking. Torcaso was not decided on Article VI, but rather on the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Justice Hugo Black noted that the court did not consider Article VI, as it was unnecessary for the ruling. Silverman, which was decided in the South Carolina Supreme Court, cited both the First Amendment and Article VI. However, the court rulings cannot change the text of constitutions, so the language remains, even though it is unenforceable.
So, the states can’t actually use these clauses, at least not without getting wrapped up in serious legal entanglements. But the language is still there, and indicative of a strong undercurrent of thought.