When Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said a couple of weeks ago that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” the media spotlight suddenly was trained on a single phrase in Article VI of the United States Constitution. I was thrilled! That brief statement toward the end of the 4,500-word document is my favorite part, but I’ve always been frustrated by the way this stunningly progressive endorsement of religious freedom and tolerance has been a well-kept secret, overshadowed by the lofty Preamble that comes before it and by the famous First Amendment that was penned afterward.
Thanks to Carson, who may be a brilliant brain surgeon but evidently flunked civics, the nation was treated to a brief refresher course in constitutional law. Until a nanosecond later, when Donald Trump opened his mouth and then changed the subject, as he always does, to himself.
I’m here to tell you why Article VI should not be overlooked — in fact, it should be celebrated and reinforced, especially by Jews and those of other minority faiths or those with no faith at all. At a time when religious intolerance is sweeping a bloody hand across entire continents and too many parts of this country, these few words written in Philadelphia 228 years ago stand as a remarkable affirmation that political power and public service should not be linked to or constrained by an individual’s religious preferences.
Why am I so obsessed with a 20-word, oddly punctuated phrase stating that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”? Remember, first, that this was written and approved by an all-male cast of Christians, and I’m willing to guess that most of them had never met a Jew or a Muslim or a Wiccan. It’s the only explicit reference to religion in the original Constitution. (No, the word “God” isn’t there. Go look. Or trust me.)
These Founding Fathers were hardly angels; many owned slaves, who were considered three-fifths human for representation purposes, and of course women were excluded entirely from citizenship at the time. Nonetheless, as Akhil Reed Amar writes in his masterful work “America’s Constitution,” Article VI broke important new ground. “This formal openness to men of any religion or no religion ran well ahead of contemporary Anglo-American practice,” he wrote. None of the original 13 states had such a promise, and 11 states imposed religious qualifications on government officials.
Many in those states hotly disputed the clause during the ratification process, but in the end it was seen as an endorsement of small-d democracy — a way, as Amar observes, to banish Old World religious hierarchies from formally entrenching themselves in the federal government. As Gerard V. Bradley, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, wrote for The Heritage Foundation, “the Framers sought a structure that would not exclude some of the best minds and the least parochial personalities to serve the national government.”
There’s more. Elsewhere, Article VI requires officeholders to be bound by “Oath or Affirmation” to the Constitution. Why both words? Because the framers wanted to accommodate public servants who had religious or other conscientious objections to oath-taking. Nice.
While the First Amendment’s promise of religious freedom has been debated, litigated, mitigated and manipulated, Article VI has never been legally challenged. I fear that’s not because the nation has absorbed its core values, but because those values have been largely overlooked. As Carson’s ignorant assertions and Trump’s snake-like attacks on President Obama’s religious legitimacy illustrate, America has not internalized its constitutional lessons.
Bad enough that in 1928, vicious anti-Catholic bigotry sunk Democrat Al Smith’s presidential campaign and nearly did the same to John F. Kennedy during his 1960 race. Substitute “Muslim” for “Catholic,” and the same ignorant public sentiment persists. A survey by Public Policy Polling, released September 29, showed that 72% of Republican primary voters in North Carolina believe that a Muslim should not be allowed to be president of the United States.
Did these patriots ever read the Constitution?
Fear fuels this ignorance, fear that the extreme violence in the name of religion that is hijacking Islam elsewhere will seep onto our shores and rip away the Christian privilege that never was codified in our founding documents anyway. This fear must be unequivocally countered. For at its best, faith exists optionally but freely in America’s public square, and political power is meant to be broken up and shared, not consolidated by one dominating religion (or race, or gender), a process that has taken centuries to achieve and still is not complete. But at least the old white guys who signed the Constitution were willing to take the first bold step.
This is why I love Article VI and why I despair that its powerful message still hasn’t become part of the American DNA. Those 20 words literally offered Jews the keys to the kingdom, making it possible for our forebears to become mayors, governors and judges, and aspire even higher, to direct public policy and reflect the will of the people. We ought to be on the front lines of insisting to the Carsons and Trumps and GOP primary voters in North Carolina that they are just plain wrong. And un-American.
As the scholar Hussein Ibish wrote recently, “The essential claim, previously levelled routinely at Catholics and Jews, is that one can be either a bad Muslim and a good American, or a good Muslim and a bad American, but not a good American and a good Muslim.” Sometimes I can’t believe that two centuries later, we still need to have this conversation.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.