Is There an Interreligious Threat To Religious Freedom?

The Constitution of the United States provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” During the ratification debates, a framer of the Constitution explained that this clause prohibits examination of “one’s belief of certain doctrines...for the purpose of determining whether his religious opinions are such, that he is admissible to a publick office.” Last year, this provision, known as the No Religious Test Clause, became part of the public discourse when Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) announced that he would vote against the confirmation of a Christian presidential nominee because of his belief that Muslims “have a deficient theology.” In response to criticism, Sanders said that he was merely questioning whether the nominee’s beliefs would prevent him from being fair. A few months later, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) questioned the fitness of Amy Barrett for a federal judgeship because “the dogma lives loudly” within her. Feinstein argued that she had legitimately questioned whether the nominee would be able to apply law that contradicted her beliefs. And in 2015, presidential candidate Ben Carson said he was opposed to the idea of a Muslim president because Islam is “inconsistent with the values and principles of America.”
In what ways has the No Religious Test clause harmed or benefitted our nation and federal government?  To what extent do these recent cases reflect a growing discomfort in some quarters with public life being influenced by people who consider themselves bound to follow the teachings of their faith? How much of a factor is it that the religious beliefs of some leaders and potential leaders purport to be true to the exclusion of other beliefs? In the context of a society that faces deep political, cultural, and religious divides, what is the importance and relevance today of a "no religious test for public office" clause within the Constitution?
To see all posts in this series visit: No Religious Test for Public Office

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Has our nation been benefitted or harmed by the No Religious Test clause of the Constitution? That depends on who you ask and to what extent. An open society that accommodates multiple faith traditions ideally works better at promoting authentic faith than one that indoctrinates its citizens and threatens dissenters with violence. The latter creates hypocrites, while the former facilitates the unhampered pursuit of truth. That notwithstanding, it is clear that not every citizen has had the absolute freedom to dissent without fear of repercussion since America’s formation. Many on the left would contend that this has been the exclusive birthright of the male WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite.   

Despite the increased racial diversity in today’s Congress (20% minority), 90% of its members identify as Christians, which leaves only a 10% non-Christian or “unaffiliated” minority. Congress further possesses an 80% “white” majority.[1] To insist that neither race nor religion affect the way that those who hold public office vote, even if only rarely, would be disingenuous, especially considering the history of American politics.  

Like any doctrine, it is hard to evaluate the scope of contribution that the No Religious Test has made to our nation in light of the partiality shown to Christianity and white majority sentiment. So, the inability to disaggregate religion from politics and religion from the actions of its adherents has placed Americans in a serious moral quandary. Can Christianity truly exist without Christians, Judaism without Jews, or Islam without Muslims? Popular stereotypes reinforce Judaism’s association with racist oppression in Israel, Christianity with right wing white supremacists, and Islam with violent extremists. The special racial dimension to the current problem strongly militates against interreligious solidarity on the topic of preserving religious freedom.

It is hard to take the sincerity of one’s advocacy for religious freedom seriously if he or his peers rationalize the limitation of religious expression by certain denominations. This completely undermines the No Religious Clause of the Constitution. And, since the focus is on the American context, one must ask, does preserving the right to religious freedom mean freedom to merely be Christian (or Jewish)? Muslim anxiety about allying with the right is fueled by many things, like recent decades of media demonization, right wing Islamophibic attempts to ban Shariah Law, and even Pope Benedict’s bolstering of medieval propaganda against Muslims.[2] According to the Catholic scholar Servais Pinckaears,    

One of the present tasks of moral theologians is to build a rational moral autonomy, essentially independent of the Christian faith as of all particular beliefs, which all persons of good will could accept as a common foundation. The autonomy of such a human morality seems to be the condition of its universal value.[3]

Notwithstanding, Pinckaears’ use of “autonomy” in contradistinction to “heteronomy”, the value of his insight transcends its potential utility for Christians alone, since the opponents of religious freedom are not merely non-Christians. Some of the fiercest opponents are atheists and other secularists who have abandoned the hope that religions can play a positive role in secular society. What value does religion bring to a pluralistic society? How does it contribute to healthy coexistence? Does freedom of religion mean the freedom to offend or the freedom to befriend? And, if freedom is only for the pursuit of moral excellence, will that mean the elimination of my freedom for indifference? Certainly, not every religion or “religious ideology” is equal in its capacity to accommodate pluralism. But, not every religion has been treated equally in this regard; Not all have been given a fair chance. According to the British scholar Karen Armstrong,

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word…No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics…The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.[4]

If Armstrong is correct, it is somewhat natural that Americans still struggle to universally apply the No Religious Test. Unless more Christians (Protestants and Catholics alike) openly challenge the biases of their coreligionists, the effort to win the fight to preserve religious freedom may be lost. Potential allies will not be convinced of the sincerity of the effort’s stated goal of accommodating “all” religious traditions, and some will not succumb to its appeal in light of the suspicion that the enterprise merely seeks to empower one form of “white” domination over another. To garner trust, there must be parity between confession and practice. If we stand for universal religious freedom, attempts to suppress such rights must be challenged. Political partisanship cannot and must not interfere with one’s “religious” commitment to equal treatment under the law.    

How will minorities guarantee their safety if the privileged will not stand on principle, rather than accommodation? Why should minorities form a coalition with people who consider them inferior and unworthy of the benefits of full citizenship? Politics is the realm of comprise. Religion is the realm of principle. The sooner the religious embark upon a genuine pursuit of moral virtue, the sooner they will be able to protect their religious freedom. We cannot risk developing and maintaining a strong alliance between people of faith by deepening the suspicion that our effort is only meant to solidify the political authority of one or two. The true meaning of the No Religious Test Clause can only be realized when elected officials are sincere in their commitments to both the Constitution and their religious convictions which invite them to entertain goodwill toward “all” of men and women.


[1] Gabrielle Levy, “The 115th Congress by Party, Race, Gender, and Religion.” US News: A World Report, 5 January 2017: https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/slideshows/the-115th-congress-by-party-race-gender-and-religion (Accessed 5/13/18)

[2] The Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections.” The Holy See, 12 September 2006: http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg.html (Accessed 5/13/18).

[3] John Berkman and Craig Steve Titus edition. The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Thought. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, p. 174.

[4] Karen Armstrong. “The Myth of Religious Violence.” The Guardian 25 September 2014: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/25/-sp-karen-armstrong-religious-violence-myth-secular (Accessed 5/13/18)


Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali is assistant professor of Islamic law and Prophetic Tradition at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California (2007-present). He holds a PhD in Cultural and Historical Studies in Religion (2016) and an MA in Ethics and Social Theory (2012) from the Graduate Theological Union. He obtained his BA (ijaza ‘ulya) in Islamic Law (Shariah) from the prestigious Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes, Morocco in 2001. He served as full time Islamic chaplain at the State Correctional Institute of Chester, PA from 2002-2007, and is the founding director of the Lamppost Education Initiative. His research interests include the interconnection between law and identity formation, comparative Islamic law, and Islam’s role in the modern world


All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.

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