History: First, Jon Rowe, who had many valuable comments, asks a basic question: What was Rhode Island's religious test during the Founding era? Let me quote from Gerard Bradley, whose article I cited in my first post: "Rhode Island, as in many church-state matters, was a special case: the Protestant monopoly there flowed from an exclusion of Catholics and Jews from citizenship, and not, precisely, from political office." Mr. Rowe also makes a series of broader points, arguing that we should draw some significance for our historical reading from the assertion that a number of key framers were not orthodox Christians. I don't dispute that assertion, but would say two things. First, those admittedly central individuals are not the only or even the authoritative figures here. In thinking about the historical understanding of the Clause, their views must be counted alongside the views of those whom they sought to convince — the other framers and the ratifiers of the Constitution. I have no algorithm to apply here in weighting their respective views; but my holistic reading of the history surrounding the debate over the Clause suggests to me, at least, that we should not read the Clause too broadly in light of these standout examples, especially in light of the real historical evils the Clause appeared fairly clearly to address. Second, as Mr. Rowe notes, although unorthodox, those key framers, and certainly many other framers, did not think virtue and character were irrelevant to political office; for most framers and ratifiers, religion (however broadly defined) was certainly a vital aspect of one's character.
To say that religion may sometimes be relevant to public discussion and decision on nominees and other matters, and that the Religious Test Clause doesn't bar the use of religion in this way, although it does bar certain formal barriers to public office, is of course not the end of the story. We are then left to deliberate together about how and when (if ever) religion should enter into the public debate, or into the decisions of public officials. Although I clearly disagree with those who have answered "never," I also think we can invoke religion more or less wisely and carefully, and have said something about what that might entail. Jon Rowe concluded his comment yesterday by saying, "Personally, I'd rather live under a system of 'etiquette' where one's religion or lack thereof — whether one be a fundamentalist Christian or an atheist — is viewed as simply not related to one's fitness for public office." Taken at that broad level of generality, I can sympathize; but it is a short step from that principle to a public square that is denuded of useful, meaningful discussion. It also removes, one should acknowledge, much of what might be shallow and provocative sniping and religious bigotry — but that language, too, is the price of open debate, and knowing of that risk should remind us all the more of our own responsibility to enter into these discussions, and use both our votes and our voices, with some kind of sense of underlying principle and integrity that I've simply labeled "constitutional etiquette." Better, in my view, to have a system of etiquette where we can openly acknowledge and discuss religion, while remembering that it can never be a formal bar to public office — and in which we can add our own voices to the debate in pointing out that the mere labels "fundamentalist Christian" or "atheist" (or "Muslim") are far from descriptively complete, that they say very little about how particular individuals will carry out their offices, and that on such a broad level, they may not even say much about character.
As the always valuable Mr. Rowe commented, my reading of the Religious Test Clause can cut both ways politically. More on that tomorrow, with some concluding remarks on the differing reactions I've received to this article, and what they may suggest.
His normative point on "constitutional etiquette" is, admittedly, a difficult issue. As I said, I want to live in a world where one's religion is viewed as irrelevant to one's being "fit" for public office. Indeed, James Dobson's recent comment that he didn't think Fred Thompson was a "Christian" and its implication that this makes Thompson unfit or less fit for public office, I found offensive. Yet, if a Presidential candidate was discovered to be a "Young-Earth-Creationist" who explicitly stated his belief in the literal six thousand year age of the Earth led him to reject evolution -- I seriously doubt my friends at Scienceblogs would deem that irrelevant to his qualifications for public office.