Atheists in public office

The framers of the Constitution that officially created—and as amended still governs—the United States of America were sensitive to the detrimental effects of government entangled with religion. The Constitution is not anti-religion by any means, but it is neutral about religion except to minimize its predictable bad effects when mixed with civic power. The founders were largely a mixture of Christians and Deists, the latter not being even recognizable as Christians to today’s fundamentalists: no savior, no resurrection, no hell, no trinity, and so forth. But to deal in this post with the ludicrous revisionism of Christian nation folks would take me off point. So I’ll save that for later.

To cement the non-religious character of the new government into place, the first amendment was added to say that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Amendment I). However, framers of the unamended text had already included a provision that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (Article 6, paragraph 3). Ours was and continues to be a godless Constitution—a groundbreaking feature, first in the world, that has benefitted generations of religious and non-religious alike.

(Those Constitutional words were at first applicable only to the federal government, but the 14th amendment of 1868 extended the provisions to the states as well.)

Despite the decades that have gone by, many religious people continue trying to cripple the very prohibition that has allowed them such unfettered success. They do so by whatever legal and illegal means they can find. In the long run they are truly their own worst enemies; in the short run, however, they successfully use the awesome power of government to tend toward religious hegemony. They do it in many ways, from pressing public schools to teach their religious dogma as science (“intelligent design”), to securing favorable tax treatment for their clergy (IRS ministers’ exemptions), to forcing de facto religious tests into political campaigns (ever watch presidential primary debates?), to posting their Ten Commandments in courtrooms, to . . . no, I’ll stop there; the list is far longer than this post plus all the ones that preceded it.

This post, more specifically, is aimed at one point: Despite the Constitution that the Christian right piously claims to love, one state out of seven constitutionally prohibits atheists from holding public office! To wit:

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. (Article 19, Section 1)

Maryland: 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. (Article 37)

Mississippi: No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state. (Article 14, Section 265)

North Carolina: The following persons shall be disqualified for office: Any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God. (Article 6, Section 8)

South Carolina: No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution. (Article 17, Section 4)

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. (Article 9, Section 2)

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. (Article 1, Section 4)

You may have noticed that the Arkansas Constitution even prohibits the testimony of atheist witnesses in court! (Is more of this kind of theist exclusiveness what Governor Huckabee meant with his curious statement that the law of the land should be based on “God’s law”?) The barring of atheists from governmental posts (whether enforced or not) is based totally on protecting the dominance of religious belief. There are no other factors involved except perhaps the discredited belief that atheists are less trustworthy, a falsehood propagated by theists less interested in truth than in co-opting government power in support of their faith.

Sometimes the vaunted American exceptualism is merely shameful.

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About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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