The purpose of this page is to examine the effect of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.
The issue is: To what extent, if any, did Article VI undermine America's claim to be a Christian nation?
This page contains links to every discussion of the Article which I could find using a computer search of the debates in the Constitutional Convention as well as the ratification debates in the states.
The third paragraph of Article VI states:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. [emphasis added]
There are two sides in this debate. One side says America is "a Christian nation." The other side says America is a secular nation.
The "Christian America" side generally says very little about Article VI. Most of those who write about Article VI are secularists or separationists who maintain that Article VI of the Constitution makes America a secular nation and approve of this alleged secular mandate. But among those who say Article VI is contrary to the concept of a Christian nation are those Christians who support the idea of a Christian nation and (based on the belief that the "no religious test" language is contrary to a Christian nation) oppose Article VI. Probably the most famous Christian critic of Article VI is Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism.
It cannot be denied that Article VI has been exploited to create momentum away from a Christian nation and toward a secular nation. Courts have often cited commentators who have argued for secularization based on Article VI. It is worth noting, however, that courts have never expressly ruled in favor of secularism based on Article VI. This page takes the position that Article VI does not prohibit Theocratic impulses nor does it mandate a secular nation.
Before examining the Constitutional debates, we should examine the legal status of the oath.
It was considered an act of worship.
As such, an oath excluded atheists from public office and even from serving on juries.
A "religious test," on the other hand, served to exclude only Christians who were not members of a certain denomination. It did not exclude atheists; they were already excluded by the nature of the oath itself.
Therefore, Article VI's ban on any "religious test" opened the door to believers of all denominations, but not to atheists.
|This thesis is confirmed by the 1961 Supreme Court case of Torcaso v. Watkins. The Maryland Constitution excluded atheists from any public office. A Secular Humanist challenged this provision under Article VI, and the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Maryland Constitution "unconstitutional," but not based on Article VI. It rested the decision on "Free Exercise" grounds, noting that Secular Humanism is a religion. If Article VI really banned the prohibition of atheists, the Supreme Court most certainly would have used it against the Maryland Constitution, and probably would have done so 170 years earlier.||
This thesis will now be examined in light of the debates surrounding the framing and ratification of the Constitution.
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