A Religious Litmus Test for Public Office?

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Should there be a religious litmus test for public office?

That question has arisen in regard to Russell Vought, an appointee to the office of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. As a Wheaton College graduate, he defended the College’s decision to terminate the professor who wore a hijab in solidarity with Muslims and said that Muslims worship the same God as the Christians. His statements made in that defense became the subject of his confirmation hearing.[1]

In his statement, Russell Vought, stated what most orthodox Christians and Muslims believe: that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. Christians obviously believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and Muslims believe that Allah, alone, is God, and Muhammad is his messenger. Those beliefs are held by millions of people and are not controversial, in that sense.

An increasingly large segment of western society views religious beliefs negatively and takes the position that religious beliefs of this kind do not belong in the public square. They go further, implying that people who hold such religious beliefs are not qualified for public office. Thus, the question: should there be a religious litmus test?

Bernie Sanders apparently thinks so, calling Vought “Islamophobia” for stating what most Christians believe, adding that such belief is “indefensible” and “hateful” and makes Vought unfit for government service. Of course, Muslims believe there is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his messenger. Does that make them Christianophobic? Does that make Muslims unfit for office?

“It was a remarkable moment: a Democratic senator lecturing a nominee for public office on the correct interpretation of Christianity in a confirmation hearing putatively about the Office of Management and Budget.”[2]

Is Jesus the only way? Is there no God but Allah? Religious adherents the world over believe in these mutually exclusive statements. The Founding Fathers of our country were all Christian of one stripe or another. The people who say otherwise are ignoring the obvious. But those are the men who wrote the Constitution that includes the First Amendment that states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….”

Clearly, people can believe there is only one way to heaven and still allow freedom for people who believe differently on earth. The men who created our country established it on the basis that government cannot compel religious adherence. The law cannot favor any church, denomination or religion. Neither can the law discourage religious adherence or favor non-religion over religion.

The negative is also part of the First Amendment to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Dealing with these issues is not a simple matter. Government must, basically, stay out of the business of religion and people’s religious lives, but people are the agents of the government, and those people include religious adherents who believe in the exclusivity of religious truth. So, how do we achieve a true separation of church and state when people who make up the church also are agents of the state?

In one sense, the answer is pretty simple: they shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. They might hold certain religious views, but they cannot pass laws establishing, favoring or promoting those religious views. Sounds simple, but those views are bound to impact, affect and influence the making of laws, even if those laws are not overtly religious in purpose or tone.

Of course, the opposite is true as well. The person who is a universalist, agnostic or atheist will, just as certainly, be influenced by their own worldviews. They also have the same limitations imposed on them by the First Amendment to the US Constitution to make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

But it isn’t just the First Amendment that forbids what some are now trying to do – establish a religious test for holding office. Article VI of the US Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Government has no business imposing on the thoughts, beliefs and religious exercise of people, but people are free to think, believe and exercise their beliefs are the agents of that same government. That is the tension in which we live and must live in a free society.

So, while government cannot make laws respecting religion according to the Constitution, government also cannot require a religious litmus test for the agents who will carry on the function of government. The government could no more require religious belief of its governmental agents as prohibit religious belief. Government cannot require certain religious beliefs and cannot prohibit certain religious beliefs for its agents because government cannot be in the business of censoring individuals’ rights to think, believe and exercise their beliefs as their consciences lead.

To impose any litmus test for office based on the content of a person’s thoughts or beliefs is a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. It is a clear violation of Article VI. This is true of Christian beliefs as it is for Muslim beliefs. It is true of theistic beliefs and of atheistic beliefs. We cannot have any litmus test for fitness for public office based on the content of one’s beliefs in a free society and remain free.


[1] See Two U.S. Senators Apply an Anti-Christian Religious Test for Government Officials, by Joe Carter for the Gospel Coalition June 8, 2017.

[2] Bernie Sanders’s Religious Test for Christians in Public Office, by Emma Green for the Atlantic June 8, 2017

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