The U.S. Constitution could hardly be clearer. "No religious test," it says in the plain and simple language of Article VI, par. 3, "shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Yet the presence of two Mormon candidates on the slate of presidential possibles has prompted us to screw up its interpretation badly.
Again and again in recent weeks, the "no religious test" clause has been hauled out to silence those who oppose Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman of Utah because of their affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints-more popularly known as the Mormon Church. "It's unconstitutional," some have said boldly but clumsily, "to oppose someone in the American political system on the basis of that person's religion."
What's slipped out of focus here is what entity is prohibited from having such a test. It's Congress, or some official representative of government, that is absolutely barred from making any kind of religious test for office-holding.
Individuals, meanwhile, are free to establish such preferences, and to advocate them to others. Individuals can't restrict the appointment of a particular governmental employee, but they have full liberty to claim they'll never vote for a Hindu, or will vote only for a Unitarian.
Non-governmental organizations may also do so. Theoretically, your regional chamber of commerce, your local newspaper, or the area's electricians union could take a stand against Presbyterians or in favor of Baptists-and still be within the words and the intent of the Constitution.
Even political parties and political action groups are not constitutionally barred from establishing and enforcing their own "religious tests." They would do so, of course, very much at their own risk, and especially so in today's pluralistic society. For the Republican Party, for example, to suggest that a candidate had to profess evangelical Christianity to be ideologically acceptable might be technically constitutional, but almost certainly politically silly.
So the issue is both slippery and tricky-in spite of the simple, direct language of Article VI, par. 3. That which is theoretically on target may well not be politically astute. It won't usually be necessary for us to say everything we're free to say! And if we're intent on being politically effective in today's pluralism-is-everything culture, we'll probably have to learn not to come across as crassly exclusionary.
That doesn't mean, though, that we need to bury our differences-not even our religious differences. We need instead to learn new ways of discussing them. So instead of training our focus on groups and categories, which are easily caricatured, let's move concretely to specific issues and ideas. Instead of saying simplistically that I could never vote for a Mormon, maybe I'd be better off publicly but politely asking my Mormon friends a few of the questions that trouble so many evangelicals. Why are Mormons so secretive about so many of their ideas and practices? Why, when I go to Salt Lake City, are so many places out of bounds for me to visit? Am I wrong to be a little spooked by a candidate whose church hides so many of its doctrines and practices? How do I interpret the testimony of a formerly Mormon friend who tells me how she was taught through all her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood that shading the truth for a good end is a healthy thing?
Secretiveness and truth-telling-aren't these pretty basic, legitimate, and crucial issues in a campaign for high office?
All this calls for the hard work of research instead of cheap and easy shots. It calls for civility and Golden Rule kindness-even while we're digging hard to discover the truth, and even when differences and disagreements are both big and profound.
But remember. While you're doing all this, don't let anybody accuse you of establishing a religious test for office. You're not big and powerful enough to do that even if you wanted to. Only Congress can do that-and no one there seems especially inclined in such a direction.