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Jul 6, 2017

A Muslim President?: The Abolition of Religious Tests

The Constitution stipulates that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

In the early 2015 election cycle, when the Republican primary field was still a massive clutter, presidential candidate Ben Carson made national headlines for his statement that a Muslim should never become President of the United States.  His assertion was that a Muslim’s faith was at odds with America’s democratic principles, and a Muslim president would be unable to faithfully serve the American people.  In fairness to Dr. Carson, he chose his words carefully.  He did not say that Muslims “can’t” become president, only that they “shouldn’t.”  Many in the thirteen colonies shared Carson’s concerns, and the prospect of a Muslim president terrified them.  In the debates surrounding the passage of A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom and later the ratification of the Constitution, the issue of religious tests proved controversial.

The elimination of religious tests was Jefferson’s biggest challenge passing the bill.  Most Virginians could stomach or even embrace the idea of citizenship rights being completely independent from religion, but the prospect of being ruled by a Catholic, Jew, or even a Muslim caused unease for many.  One of Jefferson’s critics succinctly sums up the feelings of the bill’s opposition: “If there be few who are Jews, Mohamedans, Atheists, or Deists among us, though I would not wish their torture or persecute them on account of their opinions, yet to exclude them from our publick offices is prudent and just.”  Such measures were necessary in order to “restrain them from publishing their singular opinions to the disturbance of society.”1

Virginia’s constitution, passed in 1776 alongside the Declaration of Rights, contained no mention of religious tests.  This meant that no religious tests were officially used by the colonial government, but there were also no constitutional restrictions on local governments creating their own religious tests or the state government establishing a religious test for its officials later on.  In the 1780s, in response to Jefferson’s still unpassed religious freedom bill, which actually would prohibit religious tests, a group of delegates began pushing for the adoption of the General Assessment.  The General Assessment was a religious test implemented by the colony of South Carolina, which required all public officials to pass a test affirming their Protestantism.2  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison fervently opposed the test’s adoption in Virginia.

But Jefferson’s bill had its supporters too.  Anglicans, Baptists, and Presbyterians, who were minority Protestant sects in Virginia, feared discrimination at the hands of their fellow Protestants and threw their weight behind Jefferson and his allies.3  Through their efforts, the Virginia legislature killed the General Assessment bill.  In 1786, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom came up for a vote—nearly seven whole years after it was introduced—and passed.  The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as the new law came to be known, ensured that a person’s citizenship, including their right to run for and hold public office, could not be denied to them on the basis of their religion.  The final version of the statute read:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.4

The remainder of the law recognized religious freedom as a natural right and that any laws contradicting it would “be an infringement of natural right.”5  Thomas Jefferson was tremendously proud of the new law, so much so that he requested it be listed on his epitaph, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia, as one of his three greatest accomplishments.6  Jefferson and Madison’s ideas about religious freedom were gaining even greater traction in the public sphere.  George Washington, a fellow Virginian and the hero of the Revolution, often made public statements welcoming Catholic and Jewish immigrants.  To a group of Catholic immigrants in New York, rather than succumb to common rhetoric about “Papist infiltration,” he wrote, “the bosom of America” was “open to receive … the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”7  Washington considered Muslims welcome in America’s religious pluralism as well, saying, “if they be good workmen, they may be Mahometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”8

This wave of support carried on to the Constitution Convention in 1787, where Charles Pinckney introduced the No Religious Test Clause enshrined in Article VI, section 3 of the Constitution.  Not coincidentally, Pinckney was one of the delegates from South Carolina, whose religious test affirming Protestantism (which Jefferson’s opponents in Virginia had tried to adopt) was the strictest of any in the colonies.  The clause asserts that public officials would be required to swear an oath to support the Constitution, “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”9

Pinckney’s clause was added to the Constitution with very little disagreement, as most of the contention at the convention was regarding the representation of states in Congress.  However, considering that, at the time, only Virginia and New York lacked religious tests for public officials, perhaps the Framers could have expected greater resistance.  In addition to South Carolina, Maryland officials needed to affirm the Trinity, and Massachusetts officials needed to declare belief in the “Christian religion.”  Pennsylvania, despite its reputation for religious freedom, barred atheists from office by requiring belief in God, and even Rhode Island, against the wishes of its founder, barred Catholics from holding office.10  The Constitution would make all such tests illegal.

Almost immediately, anti-Federalists latched onto the No Religious Test Clause to stoke opposition to the Constitution.  James Madison, writing to Jefferson from New England in 1788, wrote that New Englanders feared that the prohibition of religious test would “open the door to Jews, Turks, and infidels.”11  Opponents of ratification were also keenly aware that the prohibition of religious tests would apply to the highest elected positions as well.  Article II of the Constitution stated that only that the president “be a natural born Citizen of the United States” and “neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”12  It only took Americans a little while to connect the dots and realize that nothing prevented a Muslim from becoming president.

Despite their absence in the colonies, Muslims became a propagandic tool for Federalists and anti-Federalists alike.  Anti-Federalists turned to the Radical Whig vision of Islam, arguing that Muslim rulers had little taste for the virtues of republicanism, favoring tyranny instead.  A letter to the citizens of New Hampshire, published by the prominent anti-Federalist publication, Freeman’s Oracle, stated “we may have a Papist, a Mahometan, a Deist, yea an Atheist at the helm of the Government.”13  Many opponents of ratification opposed the idea of a civic oath at all, arguing that a religious oath was necessary to guarantee Protestant hegemony.14  Federalists, meanwhile, used Muslims to demonstrate the lengths to which religious freedom in the new nation could go.  Despite the Federalists’s negative opinions of them, even Muslims should be entitled to the same rights as any other American.

At state ratifying conventions, the prohibition of religious tests proved to be a hang-up for several of the colonies.  North Carolina, in particular, had a long, protracted debate regarding the possibility of a Muslim president.  At the Constitutional Convention, the North Carolina delegation had been the only delegation to take umbridge with Pinckney’s clause, arguing it would allow “pagans and Catholics” to hold office.15  Anti-Federalists at North Carolina’s ratifying convention similarly argued that Muslims were “totally beyond the horizon of civility,” and needed to be prevented from holding office.16  The anti-Federalists ultimately lost their argument, and despite concerns of a Muslim presidency, North Carolina ratified the Constitution on November 21, 1789, the second to last of the original colonies to do so.  Only Rhode Island, which held out for the Bill of Rights, took longer to ratify.  The First Amendment, which guaranteed freedom of religion and prevented the federal government from establishing any single religion, was ratified with far less controversy, as the more contentious debate regarding religious freedom had already been settled.

For most of the United States’ history, voters’ biases prevented non-Protestants from holding office.  Negative public opinion toward Catholics, Jews, and Muslims didn’t reverse overnight.  Waves of Catholic immigration to America throughout the 19th century led to their being targeted by several nativist movements, most notably the infamous Know-Nothing Party and, at times, even the Ku Klux Klan.  Such attitudes weren’t helped by the Vatican, whose experiences during the French Revolution, in which revolutionaries either deported or executed thousands of Catholic priests, soured it on liberalism until roughly World War II.17  However, by the 20th century, public opposition toward Catholics dissipated to the point where Catholics could consistently run for and hold office.  In 1928, Al Smith became the first Catholic to win a major-party presidential nomination, running as the Democratic candidate against Herbert Hoover.  When anti-Catholic sentiment resurfaced in opposition to Smith, Hoover was quick to condemn it.  In 1960, almost two centuries after Jefferson’s calls for religious freedom, John F. Kennedy became America’s first and only Catholic president.  Kennedy suffered no religious test, nor did the Pope rule the country.

Public hostility toward Judaism also diminished in the early and mid-20th century, particularly during and after World War II.  Jewish-Americans served in Congress as early as 1845,18 and in 2000, Joe Lieberman became the first Jew to serve on a major party presidential ticket as Al Gore’s vice presidential candidate.  Muslims, in part because of their incredibly small percentage of the population in addition to negative attitudes toward them, didn’t have a representative in Congress until 2007, when Keith Ellison was elected as a representative from Minnesota.  When Ellison controversially decided to use a Quran for his swearing in, as swearing in on a Bible would be an empty gesture, he did so on the Quran previously owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s vision of religious freedom can be seen on full display in Congress.  Of the 545 members of Congress, there are two Muslims, three Buddhists, three Hindus, thirty-two Jews, and a whopping 168 Catholics.  In the most recent presidential election cycle, of the candidates running for president, there were seven Catholics19 and one Jew.20  Religious freedom, both people’s right to practice and the government’s prohibition of establishment, remains one of the most fiercely defended ideals in America today.

What is remarkable about the history of religious freedom in America is the lack of institutional religious discrimination.  This particularly holds true when contrasted with racial discrimination.  While individuals will always have their prejudices, there were no equivalent of Jim Crow laws for Catholics and Jews, and it was more difficult for nativist groups such as the Klan to go after religious minorities than racial minorities.  Infamous Supreme Court decisions, such as Dred Scot v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu v. United States, all stripped Americans of their rights on a racial basis, although there is no such religious equivalent.  In light of calls to strip Muslim-Americans of their rights, it is then important to remember the attitudes of Thomas Jefferson and the Founders.  Although many held dim views of Islam, they believed the government had no authority to dictate a person’s conscience and no law should ever be passed restricting the full exercise of a person’s civil rights on the grounds of their religion.


  1. Denise Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Quran (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 159.
  2. William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: America’s Founding in Religious Freedom (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 33.
  3. Spellberg, 7.
  4. Thomas Jefferson, (January 16, 1786).  “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Spellberg, 115.
  7. Ibid, 5.
  8. Ibid, 5.
  9. “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America” (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2002), 54-55.
  10. Miller, 99.
  11. Spellberg, 158.
  12. “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America,” 43-44.
  13. Spellberg, 159.
  14. Ibid, 160.
  15. Miller, 100.
  16. Spellberg, 161.
  17. The Vatican even went so far as to condemn “Americanism” among American Catholics.  American Catholics readily reconciled their religion with the ideals of the United States, however the Vatican feared Church teachings were being corrupted by American liberalism.
  18. David Levy Yulee of Florida.
  19. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Martin O’Malley, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum.
  20. Bernie Sanders.

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