The Constitution requires that “No person . . . shall be eligible to [the office of President] who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States” (Art. II, Sec. 1). Does this mean that a candidate shouldn’t be questioned about his abilities and limited experience if he is constitutionally qualified at just thirty-six years old? Ronald Reagan was thought by some to be too old. He was 69 when he took office in 1981. Reagan turned concern about his age on its head during his 1984 re-election campaign when he promised not to “exploit, for political purposes,” the “youth and inexperience” of his 56-year-old Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale. The age question haunted John McCain as well. Questions about age are important, and so are questions about religion.
While Article VI does prohibit a “religious test,” the same article 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.” Bound to and by what? Nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff wrote, “‘in recognizing and requiring an official oath’ for both state and federal officeholders, ‘the Constitution recognizes the Supreme Being, to whom the oath is a solemn appeal.’” George Washington seems to have understood this principle since he followed his affirmation to “execute the office of President of the United States and . . . preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” with “So help me God.”
Oaths and affirmations were deemed important to many of the founders since they bound a person’s word to a higher authority beyond the sanctions of mere mortals who have no jurisdiction over the soul. For example, in his Essay on Toleration (1685), John Locke exempted atheists from the civil protection of toleration when it came to holding political office by arguing that an atheist who denies that God exists could not be expected to tolerate what he believes to be a myth:
Lastly, those are not all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of toleration.
In recent years, the words “so help me God” have been challenged. They were stricken from the written oath of office that Notaries take in order to serve in the state of Florida. “Those words never should have been there to begin with,” Ken Rouse, general counsel for the Florida Department of State, said. Religious leaders from Miami to Jacksonville were shocked. “This is frightening, that one person could sway the state to change things like that,” said Glen Owens, assistant executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention in Jacksonville. “How can they completely abolish a system of doing things for one person?” The Reverend Gerard LaCerra, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Miami understands the implications of the ruling. “What are we supposed to base our commitments on if something like this is removed? The state?”
In 1788, Henry Abbot, a delegate to the North Carolina convention that was considering the Federal Constitution, understood the implications of an oath without specific religious content: “[I]f there be no religious test required, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain office among us, and the senators and representatives might all be pagans. . . . Some are desirous to know how and by whom they are to swear, since no religious tests are required—whether they are to swear by Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Proserpine, or Pluto?” Abbot feared what would happen to America if it ever claimed that the God of the Bible was somehow irrelevant to good government. Given the long-term goals of Islam, a day could come when America became officially Islamic.
What few people seem to realize is that there are all types of non-religious belief systems that hold to an absolutist ideology and use the power of the State to impose that ideology on the rest of us. Civil governments can confiscate property, tax earnings, put us in prison, send us off to fight in wars, mandate how many MPG our cars must get, order what type of toilets we can use, require that foods contain no trans fats, and so much more. The law of the land is enforced by the full authority of the civil government that makes the law. As long as a law is on the books, that law is absolute. A law doesn’t have to be tied to any particular traditional understanding of religion to be made a law and enforced by the power of the State. In fact, the above short list of government freedom-inhibiting laws is not tied to any particular religious creed, but the result is still the same—absolutism!
A secular ideology can be just as sacrosanct and absolute as any religious doctrine or creedal formulation but with a significant difference:
Pure ideology differs greatly from the Judeo-Christian tradition that locates sin in the human will; ideologists disdain such ideas and cite evil “structures,” “institutions,” and “systems” as the problem. Sin is political, not personal. Get the structure rights, so the argument goes, and all will be well with individuals.
These “structures” can only be restructured and made right by increased government control, bureaucratic management, the curtailment of freedoms, and, as always, more money. We are told that these new freedom-limiting laws are for our own good and the good of society. Liberals have always believed that civil government should be in the personal management business since their ideas for other people are always for their good. They don’t see their laws as ideologically (religiously) motivated. Take the case of taxing soft drinks in San Francisco. The mayor says that high fructose corn syrup leads to obesity which puts a strain on the city’s health care system. This proposed law is overtly religious in that it is designed to “save the children” from the potential harm of sugar-saturated soft drinks. What will be next? Pizza? Potato chips? Fries and a Big Mac? Video games and computers that contribute to a sedentary lifestyle among young and old? In the same city, a different kind of ideology protects sex acts that result in numerous sexually transmitted diseases that cost billions of dollars in healthcare costs and thousands of lives each year in America. The homosexual religious ideology has its own set of anti-blasphemy laws. Anyone who gets caught uttering a negative word about homosexuality is immediately censored. Hate-crime legislation is designed to silence all criticism. These are marks of a secular religious ideology gone mad.
Christians who understand the proper mix of religion and politics would argue that it’s not the role of civil government to micro-manage people’s lives. There is no prescription in the Bible to use the power of civil government to control a person’s diet through taxation. Long before there were high fructose corn syrup drinks, there were fat people. The king of Eglon was fat (Judges 3:17, 22), and Eli is described as “old and heavy” (1 Sam. 4:18). The Bible warns against drunkenness and gluttony (Prov. 23:20–21), but there is no call to tax alcoholic beverages and food in an attempt to modify these behaviors. A change in these behaviors comes by way of persuasion and the marketplace.
The biblical view of change is that what people believe and understand must be restructured before there will be any appreciable change in a person’s lifestyle. Self-government (self-control) is the operating principle. Christians who want to use the power of the State to manage people for what they perceive are good causes are as misguided and dangerous as secularists who believe that their ideology will save us.
In the end, all ideologies are absolute, but it’s only with Christianity that civil government is limited. Christians need to understand this when considering voting for people who promise to use the power of civil government for the supposed common good.
- Daniel Dreisbach, “The Constitution’s Forgotten Religion Clause: Reflections on the Article VI Religious Test Ban,” Journal of Church and State 38:2 (Spring 1996), 289. [↩]
- See Forrest Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007), 445–449. [↩]
- John Locke, Two Treatises of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 246. [↩]
- “‘God’ Removed from Notaries’ Oath,” The Kansas City Star (February 18, 1992), 2A. [↩]
- Henry Abbot, North Carolina ratifying convention: Elliot’s Debates, 4:192. [↩]
- Lloyd Billingsley, The Absence of Tyranny: Recovering Freedom in Our Time (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1986), 71. [↩]
- Jesse McKinley, “San Francisco’s Mayor Proposes Fee on Sales of Sugary Soft Drinks,” The New York Times (December 18, 2007). [↩]
- The “Wii” is being used in retirement homes to get the elderly up and moving. The bowling, golfing, and tennis games are great exercise. “The Wii has become so popular at Sedgebrook [retirement community] that on Sunday afternoon there will be a video game bowling tournament in the lounge. More than 20 residents have signed up to compete.” (Dave Wischnowsky, “Wii bowling knocks over retirement home,” Chicago Tribune [February 16, 2007]). [↩]
- John R. Diggs, “The Health Risks of Gay Sex,” Corporate Research Council (2002). [↩]