In 1960, many Americans openly questioned whether a Roman Catholic president could govern independently from the church in Rome. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy addressed those concerns in his speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, stating, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president--should he be Catholic--how to act...I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source...For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew- or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist..."
Today the "finger of suspicion" is being curiously if not cynically pointed at Muslim Americans. Presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson stated on Sunday's Meet the Press that he "would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation." This troubling remark came on the heels of Donald Trump's remarks when, last week at a rally in New Hampshire, a supporter warned, "We have a problem in this country, it's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American...when can we get rid of 'em?" Trump encouraged the supporter's question, finally responding, "we're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things."
Thankfully, the majority of presidential candidates, on both sides of the political aisle, have rejected this divisive rhetoric. Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham. Governor Jeb Bush, Governor John Kasich, Governor Chris Christie, and Hillary Clinton have all stated their opposition to such discrimination. "You know, the Constitution specifies there shall be no religious test for public office and I am a constitutionalist," Cruz said on Iowa public television. Graham reacted to Carson's remarks Tweeting that Carson "is not ready to be Commander-In-Chief. America is an idea, not owned by a particular religion."
In fact, our nation's founding fathers contemplated this very issue at the founding of our republic. While the Colonies declared their independence from England in 1776, it was not until 1787 that the Framers drafted the U.S. Constitution, and this extraordinary document was ratified by the states in 1788. Included in the Constitution was a clause that declared "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." By including this Clause, the Founders proclaimed that men of all religious beliefs, or none at all, would be equally eligible for office in the United States. And not surprisingly, the Constitution's ban on religious tests prompted the nation's first debate in 1788 about whether a Catholic, Jew, Muslim or Atheist might one day become president of the United States.
During the North Carolina convention, Henry Abbot warned, "They suppose that if there be no religious test required, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us." A delegate to Massachusetts' ratifying convention worried that the elected office would be open for "a papist or an infidel." A South Carolina newspaper stoked fears of Quakers taking over the newly-formed government.
The supporters of the clause banning religious tests stood firm in their defense of religious liberty. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison cited Article VI as one of the highlights of the Constitution, writing that the document made public office open to all qualified citizens "without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith."
Baptist preacher John Leland, a Virginian, defended the ban on religious test proclaiming, "If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors in Virginia, let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God. Be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state." James Iredell of North Carolina, later appointed to the Supreme Court by President George Washington in 1790, spoke eloquently on the issue, "But it is to be objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?"
John F. Kennedy went on to win the 1960 election, serving as our nation's first President of the Catholic faith. Senator Joe Lieberman was the first American of the Jewish faith to serve on a ticket of a national party when Al Gore chose him as his running mate in the 2000 elections. Joe Biden is the first Catholic to serve as Vice President. Questions were raised about Governor Mitt Romney's Mormon faith when he ran for president in 2008 but by 2012 he was the GOP's nominee. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, both Muslim, serve as distinguished Members of Congress. And today, Senator Bernie Sanders who's Jewish, Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Governors Chris Christie, John Kasich, Martin O'Malley -- all Catholic -- are seeking our nation's highest office. This was in no doubt contemplated by our nation's Founding Fathers and is wholly in the American tradition.
Americans of all faiths -- Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and others, and of no faith at all, have and continue to serve honorably in appointed and elected office. In doing so, all Americans who serve in appointed and elected office, must take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States; those who seeking to take the oath of our nation's highest office -- including Messrs. Carson and Trump -- would do well to appreciate the very Constitution they seek to protect and defend.
Suhail A. Khan is a life-long Reagan Republican, a member of the Conservative Action Project and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, a think tank dedicated to promoting religious freedom.
First published at Rare.