In its original form, the Constitution contains one explicit reference to religion: the Article VI ban on religious tests for “any office or public trust under the United States.” Federal officials may not be subjected to a formal religious test for holding office, although many states tried to impose religious restrictions of their own: In 1776, New Jersey law limited public office only to those holding “a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect.” The targets of these tests were clear: Jews, “Turks,” “infidels,” “heathens,” and even Roman Catholics, each subjected to bigotry in the name of protecting the country’s religious “character.”
Although the Supreme Court definitively struck down state religious tests in 1961, the spirit of their supporters lives on. Asked on Meet the Press if he believed that “Islam is consistent with the Constitution,” GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson responded, “No, I don’t, I do not.” He added: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
An undercurrent of anti-Muslim prejudice has been heard on the campaign trail; Donald Trump continues to fuel the canard that President Obama is a secretly practicing Muslim, and declined to correct a supporter at a town hall meeting who said as much. As Rep. Keith Ellison, the Muslim lawmaker from Minnesota, put it, “For Ben Carson, Donald Trump, or any other Republican politician to suggest that someone of any faith is unfit for office is out of touch with who we are as a people.”
Carson’s remarks fly in the face of the law of the land, and perhaps worse, the American spirit of religious tolerance that has made this country a haven for religious believers as diverse as Puritans, Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, and, yes, Jews. To impose a test on any religion is to cast doubts on them all and to betray the Founders’ bold vision of inclusiveness.