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Michael Meyerson

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The History of Religious Bigotry and the American Voter

Posted: 11/19/11 03:00 AM ET

Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, explained why he urged fellow evangelicals to support Gov. Rick Perry over Mitt Romney, whom Jeffress termed "a non-Christian" due to his Mormon faith. Jeffress quoted John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and co-author of the Federalist Papers, who famously wrote, "It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." Jeffress said this proved that a religious test for voters was both appropriate and consistent with American history since, "according to Jay, preferring a Christian candidate is neither bigoted nor unconstitutional."

While selecting whom to vote for based on religion is not unconstitutional, the views of many of our nation's founders were in fact dominated by religious bigotry. Just as Jeffress refuses to see Mormons as Christians, Catholics were deemed non-Christians by most early Americans, including John Jay. Jay, in fact, tried to exclude Catholics from the protection of New York State's constitution. In 1777, Jay proposed that Catholics be denied the right to own land or to vote, unless, "they renounce and believe to be false and wicked, the dangerous and damnable doctrine, that the pope, or any other earthly authority, have power to absolve men from sins." Although that proposal was rejected, he was able to insert a provision barring Catholics from immigrating to the state if they did not, "renounce all allegiance and subjection to all and every foreign king, prince, potentate, and State in all matters, ecclesiastical as well as civil."

This anti-Catholic bigotry was widely shared. The First Continental Congress declared that only Protestant denomination embody the "true religion," and warned that Catholics, "dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world."

America was fortunate, however, because these voices of intolerance were answered by far-sighted leaders who vigorously opposed such religious animus. Ben Franklin, for example, was so accepting of different religions that he was able to develop a relationship with Pope Pius VI, who, on Franklin's recommendation, named John Carroll America's first Catholic Bishop.

Most importantly, George Washington understood the importance of respecting all religious faiths. As commander-in-chief of the Continental army, Washington admonished his troops that, "While we are Contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others; ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men and to him only in this Case they are answerable." As president, Washington assured Catholics that the protection of government would be provided to "all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community," regardless of religion. With a magnanimity lacking in Jeffress's dismissal of the Mormon faith, Washington declared that Catholics were "animated ... by the pure spirit of Christianity" and should be considered as part of the Christian community.

Washington's letters to Jewish congregations were equally inclusive. Again linking a minority religion to the faith of the majority, Washington wrote that "the same wonder-working Deity," who led the Israelites out of Egypt had, "been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation."

Though the Constitution prohibited the government from imposing any religious test for office, it was left to the voters to decide whether they would follow the exclusionary example of Jay or the welcoming lead of Washington. The presidential election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson raised that issue directly. John Mitchell Mason, a Presbyterian minister, repeatedly urged voters to select the "Christian" Adams over the "infidel," Jefferson. Mason said basing one's vote on a candidate's religious test did not interfere with freedom of conscience because the voter would merely be exercising "the right of a citizen and a Christian" to declare "I cannot trust a man of such principles. ... While he is an infidel, he shall never have my countenance." Jefferson's supporters countered that under Adams priests were "incorporated with the Government for political purposes ... polluting the holy altars of religion." Jefferson's election, they said would lead to "Good government without the aid of priestcraft, or religious politics."

Jefferson's victory over Adams was seen as a repudiation of those who argued that religious voters should shun candidates who did not share their religious views. Religion was, and is, a central part of the American landscape. The question now, as it was then, is whether religion will be a divisive or a unifying force.