5 People Who Bravely Fought Christian Takeover of America
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At crucial points when the church-state wall was most threatened in America, people rose up to defend it. Some of these names may not be familiar today, or they may be known for other achievements. All contributed to shoring up the wall of separation.
Here are five unsung heroes of church-state separation:
1. Charles Pinckney: It was difficult to be a religious dissenter in colonial America. Prejudice ran rampant. Many state constitutions limited public office to Christians or even certain types of Christians, such as “Trinitarian Protestants.” Such “religious tests” were seen as a way of ensuring that the men who held public office were of sound morals.
After the Revolution, when the federal Constitution was being drafted, a delegate from South Carolina named Charles Pinckney decided that there should be no such religious qualifications for federal office. He added a line to the end of Article VI – a provision that makes it clear that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and that judges and elected representatives are bound to follow it – that read, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
An aristocrat and something of a dandy, the 30-year-old Pinckney relied on old-fashioned political maneuvering to get his way. When he introduced the “no religious test” proposal to the convention, it was shuttled off to a committee, which ignored it. Undaunted, Pinckney brought the proposal up again on the full floor. The measure was seconded by Gouverneur Morris and adopted by the entire convention “by a very great majority,” as one member put it.
But the new Constitution had to be approved by the states, and here Pinckney’s handiwork sparked some controversy. Delegates in North Carolina seemed especially offended by the passage in Article VI. One lawmaker fulminated about the possibility of “pagans, deists and Mahometans” seeking office.
James Madison leaped to the defense of Pinckney’s handiwork in the Federalist Papers, calling it one of the highlights of the proposed constitution. The provision remained intact. Although it was limited to federal office, the provision no doubt inspired the Supreme Court when in 1961 it struck down religious tests at the state level in the case Torcaso v. Watkins. Today a handful of states retain provisions in their constitutions barring atheists from holding public office, but they are dead letters and may not be enforced.
2. Joel Barlow: During the early years of the American republic, U.S. ships traveling near north Africa were frequently attacked by pirates operating out of Algiers and Tripoli. Many American sailors were kidnapped and held for ransom. The pirates, who were Muslim, often taunted the sailors for their Christian beliefs.
An American diplomat, Joel Barlow, attempted to find a non-military solution to the problem. Barlow worked for a number of years on a treaty designed to bring peace between the United States and the rogue states of north Africa.
The document that emerged, the Treaty of Tripoli, was negotiated primarily during the presidency of George Washington but was not forwarded to the Senate until John Adams was in office. It contains a provision, Article 11, stating bluntly, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Barlow, who was known for his advocacy of secular government, forwarded the treaty to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, who endorsed it and sent it on to Adams. Adams, in turn, sent it to the Senate, which ratified the document. At no point during this process did anyone apparently raise objections to Article 11.