Answering John Fea: Why the Founders wouldn’t bar pastors from public office (Part 2)

October 6, 2016

So, if those who are commonly viewed as the Founding Fathers of America did not as a whole prohibit ministers from holding public office, then how do we account for those early state constitutions that did outlaw such office holding, and should we consider those who wrote such constitutions to be Founding Fathers?

A good argument can be made that those who wrote state constitutions during the era of the Founding can be considered Founders, but at best second-tier or minor Founders. Most people, including Fea, typically refer to the Founding Fathers of America, not the states. That is no mere accident of language. The phrase “the Founders,” in common parlance, usually refers to those national leaders who arranged for the US Constitution to be written and ratified. Those Founders sought to replace the Confederation government with a new one in part because it proved incapable of counteracting the rogue and objectionable actions of state governments and leaders. This situation indicates that national and state “founders” not only had differences of opinions, but that to some degree the latter emerged in opposition to the former. Consequently, just because some of the Founders at the state level supported a particular policy does not necessarily mean (as Fea argues) that all of the Founders did so, particularly those at the national level. So, while one could rightly call the authors of the early state constitutions “Founders,” they should do so with a caveat or explanation, rather than portraying all of the Founders (state and national) as a monolithic group.

In the final analysis, it is fair to assert that some Founders, namely those at the state-level, did seek to prevent pastors from running for political positions. However, the closest Fea comes to properly delineating the number of Founders who desired to ban clergymen is when he states: “The founders who crafted the original state governments – those governments celebrated by today’s conservative politicians as the most important source of democratic life – thought it was a good idea for ministers to stay out of politics.” But even this statement is inaccurate at best, and misleading at worst. It gives the impression that all of the men who wrote early state constitutions supported such a ban when only half of the state constitutions contained such a provision. This means that no more than half (and likely less than half) of all of the men who crafted the original state governments supported the exclusion of ministers from public office.

Even if Fea is incorrect about there being a consensus among “the Founding Fathers in America” in support of banning ministers from public office, it does not necessarily mean that the idea of such a ban (which Fea seems to support) is wrong. To determine the validity of such a ban one must consider the reasons provided for it. Fea identifies two basic justifications for such a ban, with the first being that “they [the Founders] thought that the ‘separation of church and state’ was important.” While there is presumably a great deal of truth to this assertion, it is too simplistic of an explanation, especially from a professionally-trained historian familiar with the complexity of historical situations and in discerning the motives of historical actors.

A proper understanding of the historical context makes it impossible to simply assert that support for excluding clergymen from office automatically translates into support for a separation of church and state. The fact of the matter is that most of the states that included a clerical ban in their 18th century constitutions had been, before 1776, colonies where the Anglican Church was the official, established church of the colony. What is notable is that these colonies also had laws on the books prohibiting clergymen from holding public office. Thus, the exclusion of clergy from political office, in the American colonial context at least, was more associated with the intertwining of church and state rather than an indicator of a desire to separate church and state.   In fact, according to the United States Supreme Court, a ban on clergy in public office is more logically connected to an established church, than a society where church and state are separated. When the Court in 1978 struck down as unconstitutional the last state law prohibiting ministers from holding public office, the justices rejected the state’s contention that the law was necessary to maintain a high wall of separation between church and state. Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote the unanimous opinion (McDaniel v. Paty), asserted that such a ban would only be justified where an established church existed. Historians have not only shown that prohibitions against ministers holding office were usually associated with governments with established churches, but that these prohibitions stemmed from a number of possible motives.[1]

The second justification Fea identifies for excluding clergy from public office is the noble and positive nature of pastoral work in comparison to that of the political office holder. Fea endorses this line of argument when he quotes the 1777 New York Constitution which stated that ministers of the gospel “ought to not be diverted from the great duties of their function.” Fea then pivots on this quote to proclaim that “Those who care for the soul have a ‘great’ spiritual duty that should never be compromised or tarnished by politics.” John Witherspoon exposed the specious nature of this argument back in 1789 when he responded to Georgia’s constitutional ban on ministers as office holders. In his letter to the delegates of the Georgia Constitutional Convention, he asked “Is it a sin against the public to become a minister? Does it merit that the person who is guilty of it should be immediately deprived of one of his most important rights as a citizen?” Witherspoon then humorously suggested that the clause in the Georgia constitution be rewritten as follows: “No clergyman, of any denomination, shall be capable of being elected a member of the Senate or House of Representatives, because [insert here the grounds of offensive disqualification, which I have not been able to discover]…and if at any time he shall be completely deprived of the clerical character by those by whom he was invested with it, as by deposition for cursing and swearing, drunkenness or uncleanness, he shall then be fully restored to all the privileges of a free citizen; his offence shall no more be remembered against him; but he may be chosen either to the Senate or House of Representatives…” Likewise, John Leland, an ordained Baptist preacher who is sometimes credited with convincing Madison to add the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, declared that provisions and laws preventing clergy from holding public office are nothing less than denying a citizen of his liberty on the flimsy basis that doing so prevents them from degrading “their sacred office.” He explained that “to declare them [clergymen] ineligible [for public office], when their neighbors prefer them to any others, is depriving them of the liberty of free citizens, and those who prefer them, the freedom of choice.”

If Fea truly believes that it is good and right to essentially disenfranchise pastors because they “have a great spiritual duty that should never be compromised or tarnished by politics,” one wonders what other groups of people could be discriminated against on this same basis? Should physicians be banned from holding public office because they have a great physical duty that should never be compromised or tarnished by politics? What about professors like Dr. Fea? Should they be prohibited from pursuing elective office because they have a great intellectual duty that should never be compromised or tarnished by politics? And what exactly does Fea mean when he warns that “Those who care for the soul…should never be compromised or tarnished by politics”? Couldn’t any manner of political activism be viewed by some as causing a pastor’s ministry to be compromised or tarnished by politics? Is Fea advocating that pastors not even address “political” issues such as abortion, racism, and poverty on this basis?

But let’s return to the matter of a pastor holding elective office. Would doing so inevitably tarnish the ministry or “the witness of the Christian church in the world,” as Fea puts it?   Is it reasonable to assume that if the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been assassinated, and later in life had won a seat in the US Senate from Georgia, that his presence in Congress would tarnish the ministry or jeopardize the witness of the Christian church? In his essay Fea never criticized or repudiated any of the constitutional provisions discriminating against ministers. One wonders, therefore, if Fea would support laws that would have prevented Dr. King from running for political office because he was a minister. With such laws John Lewis, an ordained Baptist and civil rights hero, would not have a career in Congress that stretches back to 1987. Likewise, Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina who was tragically assassinated in June 2015, would never have served in both the South Carolina House and Senate before his death.

From what little I know of Dr. Fea, I can safely surmise that he is glad that Representative Lewis is in the US House, and that Reverend Pinckney served in the state legislature of South Carolina. The question that naturally arises then is why does he state his opposition to ministers in public office so strenuously in his RNS essay? A reading of Fea’s essay makes it clear that he was prompted to write it by the fact that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President, had recently spoken to over 700 evangelical pastors at an event in Orlando, Florida. These pastors, Fea pointed out, are associated with the American Renewal Project, an effort led by a conservative Christian political activist named David Lane to get 1,000 pastors to run for political office by 2018. Fea has been a vocal critic of both Donald Trump and champions of the “Christian America” movement in his widely-read blog and on Twitter. In both instances, I side fully with Fea. I consider myself a charter and sustaining member of the #NeverTrump movement, and I assign Fea’s book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, in my classes because he thoroughly and quite fairly dismantles the notion that the Founders of America intended for it to be a Christian nation. Fea’s published works are well-written, scholarly and held in high esteem by his fellow academic historians. In fact, I use his Why Study History? in my historiography courses because it provides one of the best explanations for how Christians should function as historians and teachers. But in this particular essay, Fea seemingly violates some of the most basic tenets of historical scholarship that he himself advocates in Why Study History? I wonder if Fea has allowed his opposition to Trump and “Christian America” advocates like Lane to throw him off his game. Regardless of why Fea wrote this particular essay, however, it is clear that the Founding Fathers did NOT want to keep ministers from serving in public office and that any effort to keep pastors from running for political office is wrong, discriminatory, and unjust.

[1] For instance, some have pointed out that most of the states with such bans were not only Anglican, but did not have much of an evangelical presence yet. These bans, therefore, were likely designed to punish Anglican Church officials, who not only had a reputation for abusing their power in colonial America, but who also supported the British during the American Revolution. Anson Stokes theorized that some delegates to the Kentucky Constitutional Convention (1799) added a clerical ban to that document to protect the institution of slavery, as some of the leaders of the anti-slavery forces in the state were Presbyterian ministers. Philip Hamburger, Professor of Law at the Columbia Law School, said “Americans barred clergymen from civil office for many reasons, including an odd combination of Calvinism, anti-Catholicism, theories of taxation and representation, solicitude for the clergy, and suspicion of the clergy. Strikingly,” he concluded, “Americans did not exclude clergy on grounds of separation.”

Brett Aucoin

Dr. Aucoin has been teaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary since 2004, and also serves as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The College at Southeastern. He is particularly interested in post-Civil War Southern history, race relations and American religious history. He is married to his wife, Amanda, who is also … Read More