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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24