The religious right would like you to believe that it only wants a place at the table for Americans with traditional values. But those who keep a close eye on America’s so-called moral guardians know that’s a lie. Whenever they think no one else is listening, religious right luminaries reveal their utter contempt for democratic values. We got another example of this late last week, when one of the religious right’s loudest and most obnoxious figures called for Muslims to be banned from serving in Congress.
When Roy Moore won the Republican nomination for the special election for Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in Alabama, it was inevitable that his more unhinged statements from the last quarter-century would get renewed attention. Among them was a 2006 op-ed in WorldNetDaily in which he demanded that the House refuse to seat then newly-elected Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever to serve in that chamber. Why? Moore argued that “Islamic law is simply incompatible with our law,” and therefore a Muslim could not honestly swear to protect the Constitution.
When Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska heard about this, he hit the ceiling. He told National Review’s Jonah Goldberg that “the Constitution is pretty dang clear about not having a religious litmus test.” He was rightly referring to Article Six, which explicitly forbids religious tests as a condition for holding office in this country.
That didn’t sit well with American Family Radio’s afternoon drive time host, Bryan Fischer. On Friday’s edition of his show, “Focal Point,” he proffered an argument that would sound patently bizarre to anyone who isn’t totally fundified–the Constitution actually allows us to keep Muslims from sitting in the House and Senate. People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch got a clip.
About an hour into the show, Fischer claimed Sasse had “gone off the reservation” by calling out Moore’s Islamophobia. He believed Sasse, as well as most Americans, are “uninformed” on this issue. He conceded taht Article Six does indeed forbid religious tests. However, he contended that when the Founding Fathers talked about religion, they were actually referring to Christianity.
This isn’t that much of a surprise, given Fischer’s past history. After all, he has previously argued that the First Amendment was only intended to protect Christians. As evidence of that, he cited “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States,” an early treatise on constitutional law written Joseph Story, the longest-serving associate justice in Supreme Court history. Story contended that the First Amendment was intended to maintain a measure of peace among the nation’s various Christian sects. Story also claimed that the Founders intended for the rights of non-Christians to be a state matter.
Fischer contended that same logic applied to Article Six. He claimed that it only forbade a “Christian religious test,” but said nothing whatsoever about Islam. He believed that Muslims should be excluded from sitting in the House or Senate because Muslims believe in “a totalitarian system, a totalitarian ideology.”
As it turns out, Fischer was putting a new twist on a longstanding religious right shibboleth. But even a cursory analysis reveals that Fischer is the one who is “uninformed”–and that’s being kind to it. For one thing, when the Virginia General Assembly debated Thomas Jefferson’s landmark statute on religious freedom, one delegate wanted to add a clause that would have effectively limited its protections to Christians. As Jefferson put it, that idea was “rejected by a great majority” who wanted to protect all religions, including non-Christian religions.
That made Virginia the second of the original 13 states–the other being Rhode Island–to grant full religious freedom. The other 11 states–including my state of North Carolina–either had an established church or at the very least required you to be a believer of some sort in order to hold office. While most of those provisions were struck down by the late 19th century, a number of them still nominally remain in force. However, since the First Amendment is binding on the states via the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, longstanding precedent holds that these provisions cannot be enforced. The most recent precedent came down in 1961, when the Supreme Court held in Torcaso v. Watkins that states are also barred from requiring religious tests.
Add it up, and it’s clear–with apologies to Politifact, Fischer isn’t just wrong here, but Pants on Fire wrong. So why does it matter? Well, the great majority of Fischer’s constituency either sends their kids to Christian schools or homeschools them with Christianist curricula–many of which have taught these alternative facts for years. Let’s call this for what it is–ahistorical claptrap.
Fischer should be ashamed of himself for peddling this nonsense when it is so easily debunked. He has, however, done us a public service. He has provided yet another reason why we should all shudder at the thought of having to say “Senator Roy Moore.” After all, if that day comes to pass, we would have a Senator who openly admits he wants to put the First Amendment in the shredder.
(featured image courtesy Fischer’s Facebook)