Penal laws from before the founding of the United States might seem to have little to do with present-day politics. However, in the past week, a mainly unspoken but very prevalent “religious test” has clearly emerged for those who wish to practice their Christian faith in public.
Just a week ago, at a confirmation hearing for Russell Vought — President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget — Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist from Vermont, got into a heated debate with the nominee over his theological views, specifically his Christianity. At the end of Sanders’ hostile diatribe, the senator then said, “This nominee is not really someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”
On Wednesday in the U.K., Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, resigned after the contentious general election. He did not resign because of the party’s dismal performance — while certainly not impressive, the party gained four seats. No, he resigned because he felt “torn between being a faithful Christian” and being a political leader.
Throughout the election campaign, the secular press in Britain had focused on Farron’s evangelical Christianity, particularly his views on homosexuality and abortion. Forced into a corner, Farron fudged his answers when continually pressed on the only issues the secularists seem to believe Christianity is all about. Clearly regretting his lack of clarity, Farron gave a resignation statement that was dignified but immensely depressing — demonstrating his belief that as a leader of a major political party in a so-called tolerant, open society, he felt he had to choose between his faith and a life in politics.
Reaction to Farron’s departure was mixed: For liberal secularists (meaning most of the mainstream media), his “novelty” faith was an unusual aberration in modern Britain. Tony Blair’s spin doctor once said that in British politics, we “don’t do God.” So the response was some bemusement, and then onto more important news — like how to respond to Ramadan more enthusiastically.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England, said Farron had certainly been “given a hard time” — hardly a robust defense of Farron’s position, but the kind of comment expected today from most senior clerics in Britain.
The Catholic chaplain to the U.K. parliament, Canon Pat Browne, showed a little more intestinal fortitude in saying he was “alarmed” at this outcome and “it’s a judgment on the way we do politics in this country.” Perhaps the strongest statement so far has come from Lord David Alton, a former liberal Democrat MP and now a prominent campaigner for persecuted Christians (he was a keynote speaker at the recent world summit in Washington, D.C., organized by Franklin Graham).
Alton said the liberal Democrats (and implicitly Britain) had become “narrow and intolerant.”
Unusually perhaps, during the election campaign in Britain, the media did not seek the views of the Muslim members of parliament on abortion or homosexuality. Similarly, Sen. Sanders seemed to become apoplectic, not over nominee Vought’s lack of qualification for office, or some alleged misdemeanors of the past. Rather, it was his theological understanding of Islam that so enraged the elderly secularist from the Green Mountain State.
It might be worth asking — although we already know the answer — whether Sen. Sanders would have followed a similar line of question if Russell Vought had been a Muslim. As for Farron, we already know that for the British press, questioning Islam is a no-go.
The very reason Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any kind of “religious test” for employment or public office is precisely because of what happened in the country from which the fledgling United States broke free. The Test Acts were English penal laws, aimed principally at Catholic and non-conformists — in other words, non-members of the established Church of England. They were an actual religious test to exclude the non-conformists from public office and employment.
These laws were abandoned through the 19th century in Britain; but they seem to have a new lease on life in the minds of the “tolerant” elites ruling in both the U.S. and the U.K.
“We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”
What secular liberals really want, apart from Christians ultimately disappearing into their strange religious rabbit holes, is for a kind of secular “dhimmitude” — the second-class status accorded to Christians for centuries under Islam. Christians can practice their faith in church — freedom of “worship” — but don’t dare run for office, apply for a government position, or try to lead a political party.
As Tim Farron said of his treatment, “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.” Russell Vought might concur.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.