Answering John Fea: Why the Founders wouldn’t bar pastors from public office (Part 1)

October 4, 2016

Did the Founding Fathers of America want to prohibit ministers from holding public office? One of the most prolific and respected Christian historians in America thinks so and wants you to do the same. John Fea, who is chair of the History Department at Messiah College, the author of four renowned books, and a popular blogger, made this argument in an essay entitled “Why the Founding Fathers wanted to keep ministers from public office” that appeared on the Religious News Service (RNS) website on August 15, 2016.

The question of whether pastors should be able to hold elective office does not seem to be a pressing issue, as relatively few ministers ever throw their hat into the political ring. But in a society where the growing hostility of the cultural and political elites towards Christianity is matched by their questioning of the guarantees of freedom of religion, this matter suddenly takes on greater significance. One can’t help but wonder if the attempt to prohibit pastors from running for political office may follow the previously unimaginable attempts by governments in America to collect and analyze sermons, or to effectively prevent professors in Christian colleges from teaching from a Christian perspective. If one could demonstrate that the Founders wished to bar ministers from public office, it would certainly help facilitate the ongoing quest to further secularize the public square and marginalize Christians.

The question, then, is: Were the Founding Fathers of America so committed to the “separation of church and state,” as Fea asserts, that they believed ministers should be barred from ever holding political office?   Interestingly, the only evidence Fea produces to support this assertion is the fact that the constitutions of 8 states, written between 1776 and 1799, prohibited clergymen from holding public office. While this fact is noteworthy, one must ask if it is accurate to assert that “the Founding Fathers” of America (as Fea expresses it at least twice in the essay and once in the title) believed something on the basis of what appeared in the constitutions of 8 (of the 16) states in the Union before 1799?

When the phrase “the Founding Fathers” is mentioned to the average American, do the delegates of half of the state constitutional conventions automatically come to mind? Obviously not. In fact, most people likely conjure up an equally inaccurate thought: the idea that the Founding Fathers consist only of the Big Six – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton. So, what did these men think about this issue? At least two of them explicitly rejected such bans (while it is unclear, to me at least, what the other 4 thought of this particular matter). Madison, the so-called “Father of the Constitution,” clearly opposed any effort to keep minsters from public office. He addressed this very issue in his “Remarks on Mr. Jefferson’s draught of a constitution for Virginia” (1788). In his remarks, Madison asked “Does not the exclusion of Ministers of the Gospel as such violate a fundamental principle of liberty by punishing a religious profession with the privation of a civil right?” Jefferson, on the other hand, actually sought to ban ministers from public office in 1783. But in 1800 Jefferson wrote a letter to Jeremiah Moore, a Baptist pastor, saying he had completely changed his opinion on this matter, and considered ministers to be on the same “footing with lawyers, physicians &c.” Therefore, he said, “they ought to possess the same rights.”

Those who do not limit the Founding Fathers to the Big Six usually expand it to include those who served in the Continental, Confederation, and the first US Congresses, as well as those who were delegates to the Constitutional and state ratifying conventions. If it can be said that these men most truly constitute the Founding Fathers, then one would be hard-pressed to argue that they wanted to keep ministers out of public office. Ordained ministers, in fact, made up nearly 7% of the members of the first United States Congress. Even though minsters were a distinct minority in that first Congress, it is notable that the Reverend Frederick Muhlenberg, an ordained Lutheran pastor, was elected by the members of that first Congress as the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives. It is also significant to point out that John Witherspoon, who was an ordained Presbyterian pastor, the President of Princeton, and James Madison’s teacher and mentor, served in a number of public offices, including the New Jersey colonial and state legislatures, the Continental and Confederation Congresses, and in the New Jersey ratifying convention. He signed the Declaration of Independence, helped craft the Articles of Confederation, and led the effort in New Jersey to ratify the US Constitution. If the Founders opposed clergymen holding office, then how does one explain Witherspoon’s and Muhlenberg’s presence among them, as well as the absence of any objections to them (and other ministers) serving in these various capacities?

Likewise, if the Founders opposed ministers being able to serve in public offices (as Fea asserts), then how does one account for the fact that a large number of “the Founding Fathers” were responsible for Article VI, Clause 3 in the Constitution which says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” as well as the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from passing any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion? Granted, neither of these Constitutional provisions explicitly address nor promote clergymen serving in federal positions, but they essentially eliminated any barriers to them doing so.

Finally, these two clauses, it must be noted, were inserted into the US Constitution at the very time that some states had constitutional provisions prohibiting ministers from public office. The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were aware of the state prohibitions on clerical office-holding. If they wanted to keep ministers from holding public office then why didn’t they insert one of those state constitutional provisions into the US Constitution?

Brent Aucoin
Brent J. Aucoin is a Professor of History at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the College at Southeastern. He is the author, most recently, of Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics and Justice in the New South (University of Alabama Press, 2016)