Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ministers and Atheists

Today I examine one of the most controversial parts of the Tennessee Constitution:

"Now Oatney," you say, "the Tennessee Constitution is contradicting itself. On the one hand it says that there will be no religious test for office, but it says that ministers and atheists can't hold office." To our modern ears, that does sound like a contradiction, but to the framers of both the Constitution of 1796 and the Constitution of 1870 (which is modeled heavily after 1796, with both including these provisions) it wouldn't be seen as a contradiction at all. In the minds of Tennessee's forefathers, you couldn't impose a religious test on someone who had no faith at all, so it wasn't a religious test to bar an atheist from holding office. If, they reasoned, someone didn't believe in God or, in their words "a future state of rewards and punishments," then that means that an individual doesn't believe that they will be held to account by anyone higher than the voters, so they might concievably take the attitude "so what if I lose the election, I will do as I please regardless of the consequences." Far worse, a person might take the attitude that says "oath...oh, that was just words."

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