Ever since the Constitution was first submitted for ratification, the final clause in Article VI has been a matter of strong contention among Americans. That clause, known as the religious test clause, simply states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It is frequently claimed that this clause represents the desire of the founding fathers to keep religion out of the government and to establish a secular nation. But is that really how this phrase was intended to be used?
To understand the true purpose of the religious test clause, we must hearken back to the Corporation Act of 1661. This was the first of three Test Acts which were implemented in England and which remained in effect until 1828. Under these acts, no one could hold office in England unless he swore an oath of fealty not to God but rather to the doctrines of the Church of England. This was the kind of religious test which the founders prohibited. They had no objection to biblical qualifications. What they objected to was the requirement that all government officials be forced to swear allegiance to the codified doctrines of an established church.