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Columns

So Help Me God: Torcaso v. Watkins

The Free Exercise Thereof

By Aidan R. Scully, Crimson Opinion Writer
Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

In seven states, atheists are constitutionally barred from holding public office.

Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all have state constitutions that list a belief in God as a prerequisite for holding public office. An eighth state, Pennsylvania, suggests atheists may be barred from office on account of their “religious sentiments.”

These bans are, of course, unenforceable, and have been unenforceable for more than 60 years. In 1961, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Torcaso v. Watkins, asserting that Maryland’s belief requirement violated the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause. Roy R. Torcaso had been appointed by the governor to serve as a notary public, but was denied his commission because he refused to profess a belief in God. He sued, and (eventually) won.

But that decision has not stopped some particularly motivated individuals from trying to enforce these clauses anyway. In South Carolina in 1992, Herb Silverman’s application to be a notary public was rejected because he had struck through the line “so help me God” on the document. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor in 1997. In North Carolina in 2009, Asheville city councilor Cecil Bothwell also faced pushback when he assumed his seat without first professing a belief in God.

The Torcaso decision ensured that both of these attempts to enforce the religious tests against atheists were doomed to fail from the beginning. Yet more than six decades after being stripped of their power, these laws are still on the books, inviting challenges such as these that call into question the legitimacy of atheist officials across the country, especially in some of the most religious states in the country where atheists are an even smaller minority.

In this column, I’ve sought to bring attention to some of the specific dangers of Christian Nationalism, ranging from government-funded religious imagery to attacks on secular public education. But there are many issues related to religion that cannot be simply painted with a broad, “Christian Nationalist” brush. Herb Silverman and Cecil Bothwell did not face backlash for their lack of Christianity, but for their lack of belief.

And that backlash does not stem from isolated instances of “Christian Nationalism,” but rather from a culture that has consistently embraced what author Kristina M. Lee terms “theistnormativity,” which she defines as “the normalization of the belief in God as being tied to good and moral citizenship.” Atheists and other nontheists, in this view, are not worth including because they are fundamentally less moral than believers.

This “theistnormativity” is perhaps most apparent in the political realm, where the religiously unaffiliated, despite making up 29 percent of the population, have only one representative in each chamber of Congress. In the House, that representative is Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who identifies as a “humanist,” one of the many labels variously used by nonreligious Americans. In the Senate, the unaffiliated have Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), but Sinema herself has shied away from identifying too closely with the nonreligious. After her election to Congress in 2012, her spokesperson said that Sinema believed “the terms non-theist, atheist, or nonbeliever [were] not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

But the fear of being associated with such godless heathenry is, unfortunately, justified. When asked whether they would vote for a qualified candidate from their party of a certain religious background in 2019, only 60 percent of respondents said they would vote for an atheist. “Atheist” sat below every other religious group polled, including Muslims (66 percent) and evangelicals (80 percent). In a separate poll that year, 69 percent of Americans said that belief in God was important to “being truly American.”

This view, that a belief in God is necessary for living a moral life, is not a “Christian Nationalist” belief like those explored previously in this column. But it is a view that is buttressed by the continued encroachment of religion on our public life. Congress’s 1954 decision to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and their 1955 decision to add “In God We Trust” to American currency advanced this perspective, arguing that America, and its morality, were grounded in a belief in a higher power. Effectively, anyone who did not share that belief was removed from the public identity of the country.

So while these views may not themselves be Christian Nationalist, in a context of rising Christian Nationalism, it is more crucial than ever that we confront them head on. Secular Americans are, and will continue to be, valuable participants in the fight for true respect for America’s rich religious diversity. But that can only happen if we break down the stigmas surrounding nontheism and encourage secular Americans to serve their communities openly as nonreligious Americans. Many secular officials of all backgrounds already are, but it is still a far cry from equal representation.

“Atheism” is not immoral. Neither is “nontheism,” or “humanism,” or “agnosticism,” or any of the people who hold those varied perspectives. But when we let seven states keep laws on the books that directly separate the nonreligious community from the rest of society, we send the message that there is something fundamentally wrong with their views. The nonreligious are becoming an increasingly large part of America’s religious landscape, and fighting the casual condemnation that defines the nonreligious experience is an important step toward guaranteeing respect and appreciation for everyone in the new America.

Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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