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Guest Commentary

The Iowa caucuses versus the U.S. Constitution

5/20/2015

For all the red-white-and-blue hurrahs and chest thumping so dear to the hearts of those who promote the Iowa caucuses, it is sobering — even depressing — to consider how the caucuses don’t much care about the wisdom of the U.S Constitution in general or the spirit of Article VI of the Constitution in particular.

Sadly, the last 20 words of Article VI not only are ignored by the Iowa caucuses but are kind of a sick joke when it comes to the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Those words from the hallowed Constitution: “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

No religious test?  What a hoot! Those sympathetic to James Madison and his founding friends need not apply for a booth at the Iowa Straw Poll.

No religious test? Tell that to “Cary Gordon, a Christian conservative pastor at a Sioux City church,” as he is identified and invoked from time to time when The Des Moines Register wants to report whether a potential GOP candidate passes muster in a Christian “born again” litmus test.

No religious test? Tell that to Gov. Terry Branstad and the press who make it clear to prospective candidates that, when it comes to the caucuses, the folks who really must be impressed are the likes of Charles Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center and Robert Vander Plaats of the equally evangelical The Family Leader.

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Yes, the Constitution does set restrictions on government and not on citizens.  So, a private company can punish an employee for expression that the First Amendment will protect when it comes to limiting government. Likewise, while legislators — at least so far — cannot declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation, millions of voters can take that notion to the polls, as many clergymen urge them to do every election. And now we have candidates for the GOP nomination campaigning along the same religious lines regardless of the spirit or advice of the Constitution. (And while the Constitution focuses on what government can and cannot do, the document does not prohibit citizens from following its spirit!)

James Madison and his 18th century colleagues feared the likes of an Iowa caucus and its de facto endorsement of a religious test for candidates. As legal scholar Burt Neuborne writes in his new book, “Madison’s Music”:  “The Founders knew from personal experience that true believers often use the state to impose their beliefs on others and to persecute, harass, and even annihilate non believers…That’s why, even before there was a Bill of Rights, Article VI…forbade the political majority from imposing religious tests for public office, one of the few protections of civil liberties in the text of the 1787 Constitution.”

Article VI is fightin’ words to the Iowa GOP and caucus promoters. Perhaps that is to be expected, given the penchant of true believers to shove their ideologies down everyone else’s throat.

So for the past 20 or 30 years, the Iowa GOP has sped more and more to the religious right in its party platforms and what it sees as Gospel-driven demands on public policy — from a war against science to anti-gay fervor and pro-gun policies that stop just short of mandating that everyone must be armed to better end violence in our society.

It’s bizarre, and so is the fact that the news media are just about oblivious to such trends — for a longtime ignoring the GOP platforms as irrelevant, while compromise and common sense are the real irrelevancies in today’s Iowa GOP.

Perhaps in time, the Iowa caucuses as currently configured will become irrelevant, too. One can only hope because, after all, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

I read that somewhere. CV

 

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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