I was surprised to learn that the North Carolina Constitution has a provision that disallows persons who don’t believe in God from public service. The issue came to light after Cecil Bothwell, who describes himself as a “post-theist,” was elected to the Asheville City Council, creating a stir among some conservatives and making national headlines.
Bothwell is a long-time environmentalist, resident, and author. He has been a syndicated coumnist, wrote a best-selling guidebook to Asheville, and in 2007 published a biography of evangelist Billy Graham, who lives in nearby Black Mountain. Bothwell belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Church, which is home to many folks who are skeptical about God’s existence but still value spirituality, fellowship, and social justice. That’s not enough to satisfy critics, including Mark Creech, who leads the North Carolina-based Christian Action League. I appreciate Mark, especially with regard to his opposition to alcohol and the lottery, but I have to disagree with him on this one.

It’s true — and a bit mind-boggling — that the N.C. Constitution seems to think belief in God is an essential characteristic for all office holders. You can look it up: Article Six, Section 8 says

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
Second, with respect to any office that is filled by election by the people, any person who is not qualified to vote in an election for that office.
Third, any person who has been adjudged guilty of treason or any other felony against this State or the United States, or any person who has been adjudged guilty of a felony in another state that also would be a felony if it had been committed in this State, or any person who has been adjudged guilty of corruption or malpractice in any office, or any person who has been removed by impeachment from any office, and who has not been restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.
 It’s interesting to note that atheists are disqualified even before would-be candidates who aren’t qualified to vote or who have committed treason or other felonies. 

Supporters of Bothwell note, and rightly so, that the N.C. Constitution’s prohibition of atheists in office is trumped by the U.S. Constitution’s Article Six, which declares “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Relying heavily on David Barton’s The Myth of Separation, which argues against church-state separation, Creech holds that “the founders” intended only that there should be no denominational test (Anglican, Presbyterian, etc.), assuming that all potential office holders would be Christian. In addition, he suggests (with the late D. James Kennedy) that those who don’t believe in God have no external basis for life-affirming values and thus have no business serving the public.

But, belief in the prospect of divinely-meted eternal rewards or punishment is not the only potential motivation for developing positive values. Writing in his blog, Bothwell calmly defends his right to serve, points out examples of how Christians sometimes get it wrong, and offers at least one reason why non-theists can also have strong values:

And, in regard to death, it is my conclusion that those of us who believe that this is our one and only life are much more likely to value and protect the lives of our brave soldiers and our citizens than those who believe that they will live again in heaven.

 It appears to me that the N.C. Constitution is in need of updating to bring it in line with the U.S. Constitution as well as with common sense. It is self-evident that true freedom of religion — something most of us value — means that citizens are free to believe, or free not to believe.

They should also be free to serve in public office.


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