The Republican presidential race seems more like a competition for national pastor-in-chief than chief executive. During one recent debate, candidates were asked if they believe every word of the Bible. Not one politician dismissed the question as irrelevant or out of bounds. Earlier in the year, John McCain asserted that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation (despite the fact that the words "Christian" and "God" appear a grand total of zero times in the nation's founding document). The supposedly socially liberal Rudy Giuliani proudly accepted an endorsement from Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, the televangelist who has claimed that some Christian denominations embody the spirit of the Antichrist, and agreed with Jerry Falwell that gays and lesbians caused the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As the Iowa caucuses approach, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are fighting over which one has the best religious credentials. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who has surged to top of the heap in Iowa, has run one ad invoking his status as a "Christian leader" as a reason to vote for him. In another ad, released for Christmas, he tells voters that what really matters at this time of year is "celebrating the birth of Christ." Elsewhere, he has explained that "faith doesn't just influence me, it really defines me. I don't have to wake up every day wondering "what do I need to believe?" The implication is that people who are not sufficiently faithful are morally adrift, unable to string together coherent, consistent beliefs from one day to the next.
Mitt Romney gave a recent speech meant to address concerns about his Mormon faith. The speech was an attempt to demonstrate that Romney, like Huckabee, sees religion as central to his presidential campaign. Romney said that he believes "Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Savior of mankind" and declared that his oath of office would be his "highest promise to God". Perhaps some evangelical voters will find these statements comforting. They shouldn't. Whether you're religious or not, the marriage of religion and politics is cause for concern.
For one thing, with religion a central part of the presidential campaign, it is only natural that candidates will be asked specific questions about their beliefs. That is disturbing; no one should have to answer questions like "does your religion teach that Satan and Christ are brothers?" (a question Huckabee has raised about Romney) or "how would your church's doctrine about the apocalypse influence your Middle East policy?"
Both Romney and Huckabee have tried to dodge questions about their specific beliefs. But the cat is already out of the bag. Since these men have made faith a central part of their pitch, it is too late for them to declare that details of precisely what they believe are off limits. It is ludicrous for Huckabee to put forth his religious beliefs as a credential, question Romney's beliefs, and then refuse to answer a question about whether creationism should be taught in public schools.
Romney, for his part, says he won't publicly delve into Mormon doctrine because, "to do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution." Too late for that Mitt. We already have a religious test. That's why Romney was forced to give a speech aimed at making his Mormon faith less scary to voters-there is a question as to whether Romney is himself a real Christian, whether he meets the de facto religious test applied to all presidential candidates.
In order to be a serious candidate, in either party, one must be a Christian, of some denomination that doesn't seem too weird to evangelical voters. It is of course unfathomable to imagine a Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic becoming president (in fact, a whisper campaign that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, helpfully highlighted by the Washington Post on its front page a few weeks ago, depends on the reality that actually being a Muslim would disqualify someone from running for president in 2008).
In his speech pleading with voters not to dismiss him because he is a Mormon, Romney argued that "the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life." Romney's argument is completely baseless - no serious candidate for the presidency, no serious leader in either party, would dare to suggest that religion has no place in public life. No mainstream politician could say what Thomas Jefferson said in 1814, that "our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to God alone. I inquire after no man's, and trouble none with mine." If this principle applied to modern presidential politics, there would have be no need for Romney, or anyone else, to answer questions about his or her faith.