If it were possible for apolitician to sue voters for religious
discrimination, Mitt Romney would have an open-and-shut case against
the Republican electorate. Here is a man possessing allthe known
qualifications for the job of GOP presidential nominee--strong
communications skills, a successful governorship, total agreement
on every issue, Reaganesque hair--and yet he may well be denied it
on account of his faith. In a poll released in June, 30 percent of
Republicans said they'd be less likely to vote for a Mormon. One
conservative televangelist dispensed with the subtlety and warned
his flock,"If you vote for Mitt Romney, you arevoting for Satan!"
These attacks have nothing to do with how Romney would conduct
himself as president. They're purely theological. Romney's
criticsare declaring they couldn't support Romney on the sole basis
that they consider Mormonism un-Christian.Unless you yearn for a Romneypresidency--which I don't,
particularly--the real significance here is that nobody is
challenging the premise of faith-based politics. Romney could argue
that his religion is unrelatedto how he would conduct himself
inoffice, as John F. Kennedy famously didin 1960. But he hasn't
done so, and,by all accounts, he won't. Instead, heis defending
himself on theological grounds, trying to persuade
socialconservatives that Mormonism ismore compatible with
evangelicalProtestantism than they think.
The assumption today, unlike dur-ing most of the postwar years, is
that a candidate's religion must be an integral component of his
political persona. It's not just Republicans, either. For the last
few years, Democrats have been frantically attesting to their
ownreligiosity. Mississippi Democraticgubernatorial candidate John
Eaves Jr. declared himself to be "on Jesus' side." Political
secularism--the notion that elections should not be contested on
the basis of candidates' religiosity--is at a modern nadir.
In a country where most Americans say they would never vote for an
atheist, the political logic of faith-based politics is undeniable.
The moral logic, however, remains unpersuasive. Advocates of
faith-based politics take as their premise the inverted assumption
that secularism is an assault upon faith. "Secularists are wrong
when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before
entering into the public square," admonished Barack Obama last
summer. The brilliant social conservative Ross Douthat has argued in
First Things that the rise of the religious right is merely "the
Republican reaction against the Democrats' decision to become the
first major party in American history to pander to a sizeable bloc
of aggressively secular voters."
"Aggressive" is a strange adjective here, given that secularists are
not known for door-to-door proselytizing or massacring members of
opposing religious groups. Secular political discourse does not
place religious voters or candidates at a disadvantage. It merely
denies them an advantage. A religious candidate can campaign on the
war in Iraq or health care or gay marriage just as easily as a
secular candidate can. But a secular candidate can't run on his
faith in the way a religious candidate can. ("Secular," of course,
means a lack of political religiosity, rather than a lack of
religious belief.) Religion-infused politics places a massive
handicap on candidates and voters who are secular or subscribe to
The most common accusation against secularism is that it ignores the
deeply religious nature of the American public. "As a prudential
matter, the case forpublic reason makes a great deal of sense,"
argues Douthat. "But one searches American history in vain--from
abolitionist polemics down to Martin Luther King's
Scripture-saturated speeches--for any evidenceof this supposedly
ironclad rule being rigorously applied, or applied at all."
When Jimmy Carter and RonaldReagan infused their public personaswith
religiosity, it was somewhat novel. Now it's practically mandatory.
It is true that the secular nature of postwar U.S. politics was not
the historicalrule. It was progress: The America of the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries was a less hospitable place for
religious minorities. The temperance crusaders and the populists,
for instance, were religiously steeped mass movements with more
than a whiff of, respectively, anti-Catholicism andanti-Semitism.
The secularism thathas generally prevailed since World War II is
precisely what has allowed a Catholic to be elected president and a
Jew to be nominated as vice president, among other ways that
religious tolerance has expanded.
Then we have the civil rights movement. This has become the social
right's favorite example--a cuddly historical mascot for
anti-secular politics. The argument is that, if you support Martin
Luther King--and who doesn't these days?--you shouldn't have a
problem with other kinds of faith-based politics.
It's certainly true that the civil rights movement was rooted in
black churches and the language of religious liberation. But this
was an artifact of a unique situation. Slavery, Jim Crow, and the
one-party white supremacist character of Southern politics had
destroyed every other possible outlet for African American politics
other than the church. Civil rights activism took the form of
preaching because that was the only form black politics could take.
The depth of American religiosity is precisely why secularism is so
important. Since religion is premised on faith, theological disputes
cannot be settled through public reason. Even the most vicious
public policy disputes get settled over time. (Americans now agree
on slavery and greenback currency.)But we're no closer to consensus
onthe divinity of Jesus than we were200 years ago.
Not long ago, John McCain declared that, "since this nation was
founded primarily on Christian principles ... personally, I prefer
someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith." GOP
Representatives Virgil Goode and Bill Sali, and conservative talk
show host Dennis Prager, have railed against Muslims and Hindus
offering their own prayers in Congress. I'm sure most advocates of
faith-based politics would abhor this sort of discrimination. But
it's really just the natural conclusion from the premise of
faith-based politics: If it makes sense to support public figures
because they share our religious beliefs, then it also makes sense
to oppose public figures who don't.