WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney declares, "Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone." Barack Obama opens his speech at his South Carolina Oprah rally with "Giving all praise and honor to God. Look at the day that the Lord has made." Mike Huckabee explains his surge in the polls thus: "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people."
This campaign is knee-deep in religion, and it's only going to get worse. I'd thought that the limits of professed public piety had already been achieved during the Republican CNN/YouTube debate when some squirrelly looking guy held up a Bible and asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?" -- and not one candidate dared reply: None of your damn business.
Instead, Messrs. Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee bent a knee and tried appeasement with various interpretations of scriptural literalism. The right answer, the only answer, is that the very question is offensive. The Constitution prohibits any religious test for office. And while that proscribes only government action, the law is also meant to be a teacher.
In the same way that civil rights laws established not just the legal but also the moral norm that one simply does not discriminate on the basis of race -- changing the practice of one generation and the consciousness of the next -- so the constitutional injunction against religious tests is meant to make citizens understand that such tests are profoundly un-American.
Now, there's nothing wrong with having a spirited debate on the place of religion in politics. But the candidates are confusing two arguments.
The first, which conservatives are winning, is defending the legitimacy of religion in the public square. The second, which conservatives are bound to lose, is proclaiming the privileged status of religion in political life.
A certain kind of liberal argues that having a religious underpinning for any public policy is disqualifying because it is an imposition of religion on others. Thus, if your opposition to embryonic stem cell research comes from a religious belief in the ensoulment of life at conception, you're somehow violating the separation of church and state by making other people bend to your religion.
This is absurd. Abolitionism, civil rights, temperance, opposition to the death penalty -- a host of policies, even political movements, have been rooted for many people in religious teaching or interpretation. It's ridiculous to say that therefore abolitionism, civil rights, etc., constitute an imposition of religion on others.
Imposing religion means the mandating of religious practice. It does not mean the mandating of social policy that some people may have come to support for religious reasons.
But a certain kind of conservative is not content to argue that a religious underpinning for a policy is not disqualifying. He insists that it is uniquely qualifying, indeed that it confers some special status.
Mr. Romney has been faulted for not throwing at least one bone of acknowledgment to nonbelievers in his big religion speech last week. But he couldn't, because the theme of the speech was that there was something special about having your values drawn from religious faith. Indeed, faith is politically indispensable. "Freedom requires religion," Mr. Romney declared, "just as religion requires freedom."
But this is nonsense -- as Mr. Romney then proceeded to demonstrate in that very same speech.
He spoke of the empty cathedrals in Europe. He's right about that: Postwar Europe has experienced the most precipitous decline in religious belief in the history of the West. Yet Europe is one of the freest precincts on the planet. It is an open, vibrant, tolerant community of more than two dozen disparate nations living in a pan-continental harmony and freedom unseen in all previous European history.
In some times and places, religion promotes freedom. In other times and places, it does precisely the opposite, as is demonstrated in huge swaths of the Muslim world, where religion has been used to impose the worst kind of unfreedom.
In this country, there is no special political standing that one derives from being a Christian leader like Mike Huckabee or a fervent believer like Mitt Romney. Just as there should be no disability or disqualification for political views that derive from religious sensibilities, whether the subject is civil rights or stem cells.
This is pretty elementary stuff. I haven't exactly invented hot water here. The very rehearsing of these arguments seems tiresome and redundant.
But apparently not in the campaign of 2008. It's two centuries since the passage of the First Amendment and our presidential candidates still cannot distinguish establishment from free exercise.