Obama and Romney: No Religious Test for Office Required

I've watched with great interest as the debate has played out in the media over whether Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is electable. Ironically, he may have more in common with Barack Obama than any other presidential candidate, at least in the way his religious affiliation has become a target for political opponents.

Already, Obama has been harshly criticized for his membership in the liberal-leaning mainline Protestant United Church of Christ - full disclosure, this is my denomination. Some commentators have exhibited a racial insensitivity matched only by their religious arrogance in describing as "un-Christian" the heavy focus on African American community values in his home church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Meanwhile Romney has faced suggestions from evangelical Christians and political pundits that being Mormon makes him unelectable - a perspective only partially supported by the 29% in a recent poll who said they are unlikely to vote for a Mormon president regardless of his or her qualifications.

Recent history suggests there may be more religious intolerance on the way. The same ultraconservative Christian leaders who claim that their religious liberty is threatened in America will claim that Obama and Americans who share his generally progressive views cannot be good Christians based on their political positions. We've seen it before - with televangelists telling voters it would be sinful to vote for Bill Clinton and with several Catholic bishops joining the chorus of radical right voices attacking John Kerry's faith in the 2004 election for supporting a woman's constitutionally-guaranteed right to choose.

Democratic strategists may also be tempted to exploit religion if Romney is the Republican nominee. A new Gallup Poll shows that 46% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the Mormon religion in general.

Voters of all political persuasions need to be reminded of a core American value - your rights as a citizen, including the right to run for public office, do not depend on your religious beliefs. Our Constitution is clear that there can be no religious test for public office. But beyond the legal requirement is the ideal of religious liberty.

There is no right or wrong religion in the political arena. But there are right and wrong ways to bring religion into the public arena - using candidates' political positions to denounce their faith and using their faith to say they shouldn't be elected are wrong ways.

It's not clear how all this will shake out. Romney is actively courting Religious Right leaders, and some are speaking out on his behalf because of his newfound opposition to reproductive choice and equality for gay people. But counting on these leaders to deliver the nomination could be a big mistake.

Last summer, the Center for American Values in Public Life conducted the largest survey on religion and values in the last couple years and found that only a fraction of Americans share the narrow priorities of the Religious Right.

Most Americans won't be thinking about religious doctrine when they vote in 2008. They will be looking at character and integrity and weighing who will do more to protect our liberties and solve pressing problems like poverty and the health care crisis. Only a relative few - including a minority of white evangelicals - will consider abortion and gay marriage the paramount issues.

Faith plays an important role in public life. It motivates millions of Americans, based on their own religious traditions, to work toward a country and world that better reflect the values of peace, human dignity, and justice. But let's hope neither side tries to turn the election into a contest over which candidate has the better religion.