No sooner had the Republican presidential campaign gotten into full swing than the press, campaigns, and opposing candidates were going about trying to impose religious tests on the candidates for office.
The two announced Republican candidates that in my view have the strongest chance of defeating President Obama have come in for the most scrutiny on this front. The former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, is a Mormon. And the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, is a Methodist.
Mr. Romney, who announced earlier, came in for the first round of attacks. They began with an article in Politico reporting, "Obama's reelection campaign will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama's advisers in about a dozen interviews, 'weird.'… None of the Obama advisers interviewed made any suggestion that Romney's personal qualities would be connected to his minority Mormon faith, but the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent's supporters." As if to emphasize the point, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod went on national television to announce he'd fire any staffers who called Romney weird.
Then, at the Ames Iowa Republican debate, the Washington Examiner's Byron York asked this question to candidate Herman Cain: "Mr. Cain, you recently said this about Governor Romney's Mormon faith: 'It doesn't bother me, but I do know it's an issue with a lot of Southerners.' Could you tell us what it is about Mormonism that Southerners find objectionable?"
Mr. Cain helpfully responded by saying, "it does not bother me. But…. I listen to what people say. What they basically say is that they are not real clear about how his Mormon religion relates to the majority of the people's Protestant, Christian religion in the South."
As for Gov. Perry, The Wall Street Journal greeted his entry to the campaign with an editorial declaring, "his muscular religiosity also may not play well at a time when the economy has eclipsed culture as the main voter concern." Like Herman Cain talking about Southerners, Mitt Romney, and Mormonism, the Journal editorialists themselves aren't concerned about Mr. Perry's religion, not one little bit; they're just worried about how it will "play" with voters. This from, of all places, the Journal, a business newspaper that has been running annually since 1949 an editorial about "the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free."
It may yet be that the voters reckon that the economy and the culture aren't entirely unrelated. Many religious people, after all, have found in their faiths the work ethic, respect for private property rights, and respect for the freedom of the individual against the state that are at the core of a program of economic liberty.
The religious question in presidential campaigns is hardly a new one. Reverend Jeremiah Wright's "God Damn America!" sermons became an issue against his congregant Barack Obama. Just more than 50 years before Mitt Romney, another Massachusetts politician, John F. Kennedy, had to face the Catholic issue in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries.
Our Founding Fathers saw this coming and tried to protect against it. Mr. Cain clumsily groped toward the truth of this when, in the debate, he said, "I believe in the First Amendment to the Constitution. I believe that the government does not have a right to impose religion on people."
But the First Amendment, wonderful as it is, isn't the key text here. Rather, it is Article Six—not some later amendment, but the original text of the Constitution itself. It states: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." No, ever, any. As Seth Lipsky, the author of a book about the Constitution, puts it, of all the sentences in the entire constitution, that's the one that is the most emphatic.