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We've Gone Too Far With Focus on Religion

By Dennis Byrne

Oh, just shut up about Mitt Romney's faith. He doesn't have to explain it to anyone.

This isn't just directed at separation-of-church-and-state radicals who take offense that a president might be a practicing person of faith. It's also directed at evangelicals and others who are weighing such questions as, "Are the Church of the Latter Days Saints" and its adherents Christian enough?

Even after Romney's speech on Thursday, in which he tried to straddle the wide gulf between the practice of his religion and the president's oath of office to faithfully enforce the nation's laws, the discussion rolled along on the same, tired theme. Would Romney's speech satisfy Iowa evangelicals who "own" the Iowa Republican caucuses? Would it please those who demand to know whether Romney's church is "truly Christian." "Did the speech," post-speech commentators wondered, "ease voters' concerns about Mormonism?"

It reminded me a woman on the street who was interviewed about the matter and agreed that Romney should give the speech because she "wanted to know more about Mormonism." You want to shout back, "Hey, this is the information age. If you want to know about that particular religion, you can find out all you want on the Internet. You don't need a presidential candidate to explain it."

Despite the constitutional prohibition of a religious test for public office, media interrogators have pressed ahead. ABC's George Stephanopoulos wanted to know if GOP candidate Mike Huckabee thinks that Mitt Romney is a Christian. NBC's Tim Russert inquires of the candidates, "[W]hat is your favorite Bible verse?" Diane Sawyer, of ABC's Good Morning, America, sees it as conflict: "Evangelicals versus Mormons" In the CNN-You Tube GOP debate, someone allowed this question in: "How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of [the Bible]. Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand. Do you believe this book?" Rudy Guiliani, Huckabee and Romney legitimized the question by providing an answer, instead of saying, "None of your business. Shut up and go away." Huckabee, more than the others, plays to this, by offering that he "unapologetically" believes in the "inerrant, infallible Scriptures."

Not helping are the U.S. Catholic bishops who impose their own kind of religious test by reminding Catholic candidates that they face eternal damnation if they don't carry out church doctrine, be it about abortion or social justice. Well, maybe Catholic officeholders do face hellfire for their positions, and clearly it's the bishops' job to instruct the faithful. But the bishops are imposing a religious test, which by extension should apply to every Catholic voter. ("If you vote for the wrong candidate, you'll burn too." Perhaps Catholics also should be able to apply a religious test to the vicars, on matters of child sex abuse by their clergy.)

We've gone too far. The Founding Fathers wanted to avoid the kinds of religious tests that plagued Europe for years. In writing religious liberty into the Constitution, the prohibition of a religious test was directed at government. Government couldn't establish a state religion or interfere with the practice of anyone's religion. But now voters themselves need to be reminded of the prohibition against selecting public officials on the basis of their religion.

This is not meant to simplify a difficult and complex issue. But it seems to me that this spate of religious tests is a over-reaction to what went before: the extreme demands for scrubbing the public square of even the slightest remnants of faith. The bigotry of secular purists has created a backlash, and, as is often the case, the backlash goes too far. The moral and religious beliefs of public officials inescapably guide them in their decision-making. It can't and shouldn't be otherwise. And voters have a right to consider what principles guide the candidates in the exercise of their office.

But to require a detailed accounting of all those beliefs to see if they conform to a particular sectarian belief goes beyond what a democracy can or should tolerate.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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