If it were possible for a politician to sue voters for religious discrimination, Mitt Romney would have an open-and-shut case against the Republican electorate. Here is a man possessing all the 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 are voting for Satan!" These attacks have nothing to do with how Romney would conduct himself as president. They're purely theological. Romney's critics are declaring they couldn't support Romney on the sole basis that they consider Mormonism un-Christian.
Unless you yearn for a Romney presidency--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 unrelated to how he would conduct himself in office, as John F. Kennedy famously did in 1960. But he hasn't done so, and, by all accounts, he won't. Instead, he is defending himself on theological grounds, trying to persuade social conservatives that Mormonism is more compatible with evangelical Protestantism than they think.
The assumption today, unlike during 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 own religiosity. Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial 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 minority religions.
The most common accusation against secularism is that it ignores the deeply religious nature of the American public. "As a prudential matter, the case for public 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 evidence of this supposedly ironclad rule being rigorously applied, or applied at all."
When Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan infused their public personas with 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 historical rule. 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 and anti-Semitism. The secularism that has 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 on the divinity of Jesus than we were 200 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.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.