It was 1988 presidential primary time in New York, and I was on the press bus going from Manhattan to Boro Park in Brooklyn where Al Gore was scheduled to meet Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, the Grand Rabbi of Bobov, Poland. Of course, there are no Jews in Bobov—and hardly any in Poland. But, despite the fact that the Lubavitcher and Satmar Hassidim are the most well-known sects (and the latter notorious, too), the Bobover are the largest Jewish faction in New York. Rabbi Halberstam, now deceased, was a descendant of the Ba’al Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name), 1698-1760, the founder of the entire Hassidic movement. This fact, added to the numbers loyal to the Rebbe, was reason enough for Senator Gore to be paying a visit. Thousands of black-coated men (no women) gathered outside their leader’s house, actually for quite a long time. I am sure the two men were discussing the state of the universe, Al from his point of view, Halberstam from his. It’s possible, even likely, that they agreed on much. Suddenly they emerged, and a roar went up from the crowd. The candidate said nothing. And then the Bobover Rebbe spoke ... in a whisper, without any amplification, at length. A Secret Service agent standing next to me muttered to himself, “How is this crowd supposed to hear what the rabbi has to say?” “Don’t worry,” said one of the Hassidim near us. “The rabbi speaks, his people hear.” 

Indeed, “his people” did hear. After the primary, I asked one of the grinds checking the Gore numbers how the Bobover shtetl in Brooklyn had done for my candidate. “Very well,” he answered, “very well, almost unanimous.” Al lost. Jesse Jackson came in second, demonstrating just how stupid the electorate can be. (Reverend Jackson has now been cast aside by his own followers who seem to have discovered his essential fakery. Did you know that he was elected—yes, actually elected—as honorary U.S. senator for the District of Columbia? But his followers have now moved on to the Reverend Al Sharpton who, though looking svelte, is still a big bag of racist gas.) Do you remember who won the primary? Who went on to be the Democratic nominee? Michael Dukakis, man without vision, without passion and big-time loser to smaller mind George H.W. Bush.

Anyway, I’m not really writing about 1988. I’m writing about this year’s election and the religious tussles in the Republican party where virtually every prospective nominee has a relationship with God that unsettles his opponents’ followers. The Democrats are lucky. Their winning presidential candidate, Barack Obama, who prayed with a bigoted and disloyal pastor for two decades, was given a pass by liberals for this and still is, even though some of his own views seemed uncannily close to those of the blessed reverend.

But the Republicans are my subject now. The fact is that, while Republican candidates must be “believers,” they can’t believe in the wrong beliefs. Oh, of course, they’re all Christians. But that’s where the trouble begins. Mormonism is a Christian faith. That fact is announced by its very name, its formal name: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. What could be clearer? But the differentiating Mormon narrative does not unfold in the Holy Land. It unveils itself in upstate New York and moves to Utah and the states of the Great Plains. It is from Salt Lake City where doctrine changes and emerges. It has living saints. There are not one but two Mormon aspirants for the Republican nomination. Mitt Romney is a pious Mormon and an honorable man, as was his father, Michigan governor George Romney who defected from his party’s support for the Vietnam War. The younger Romney carries the heavy baggage of having been CEO of Bain & Company (and other Bain enterprises) which saved some businesses from the graveyard, lost some businesses to the pit, triumphed as capitalism often does but was an intrinsic instrument of the market, in which the rise and fall of companies is an index of the rise and fall of individuals and whole regions of the country. Only Occupy Wall Street has an alternative to this system, and it is not serious.

Romney’s religion has been called a “cult” by Robert Jeffress, an Evangelical Baptist minister in Dallas. Romney’s faith is also that of Jon Huntsman, who was Obama’s ambassador to China, which was one of the few ambassadorships in this administration that wasn’t purchased for campaign cash. (Hillary couldn’t be expected to object to any of this since her husband made “money for embassies” a special attraction of campaign fundraising.) Huntsman, whose father is one of the 1 percent of OWS, is a learned man and seems not to be spoiled by his lush upbringing. Moreover, he was an able emissary to Beijing when it was difficult to be a stable emissary because the president clearly didn’t know how forward or how limp a stance we should take towards the most cynical regime on earth. Anyway, he has not surfaced much in the primaries. But two Mormons are a lot in a campaign like this. I’ve had many students at Harvard who are Mormons. They are honest, candid, smart, hardworking, and touched by the pain of others. That’s what I think motivates them to spend one or two years of their lives in service to others. Mr. Jeffress says that Mormonism is a cult. What religion, with its arcane narratives and miracles, saints and sinners, Satan and salvation is not a cult?

Including the Jewish one? If I’m not mistaken, the American people actually elected Senator Joe Lieberman to the vice presidency when they elected Al Gore as president in 2000. I’d bet that the sanctimonious fundamentalists blessed the Supremes for overriding the indisputable choice of the people.

The trouble with Michele Bachman, with Ron Paul, with Rick Perry, with Newt Gingrich is not with their religion. The fact is that everyone’s religion bothers me at least somewhat. Including my own, in all its different expressions. I sometimes say that I am a non-observant strictly Orthodox Jew.

Which brings me to former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, who is a Roman Catholic, a pious Roman Catholic. I would have thought that John F. Kennedy had done away with fright of the Catholics. And, for that matter, the Church, which has its own moral problems—here, there, everywhere. What with the universal sex scandal that has never been addressed candidly by the hierarchy, its authority in preaching the virtuous life on abortion, sexual matters and gay marriage, doctrine in general has been miserably undercut. Still, it’s not for me to press. Catholics will have to do that, and maybe Santorum himself has. I do not agree with much that Santorum says on other matters. (Although let me confess that on American foreign policy I find myself more in agreement with the Republicans—Paul excepting—than with the Democrats, or at least with the Democrat who is their standard-bearer.)

So Santorum said “we will always need a Jesus candidate.” What of it? It is clearly a metaphoric statement. It would be strange if a practicing Catholic, a believing Catholic, would not have the phrase and the thought close to his heart. For him, I suspect (no, I believe), a “Jesus candidate” means an ethical candidate, one who does not sully others, who does not lie, who nurtures the poor and the ill and those born to rotten lives. Yes, those born into prejudice and hatred. Of course, this is not exactly his politics. I’ve judged him separately on that. But are you certain—I am not—that those with whom we agree on health care and taxes are ethical human beings? On drones, for instance?

Which leads me to the matter of my friend Abe Foxman issuing a statement from the Anti-Defamation League criticizing Santorum for suggesting that people of faiths other than Christian are really outside the polity. Abe told The Jerusalem Post that the presidential candidate’s remarks were “totally inappropriate. It’s crossing the line. ... It says to Jews, to Muslims, to Buddhists, to non-believers, you’re not part of this country.” A pig’s ass, it does. Even David Harris, whose job it is as director of the National Jewish Democratic Council to lay it on Republicans whatever the provocation, also criticized Santorum but conceded that Foxman had gone too far.

The honest-to-God truth is that, errant and intolerant as I believe Santorum is on a whole spectrum of matters, he is absolutely correct in his views vis-à-vis Israel, the U.S. relationship to Israel and the Arab commitment to conflict. Many of us feel that the administration hasn’t the foggiest about how to negotiate the choppy waters and fiery armistice lines. A few weeks ago Foxman and Harris criticized those like myself—I assume they meant me, too—for playing partisan politics with Israel. “Partisan politics,” what? For God’s sake I campaigned in Florida for almost ten days for Obama, giving the Jews the message that my candidate should be their candidate, one reason being that I was convinced he grasped the intrinsic intricacies of the issue. I now believe he doesn’t and that, what’s more, it may be his emotions that lead him astray. But I don’t actually believe that his emotions lead him anywhere. He is committed to what he is committed, and I believe he is committed to Palestine. Palestine by hook or by crook. By hook and by crook. However much Israel is endangered.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.