Atheists are the only people who appear to have been offended by Mitt Romney's speech about his Mormon faith. Judging by the reaction contained in some newspaper columns, editorials and letters to the editor, atheists are said to have felt "excluded" by Romney's failure to acknowledge that tolerance of the anti-religious is part of America's tradition.
Most everyone else thought it a good speech and that Romney had the correct view of the proper roles of church and state while refusing to compromise his personal convictions.
What no one mentioned (so I will) is the curious practice by a substantial number of voters who require our presidential candidates to acknowledge faith in God. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits a "religious test" for office, but that hasn't stopped many, especially in Iowa, from requiring statements of evangelical faith before deciding for whom to vote.
Does one expect to know the spiritual bona fides of an individual, other than pastor or religious worker, for any other job?
In the 1970s, a curiosity called the "Christian Yellow Pages" made the rounds of churches and certain businesses run by evangelicals. It contained names of professions one finds in the regular Yellow Pages - plumbers, taxi drivers, auto mechanics, dry cleaners - except these were owned and operated by certified, God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians. The clear implication was that businesses found in the Christian Yellow Pages would do a better job at a better price than the presumed "heathen" who advertised in the bigger yellow book.
I never saw any data that proved a connection between faith in Jesus and the ability to repair a car at a reasonable cost, so I usually went with the shop that did the best job at the lowest price and didn't bother to ask if the repairman went to church.
Voters who require statements of faith from presidential candidates risk disappointment. Many evangelicals who voted for Jimmy Carter regretted having done so when they saw his post-election policies and what they regarded as his incompetence as president. Bill Clinton could quote Scripture, but not many would hold him up as an evangelical icon, given his roving eye and impeachment for lying under oath.
Much of this fixation on audible faith has to do with evangelicals having been ignored by culture following the embarrassment associated with the Scopes Trial 82 years ago. Emerging from their political catacombs in the late 1970s, these Christians basked, if not in new respect, then in the intoxication that comes with public attention. They were told they were now players in the kingdom of this world and in presidential politics. Their leaders were invited into the corridors of political power. They exchanged real power and its ability to transform lives for temporal power, which changes little of lasting importance.
While requiring politicians to express belief in Jesus and the Bible, many evangelical voters ignore Christ's statements about the source of genuine power. They also conveniently forget what Christ said about how they would be regarded and treated by a world that had rejected Him (and still does as the best-selling atheistic works of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins attest). It was Jesus, in whom Mitt Romney said he believed, who warned, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first" (John 15:18) and "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:20). Those warnings are not the creed of contemporary evangelicals who think persecution is a negative newspaper editorial or a disparaging remark by a skeptic on a cable TV show. Too many contemporary evangelicals want the blessing without obeying their real commander in chief, who said doing things His way would bring real persecution.
This election should be more about competence and less about ideology, or even faith. It shouldn't matter where - or if - a candidate goes to church, but whether he (or she) can run the country well, according to the principles in which the voter believes. And, if those principles include a person of faith, so much the better. God can be the ultimate check and balance on earthly power.
If a car hits me, I care more about whether the ambulance driver knows the way to the nearest hospital and the skills of the emergency room doctor than where they stand with God. That's the attitude we should have toward those who desire to be president of the United States in a fallen world.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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