Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- There are reasons to question the choice of the commander of the Alaska National Guard as a prospective commander in chief (though there were equally serious reasons to doubt the military qualifications of another backwoods candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who served for a few months as private and captain in the Black Hawk War).

But instead of engaging this issue, liberals have been drawn, helpless and mesmerized -- like beetles to the vivid, blue paradise of the bug zapper -- toward criticizing Sarah Palin's religion. Palin's former Pentecostal church is called a "shout-and-holler tabernacle." Reporters press Palin's former pastor to reveal if she has ever spoken in tongues, the way it was once asked if candidates had ever used drugs. Palin's beliefs are compared to Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- though it turns out that she was caught on tape requesting prayers for the success of her country instead of railing against it. In that sense, Palin sounds most like President Franklin Roosevelt, who prayed on D-Day that, "by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph."

And, of course, Palin is portrayed as a "theocrat" -- a Muslim fundamentalist in lipstick. She has a "right to her religious beliefs" in precisely the same sense that one has a right to believe the moon is made of Muenster, but she must not be allowed to "impose" such beliefs on others.

There are serious responses to such silliness. If religious beliefs about the dignity of human life were illegitimate as a basis for public policy, there would have been no abolition or civil rights movements. The idea of a divine image found in every human person is one of the main foundations for the American tradition of liberty, tolerance and pluralism. Religious duty motivates millions to love and serve their neighbors -- and thus to respect their neighbor's rights of conscience.

But it is the political effect of these attacks that must have team McCain shouting and hollering with the joy of a frontier camp meeting. In general, liberal political and media elites demonstrate a religious diversity that runs the spectrum from secularism to liberal Episcopalianism -- all the varied shades from violet to blue. Yet they assume their high church or Mencken-like disdain for religious enthusiasm is broadly shared. It was the sociologist Peter Berger who observed, "Puerto Ricans, Jews and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population. Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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