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Religion in the Presidential Race: a Troubling New Precedent

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Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s speech to the American people about his Mormonism and faith in America was an important contribution to our ongoing national dialogue regarding the appropriate role of religion in politics.

We agree there is no place in our society for bigotry and that one’s religion should never be a test for political office. We also realize that Governor Romney is fighting an unacceptable prejudice against him because of his faith and understand his need to proclaim himself a Christian.

Yet the speech was also a reminder that it has become part of our political culture for candidates to be forced into asserting their religiosity. The creeping emphasis on religion in our political culture, with some candidates openly professing their beliefs on the campaign trail — at times even hawking them — is something that should deeply concern all Americans.

Forty-seven years have passed since then-presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy found it necessary to openly declare he was “not the Catholic candidate for president” but “the Democratic Party’s candidate who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Who would have thought the same nagging questions raised about Kennedy’s fitness for office would surface again in the 2007 presidential campaign, especially after the 2000 campaign when Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut proved that an observant Jew could run for the office of vice president without his religious faith being a factor in determining the outcome.

Fast forward to the 2007 campaign, and there are more ominous signs that we haven’t quite reached the point when one’s religious beliefs are less important than his or her qualifications. It is disturbing that any candidate should feel compelled or even pressured to explain his religious views to voters. It is outrageous that a candidate should face religious bigotry and questions about his fitness for office because of his faith. And it is disconcerting that some candidates are now engaged in a dangerous game of political one-upmanship in an effort to win over the “religious vote.”

In his address, Governor Romney made four points that should resonate with every candidate and with all Americans. First, our nation has a “grand tradition” of religious tolerance and liberty.

Second, we separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason — “no religion should dictate the state, nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion.”

Third, “a person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” And finally, no president should put the doctrine of any church above “the sovereign authority of the law.”

We welcome these four points, but there was a subtext to the speech that provided some cause for concern. The speech was not truly a reaffirmation of the importance of the separation of church and state. Rather it reflected an effort we have seen in the current campaign — indeed on the part of many of the candidates — to appeal to religious voters on the basis of shared religiosity.

Unlike candidate Kennedy’s appeal to voters, candidates this year are not seeking to convince the American people that one’s religious beliefs should not be a test for office. Rather they are emphasizing that their strongly held religious beliefs are yet another reason to vote for them.

The Anti-Defamation League has previously called on Americans to judge candidates on the basis of their views on issues and their qualifications, and not the nature or depth of their religious commitment. Appealing to voters along religious lines can be divisive, contrary to the American ideal of including all in the political process, and can open the door to promises that violate the separation of government and religion.

As we said during the 2000 campaign with regard to Senator Lieberman, candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters. At the same time, however, we believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.

Anyone who legitimately aspires to the presidency of the United States must be prepared to set an example and be a leader for all Americans, of all faiths and of no faith.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.” ADL, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, neither supports nor opposes any candidate for political office.

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