THE Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem once remarked that in the Jewish hamlets of his native Ukraine there were only two people who really were serious about God. One was the local rabbi and the other was the village atheist.
These days, American public life often seems awash in cheap piety and religious sentiment -- things quite distinct from genuine conviction. Reading our political journalism and commentary, it's often easy to forget that we remain the most religious people in the developed world because, whatever our ostensible faith, most of us share a broad understanding about the conduct of our public life. In other words, we all get along fairly well because most people behave pretty much like the residents of Aleichem's shtetl, neither aflame with religious certainty nor insistent on unbelief.
This tacit arrangement is a deep expression of social sanity and makes possible not only the separation of church and state in a nation where faith flourishes, but also the unparalleled flowering of every sort of religious institution -- devotional, educational and charitable -- that is one of American culture's unique achievements.
Increasingly, though, this sensible accommodation is being undermined. It began with the demands by social conservatives -- mainly evangelical Protestants and right-wing Catholics -- that candidates for office and public officials make ritual obeisance to expressions of religious faith and conform themselves to a checklist of approved positions on issues ranging from abortion to capital punishment. More recently, there were attempts to pillory freshman congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the House, because he wanted to swear his oath of office on the Koran instead of the Bible. One of those involved, Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), went so far as to say, "I'm for restricting immigration so that we don't have a majority of Muslims elected to the United States House of Representatives." (It's hard to say what steps we could take to prevent the election of idiots from Virginia.)
Still, it's been nearly half a century since our political journalism has witnessed anything quite as breathtakingly noxious and offensive as the current attempt to discredit Mitt Romney, a potential Republican presidential candidate, because the Massachusetts governor is a Mormon.
A few weeks ago, Jacob Weisberg, editor of the influential online journal Slate, posted a piece that began, "Someone who refuses to consider voting for a woman as president is rightly deemed a sexist. Someone who'd never vote for a black person is a racist. But are you a religious bigot if you wouldn't cast a ballot for a believing Mormon?" According to Weisberg, no. "If he gets anywhere in the primaries, Romney's religion will become an issue with moderate and secular voters -- and rightly so. Objecting to someone because of his religious beliefs is not the same thing as prejudice based on religious heritage, race or gender. Not applying a religious test for public office means that people of all faiths are allowed to run -- not that views about God, creation and the moral order are inadmissible for political debate.... Nor is it chauvinistic to say that certain religious views are deal-breakers in and of themselves
Worse, Romney "has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine." Thank God Weisberg's antipathy to Romney isn't based on religious bigotry.
Meanwhile, the current issue of the generally liberal New Republic has a cover piece by Damon Linker, a commentator on religious affairs, arguing that any believing Mormon is unsuitable for the presidency because he would be obliged to take orders from the president of the Mormon Church. There's a lot of back and forth about the political implications of Mormon theology the author claims to have "teased" from church doctrine in a series of hypothetical propositions. If you somehow feel you've heard all this before, it's because you have; these were the arguments anti-Catholic bigots used against Al Smith and John Kennedy, something Linker acknowledges in this rather breathtaking fashion:
"The focus on Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960 ... is today widely derided as a shameful expression of anti-Catholic prejudice that ought never to be repeated. This is unfortunate.... The political history of pre-Vatican II Catholicism with its overt hostility to modernity, democracy, liberalism and religious 'error,' as well as its emphasis on the absolute authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals -- raised perfectly legitimate questions and concerns about what it would mean for the United States to elect a Catholic to the nation's highest office."
As the former editor of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, Linker knows better than this and when he, like Weisberg, demands that Romney essentially renounce his Mormon faith as the price of entry to office, the only sensible reaction is revulsion and disgust. Why no similar demand of the Democratic majority leader of the Senate, Nevada's Harry Reid, who also is a Mormon?
Romney comes from a political family. His father, George, was a liberal Republican, a supporter of civil rights and an opponent of the war in Vietnam. When Mitt Romney, a one-time independent, ran as a Republican against Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, he was pro-choice and opposed discrimination against homosexuals by the Boy Scouts. Since then, his adherence to the values of so-called social conservatism has increased along with his national political ambitions.
Every bit of that record is fair game for inquiry and commentary. His private religious conscience, whoever he chooses frame it, is not.
Arguing that faith is properly a private matter does not diminish the importance of religious conviction. To the contrary, it wasn't all that long ago that we generally agreed that the things that mattered most in life -- love, the formation of conscience, family life, for example -- were essentially private matters. Only recently have they come to be treated as routinely public, and that treatment has made our public life that much coarser, our politics meaner and our culture more vulgar.
Religious belief is a matter of conscience and if there is no privacy of conscience there is no separation of church and state, a principle both Slate and the New Republic claim to defend. Do the editors of those journals really want to take us back to the 1960s, when as many as one American in four said they never would vote for a Catholic or a Jew for president?
What both journals are doing is playing with social fire for the sake of narrow partisan advantage, hoping to knock a potentially attractive conservative candidate out of the running in much the same way that some Republican commentators desperately attempted to prod some Catholic bishop somewhere into denying Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry communion because he's pro-choice.
That effort didn't succeed and this one probably won't either because an instinctively tolerant American people understands the difference between legitimate journalistic inquiry and an inquisition.