On Dec. 5, Mitt Romney publicly addressed his Mormonism, a personal detail that threatens to derail his entire candidacy. Before a leery host of evangelical leaders at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, the former Massachusetts governor confronted the matter of his faith head on.
"I am an American running for President," he declared. "I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith."
Suggesting John F. Kennedy, he insisted that as governor he did not "confuse the particular teachings of [his] church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution," and that he would not do so as president, either.
The speech went on to warn against eliminating religion from the civic realm. The United States, Romney said, has always been and must always be loyal to God, what the Founding Fathers liked to call the "divine 'author of liberty.'"
With the country increasingly defined by fundamentalism, the speech was meant to be a two-fold form of insurance. First, to please moderates, it emphasized Romney's devout secularism. Second, for the benefit of so-called values voters, it highlighted the social conservatism shared by Mormons and evangelicals.
For its pluck and dignity, the address has been widely applauded. Still, that it had to be delivered at all is embarrassing. Why, in the 21st Century, is a proven public leader being subjected to religious inquisition?
Granted, the Latter-day Saints observe a faith largely indecipherable to the average American. Mormon theology can seem outlandish, its doctrine outrageous. There's also the matter of institutionalized racism, which sullied the church until 1978, when it finally allowed blacks to join the priesthood.
Maybe Romney deserved a little questioning, these things considered. However, the intensity of the suspicion and slander aimed at the candidate simply because of his religion is unsettling. Last week's speech was no breezy QA session, but rather an urgent stand necessary to boost slumping poll numbers.
And still the hectoring continues. Well-known atheist writer Christopher Hitchens opined recently on Slate.com, "We do not require pious lectures[...]from [Romney], and we are still waiting for some straight answers from him."
Such know-nothing demands persist throughout mainstream America. Secular liberals and Christian conservatives alike distrust Mormons and their national icon Mitt Romney.
It's time for reasonable citizens to insist that Romney's religious privacy be respected, that his church affiliation be mostly ignored and that Mormons not be castigated for their differences.
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a colleague which contained this relevant promise: "I never will, by any word or act[...]admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others."
Those first patriots understood that modern democracy cannot survive exclusion prompted by religious difference. Were Jefferson alive today, he would surely scold his admirer Hitchens for overstepping the bounds of liberal society.
Romney's Mormon dilemma reveals a dismaying truth about our time. Over the last two decades, there has been a huge set-back in the effort to rid American politics of sectarian nonsense.
The Republican Party is very responsible for this relapse, but few are innocent. Already, the liberal blogosphere has used Romney's faith to devious ends. If he wins the GOP nod, expect Democrats to agitate anti-Mormon sentiments in clutch states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri.
Over the coming months, Romney's creed will have various partisans and pundits in attack mode.
Let the polite, sophisticated and constitutionally-minded among us harp on one of his other unattractive features. There are, after all, just so many of them.