Here's the money quote from Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" speech: "There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."
Translation: "Even though I belong to the Mormon Church, I'm a Christian, just like you."
Since then -was it only three weeks ago? - Romney has switched gears, focusing on his business experience as we head into the Iowa caucuses next week and a slew of primaries. But his attempt to meet the Republican Party's "religious test of office" previews the horror show that political discourse can become when mixed with religion.
For an example, check out the December 17 Newsweek. The magazine considered it relevant, in a story about Arkansas former governor Mike Huckabee, to include a chart comparing Romney's Mormonism and Huckabee's Christian evangelism on issues of Scripture and the Trinity.
Next Republican Debate Topic: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Actually, we're already there. At last month's Republican debate, one questioner held up a Bible and asked if the candidates believed every word in it. Instead of giving the query the answer it deserved (that is, "I'm running for president, not Apostle"), the candidates pretended it was a legitimate question.
Romney felt compelled to give his speech, of course, because Huckabee, whose ads bill him as "a Christian leader," has zoomed to the top in Iowa and national polls, gaining an unprecedented 18 points in one month.
Huckabee himself has attributed the phenomenon to divine intervention. At Liberty University, he said of his meteoric rise: "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loads feed a crowd of 5,000 people and that's the only way that our campaign could be doing what it's doing."
(God apparently had a few miracles left this year because Notre Dame had a lousy season. And She must be a registered Republican to boot.)
It shouldn't matter that Mike Huckabee believes in divine intervention or what Mitt Romney believes about Jesus. What does matter - a lot - is if, and how, a candidate's sectarian religious beliefs will affect public policy if he's elected.
Romney flatly says they won't, and his four years as Massachusetts governor could serve to support that claim. Except he is running away full speed from his moderate record.
As for Huckabee, why would someone who believes God and not the voters determine elections (or at least polls) pledge to keep his personal religious beliefs separate from the presidency? And he hasn't, asserting that his faith "defines me." His tenure as governor suggests how.
While Huckabee's religious beliefs didn't stop him from getting into one ethics scrapes, it did lead him to defy federal law and deny Medicaid funding for an abortion for a mentally retarded 15-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather.
Imagine a president dealing with issues of fossil fuels who doesn't accept that they take millions of years to produce? Imagine the land use, clean air and water policies of a president who in a 1988 book equated environmentalism with pornography and drug abuse.
A Huckabee nomination is an extreme long shot, or so say those who believe money and organization, of which Huckabee has little, do matter. But the wall-to-wall Christ talk has alarmed non-Christian minorities, and clued them in to a looming threat to our Constitutionally safeguarded separation of church and state.
Most Americans do honor that separation, and they will vote that way when they get the chance. By turning the nomination into a race to be Holier than Thou, Republicans may have provided us a blessing in disguise.
Praying with the News: A prayer of thanksgiving for the New Jersey Legislature's decision to end the death penalty. May other states follow its lead. Amen. *
Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer who was a long-time member of the Daily News editorial board. E-mail her at