Two presidential candidates each recently said something useful about the proper relation of church and state.
At the Nov. 28 YouTube Republican debate, former Arkansas Gov. (and ordained Baptist minister) Mike Huckabee gave a neat answer to a trick question. Huckabee's response was good Internet and a good campaign comeback.
On Dec. 6, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (a Mormon) gave a short address that allowed voters to learn more about his faith and goals if elected president.
Romney's speech had little of the moment of that Sept. 12, 1960, address given by John F. Kennedy to an audience of ministers. Back then, the American establishment was still hostile to Roman Catholicism. Candidate Kennedy promised he would suborn religion to the state in all public matters.
Romney did say he would "serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest." He added, antiseptically, but correctly, that "no religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion." As clear and right a church/state statement as you will get. Belief or unbelief - none rule, all free.
While some might feel such statements about faith shouldn't be necessary, they are important. When an avowedly religious person runs for president, every voter has a right to know the answer to three questions:
Which will you honor uppermost as you govern: church or country?
Will you treat all denominations alike?
Will you always decide and act on behalf of all Americans?
Correct answer: "Yes" to all of the above.
This country was created partly as a refuge from the despotisms of popes and preachers. It was designed to welcome all turns of conscience - and favor none.
If a president makes policy exclusively favoring one faith, or seeks to establish it in law - that's just wrong, a slap in the face to the founders and every American who ever lived.
Kennedy rightly envisioned a land where "no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."
In this country, a religion should be considered a special interest group. It has a right to be heard - but it must stand in line with the rest, without privilege.
True, church/state separation can be overdone. But there should be no "fix" for any specific group - this is a relationship to be managed (within the founders' limits) generation by generation.
That's where Huckabee comes in. As a conservative Christian (he refuses, for example, to recant a 1992 remark that homosexuality was a "sinful lifestyle"), he has a narrow row to tread: play up his Christian creds to conservative voters, but play them down to a wider audience. The tactic may work in Iowa.
Slippery his campaign may be - but Huckabee's response to a hectoring, Bible-waving YouTube questioner was right on target. Joseph Dearing of Texas demanded of the candidates: "Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand. Do you believe this book?"
Such tedious harangues by some Christian conservatives have become all too familiar. Bullies like Dearing act as if there should be a religious test for political candidates. They ignore that the Constitution prohibits any religious test "as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
How did candidates respond? Rudy Giuliani, occasional Catholic, called the Bible "the best book ever written." Romney said something or other.
Huckabee, however, said he believed in the Bible but did not comprehend all of it, since he saw it as "a revelation of an infinite God, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it."
In other words:
I believe - but I don't think I, or you, or anyone, has all the right answers.
That might be the most authentic thing any candidate says about religion in this (or any) political season.