WASHINGTON — Let's keep religion out of the presidential campaign, if possible.
I say, to each his own. Let's rejoice that the founding fathers established a secular nation and that no one has to publicly defend his or her beliefs.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — put on the defensive because of his Mormon faith — recently felt compelled to explain his religion to skeptical voters.
So he tore a page out of John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign appearance before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston.
At the time, Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, had to dispel rumors that he would be taking orders from the Vatican if he won the presidency.
Kennedy assured the protestant clergy that the pope would have no place in his presidency. He won the day when he told the ministers that when his brother Joe Kennedy's plane disappeared over the English channel during World War II, no one asked what his religion was.
Last week, Romney delivered his religion speech at the George H.W. Bush Library at College Station, Texas, and pledged he would not allow any authorities of the Mormon church "exert influence" on his presidential decisions. "I will serve no one religion," he declared.
Romney is in a tough fight for the GOP presidential nomination with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Huckabee is tough on illegal immigrants — but in the past favored schooling for their children.
A conservative, Huckabee opposes abortion and, at one time, wanted to isolate HIV/AIDS patients. He also supports a federal ban on gay marriage and advocates teaching creationism alongside evolution in schools.
Romney and Huckabee are in a close race in Iowa, where voter caucuses on Jan. 3 will mark the official start of the selection process for the two presidential nominees.
Democratic senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois — both with star power — also are slugging it out in wintry Iowa. Clinton is a Methodist and Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ.
Even though many presidents in the latter half of the 20th century have described themselves as "born again," including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, a Baptist and a Presbyterian, they have never tried to proselytize or to spotlight their religion. Carter taught Sunday school in Washington and Plains, Ga., his home town, while serving as president, but he kept it low key.
These traditions changed with President Bush, who breached the wall between church and state by inviting "faith-based" programs to compete with federal social programs for government funds.
He also created an office in the White House to administer faith-based programs, including sexual abstinence education for young students. And he has given evangelicals and the Christian right a greater voice in his administration.
Rather than their religion, the candidates on the campaign trail should be pummeled with questions about the major issues facing our country, especially the war in Iraq.
First and foremost, each candidate should be asked to state a deadline for the U.S. troops to come home. They also should be quizzed about their views on preemptive war, a Bush administration policy that has put the U.S. in international disrepute and destabilized the Middle East.
The candidates also should be probed for their views about the torture and legal rights of detainees. The disgraceful denial of due process to prisoners hidden in secret prisons has brought us shame.
On the domestic side, candidates should address the burning question of universal health care, since 47 million Americans have no assured health care.
Then there is the touchy issue of taxes. Bush gave the biggest tax cut to the richest people in the country. Surely, there are some candidates who will rectify that inequity.
Let's respect everyone's religion but not let it dominate our choice for president.
c.2007 Hearst Newspapers