Nearly half a century ago, Mitt Romney’s father, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, ran for the Republican nomination for president. There were many questions about his candidacy, but almost none about his Mormon faith.
That was as it should be. Although we like to think of ourselves as more enlightened today, in 1968 there was general acceptance that religion was a private matter and that church and state were separate. That was in part because of President John F. Kennedy, who had made it clear in his 1960 campaign that his paramount loyalty was to the Constitution.
The nation seems to be going backward. Last week, Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that in his opinion, Mitt Romney was not a Christian. He compared Mormonism to Islam, a description meant to set off alarm bells.
Mr. Land added that while he might be able to accept Mr. Romney as president, he trusted Rick Santorum more. That is hard to understand, because Mr. Santorum has said he doesn’t believe church and state need to be separate — contradicting the U.S. Constitution.
There are valid grounds on which to challenge Mitt Romney’s candidacy. His religion is not one of them.
Voters, media, and his opponents have a right and a duty to question Mr. Romney’s position on any issue, and to ask whether his policies are the right prescription for America. But his personal beliefs ought to be a matter for him and his conscience. Mormons have been Democrats and Republicans, governors and senators, excellent public servants and some who were less so, as is true of politicians of every faith.
It may be regrettably necessary for Mr. Romney to do what candidate Kennedy did: deliver a major speech making clear that his faith would be no handicap to the performance of his duties as president. Mr. Romney may even wish to dissociate himself from members of his church who offend Jews and other people by inappropriately and posthumously “baptizing” victims of the Nazi Holocaust into the Mormon faith.
This nation rose to greatness in large part because the Founding Fathers insisted on free exercise of religion. They knew what they were doing. This is one tradition we need to keep.