12/14/2007 09:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Baptists Believe....?

Having made his point in the most weasely possible way -- "I'm not saying Mormonism is a Satanic cult, just asking" -- Mike Huckabee is now trying to ease away from his "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" remark with an equally weasely apology. His evangelical base got the point, and he's hoping the rest of America will forget about it.

He's clearly gambling that people won't start asking the obvious return question: "Don't Baptists believe...?"

Even before this, critics were already pressing Huckabee over his religio-political statements, most recently his signature on a 1998 advertisement affirming the Southern Baptist Convention's statement that "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ." Yesterday Huckabee insisted that religion shouldn't be an issue in the campaign and that he hopes " my being a Baptist isn't a factor in people voting for or against me." This is what God calls "a lie."

In fact, Huckabee's religion isn't a purely personal matter, it's one of the cornerstones of his campaign. Given that he has touted his experience as a pastor as one of his qualifications for office, asking to see copies of his sermons should be a reasonable request. His little joke about giving an altar call on national television can be laughed off, but it doesn't have to be.

Huckabee's "Don't Mormon's believe..." question ratchets up the case for this line of inquiry tenfold. Now we can not only ask about things that Huckabee himself has said, but about any beliefs that Baptists hold, or are supposed to hold. Will the next debate see questions about demonology?

This might be fun, but anyone who cares about civil discourse in America should hope it doesn't happen. Media coverage of a political campaign is a terrible forum for a conversation about religion. For one thing, believers have given far more thought to these matters than 90 percent of reporters, so bringing them up only reveals the media's ignorance and exacerbates the crude battle between believers and non-believers (in the believers' favor). To take just one example, if "biblical submission" were to become an issue on the cable talk shows, you would be unlikely to learn anything about the wide variety of nuanced ways in which this teaching is actually interpreted and put into practice (or not) by today's Christians. Hostile questions by the secular media, launched in total ignorance of the complex, ongoing debate between egalitarians and complementarians, would only marginalize the former by enshrining the latter as the "true" Christians, even if the intent were to discredit them. (For egalitarian interpretations of the submission scriptures see here.)

Huckabee chose a line of attack -- I mean, questioning -- that Mormons can swat away as "false" (even if the real answer appears to be more like, "false, but..."). The questions people are asking Huckabee, however, regard incontrovertible (and in his circles uncontroversial) facts about certain strains of evangelical belief. Is it a dirty trick to highlight the actual claims of a candidate's religion? In a recent debate Huckabee said that some verses of the Bible are "obviously allegorical" while others "really aren't up to interpretation." But which are which? I'm sure HuffPo commenters can think of hundreds of specific verses they'd like to ask about.

Again, I hope this doesn't happen. But if it does, it's important to remember that the instigators will not have been the insensitive or hostile secular reporters, but Mike Huckabee and the religious right, who insisted on blending theology and public policy in ways that made these questions inevitable.