Are You Running With Me, Jesus?

12/10/2007 03:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many right-wing Christians are suspicious of Mormonism, as they are of every religion besides their own, and as a result Mitt Romney was forced to hold a press conference in which he affirmed his belief that Jesus is the "Son of God and Savior of mankind." The speech won him a fair share of praise, most of it bordering on cynical, since everyone knows what the speech really meant: America has reached the point where a sizable religious faction must be appeased by Republican candidates and feared by Democratic ones. Both sides have become resigned to a situation that flouts the Constitution and seriously undermines democracy itself. No single party is responsible for this distressing state of affairs. It required a gradual shift away from the old custom, by which Presidents went to church but kept details of their faith private, to the new custom, by which candidates openly boast about their personal allegiance to God. A bestselling book of poetry from a few decades ago, "Are You Running With Me, Jesus?", has acquired a new rancid meaning.

The religious right has successfully laid a trap, making it impossible for a candidate to win who is a conscientious doubter or non-believer. Insisting on the right to privacy in religious matters means certain political death. As a few commentators pointed out, Gov. Romney did not allow room in his avowal of faith for atheists, agnostics, seekers, and those who are religious but not Christian. In private he accepts such people, of course, as do all the candidates, I'm sure, except for the religious ideologues. But how do we dispose of the ideologues now that they are entrenched? Why are they given respect in the first place? When Romney asserted that freedom requires religion and religion requires freedom, he wasn't uttering a truth. He was masking prejudice with a cliche. In no way does freedom require religion. But no candidate from either party has stood up to point this out. Everyone knows the ploy by now: Anyone who runs for President must equate God and nationalism. If you leave the God part out, you are branded as not being a patriot.

In all fairness, no candidates from the past ever acknowledged the atheist and agnostic vote. Belief in God is a mainstream value in America and every other country. The ideologues have ridden in on the back of this mainstream value, however, and turned it into a "faith-based" agenda, which includes not just opposition to stem-cell research and evolution but tying foreign aid to the teaching of abstinence overseas (is the average citizen aware that the Bush administration refuses to support any AIDS program that advocates the use of condoms?) and funneling money to education programs that are slanted toward fundamentalist churches.

It hasn't gotten to the point where a majority of Americans demand piety and confessions of faith from their candidates, yet we are told by pollsters that more than 30% of Americans consider themselves born again, and that in the Iowa primary, 50% of Republican caucus attendees are religious conservatives. It's said that the tide is turning, however. A younger generation is not as rigidly tied to the social agenda of right-wing fundamentalism. That gives hope in some small measure. Yet the equating of God and patriotism was deeply wrong to begin with, and it's had the unspoken effect of driving out talented candidates who can't stomach the prevailing ethos of hypocrisy. For the time being every candidate will seem to run with Jesus, whatever they actually believe in private.