On December 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11 expelling "Jews, as a class" from large parts of Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee "within twenty-four hours." A few weeks later, following protests from Jewish groups, President Lincoln had this order rescinded. When Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, Ohio, met with the President on January 6, 1863, to thank him, Lincoln reportedly replied that "to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad," and that he would not allow any American to be discriminated against because of his religion.
America has two pronounced and antithetical religious traditions. The first, embodied by Republicans -- Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan -- and Democrats -- Bill Clinton, Barack Obama -- alike, is one of unifying tolerance, according to members of different faiths not just the freedom to worship but the fundamental presumption that no religion has a monopoly on authenticity or legitimacy. The second is epitomized by a narrow-minded aversion toward the other, virtually any "other."
Lincoln's generosity of spirit stands in stark contrast to Pieter Stuyvesant, the autocratic 17th-century Director-General of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, who considered Jews a "deceitful race" and urged that "such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ" not be allowed "to further infect and trouble this new colony." But then again, the Calvinist Stuyvesant was equally antagonistic toward Lutherans, "Papists," and Quakers. Fast-forward to the Ku Klux Klan with its virulent hatred of Jews and Roman Catholics; and then to Father Charles Coughlin who ranted against Jewish "Christ-killers and Christ-rejecters" on his radio broadcasts during the 1930's, and told a 1938 rally in the Bronx that, "When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing."
In this context, the unseemly polemics regarding Mitt Romney's Mormon faith take on ominous overtones.
Jews should be especially careful to eschew the disparagement of any religious group. Quite aside from the persecution and discrimination we have suffered at the hands of non-Jews over the centuries, we consistently shoot at one another in circular firing squad fashion and then bitterly bemoan our lack of unity. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, has referred to Reform Jews as "a separate people" who "should be vomited up." In turn, far too many Reform and Conservative Jews scorn the Chabad-Lubavich movement as a messianic cult.
Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress made headlines when he called the Mormon Church a "cult" and declared that "Mormonism is not Christianity." Driving the same point home even more crudely, another supporter of one of Romney's Republican rivals told a Christian radio talk show host that "juxtaposing traditional Christianity to the false God of Mormonism is very important."
Attempting to defend himself against accusations of bigotry in a Washington Post op-ed, Jeffress invoked John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, for the proposition that, "It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
Since Romney's faith has once again been injected into the national political discussion, it would behoove us to examine his personal religious values and beliefs as he himself has expressed them. "Freedom," he explained in a December 6, 2007, speech, "requires religion just as religion requires freedom.... I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith."
Romney's religiosity appears to be devoid of sectarian zealotry. "I believe," he said, "that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."
This broad-based inclusivity appears to have given a decidedly ecumenical ethos to the religious imperative that forms an integral part of Romney's political philosophy. Balancing a recognition that "the founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion," with a belief that "the Creator" should be acknowledged "in ceremony and word" in the conduct of public affairs, his blurring of the constitutional separation between religion and government seems not to have given rise to intolerance or intellectual insularity on his part. On the contrary, for Romney the values of "our religious heritage" are "not unique to any one denomination" but "belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common."
Romney does not come across in any way as mean-spirited. "We should remember that decency and civility are values, too," he told the Values Voters Summit earlier this month. While anti-abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother's life is in danger, he acknowledges that, "This is a tender and sensitive issue, and people - good people - come out on both sides of this issue. I respect people that have different views on this issue." Confronted recently for the umpteenth time with the health-care plan he had implemented in Massachusetts, he replied simply, "I care about people."
Romney's views on the economy, jobs, taxes, health-care, the preservation of Social Security and Medicare, energy policy, the US role in world affairs, and other matters of national and global import are all legitimate subjects for scrutiny and debate in this year's presidential campaign. His faith and church, however, should be off the table.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law