There was never any question that religion would play a huge role in the electoral pageant now fully unfolding as those frozen Iowans at last begin to caucus.
After everyone saw how the well-organized voting faithful on the Right gave Bush his margin of "victory" in 2004, the Democrats vowed (and here I will paraphrase losing candidate George Wallace from 1958) never to be out-Jesused again. No Democratic candidacy that didn't feature an effective religious outreach operation could thereafter be taken seriously.
Not that it ever really went away, but religion in our politics is back with a vengeance.
So now barely a day passes without reports on whether Obama continues to receive the most donations from individual clergy members, whether Hillary actually has a vast United Methodist network to tap into, and (most entertainingly) whether Mike and Mitt can avoid turning the race for the GOP nomination into a doctrinal throwdown reminiscent of the 17th century religious wars in Europe.
As historian Charles Mathewes observes, the appropriate point of reference for understanding the politics of piety is Dwight Eisenhower's famous (and also somewhat hilarious) pronouncement that "our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief, and I don't care what it is."
For every concerned citizen who finds herself utterly horrified by God talk in politics, there are 25 others who will be vaguely reassured by such talk. These voters' theologies may be just as unformed as their political views, but they need to be reassured that their candidate is a "godly man" (and yes, for these voters it will be a man). They won't be bothered by the fact that Mitt's big speech affirming pluralism and separation was convincing on neither point: that Mitt clearly does NOT think Muslims should share in civic leadership, nor does he actually understand the founders' commitment to a secular state. (I like to say that Mitt's speech solved his Mormon problem but not his moron problem.)
So let's all get ourselves used to the reality that most voters are going to be applying private religious tests to the candidates at every point. And instead of fighting that reality, let's propose some private religious tests of our own, shall we?
Here would be my tests, coming from my own understanding of what Christianity is about:
I don't expect any of the candidates to pass my proposed tests with flying colors. I expect them all to pander for the most part. I expect them to pitch their religious appeals to the willfully ignorant. I certainly don't expect any to suggest that religiously-based values call for a different U.S. policy in relation to achieving a just resolution among Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab states. There are no Jimmy Carter Christians in this bunch.
My expectations are nil, in other words.
But I'm still allowed to live in hope, aren't I?