05/24/2012 02:07 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Divide

In his latest attempt to appeal to evangelical voters, Mitt Romney missed an opportunity to remind his audience of the true meaning of religious pluralism in America.

Romney spoke at commencement ceremonies at Liberty University, the school that describes itself as, "the largest Christian university in the world." In describing how people of "different faiths" can find common ground, Romney declared, "we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. The best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God's love into every life..."

Sadly, Romney's "best case" served only to exacerbate our national religious divide. By limiting his praise to "Christian men and women," Romney ignored just how many "different faiths" there are today. In fact, elsewhere in his speech, Romney stated, "there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action."

It would not have been difficult for Romney to use his speech to create a far more universal message, to say that the real "best case" for meeting in service is the millions of Americans who follow the directive, taught by all religious faiths and by the moral teachings of secular thinkers as well, to love one's neighbor as oneself.

How much better it would have been had Romney followed the example set by our first president, who used religion as a force for uniting the country. Throughout his presidency, George Washington frequently was asked to publicly acknowledge the supremacy of Protestant Christianity. In every case, with considerable grace and subtlety, Washington refused.

On October 28, 1789, the Presbytery of the Eastward, consisting of ministers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, wrote to Washington to complain that the Constitution lacked any Christian reference: "[W]e should not have been alone in rejoicing to have seen some Explicit acknowledgement of the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent inserted some where in the Magna Carta of our country."

Washington defended the Constitution's absence of Christian language by stating that religion did not need governmental assistance: "[Y]ou will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna Carta of our country." He then advised the clergy that, "It will be your care to instruct the ignorant, and to reclaim the devious -- and, in the progress of morality and science, to which our government will give every furtherance, we may confidently expect the advancement of true religion, and the completion of our happiness." Note that the syntax of his last sentence indicates the limited role he saw for government in matters of religion. Government, he wrote, is not responsible for furthering the advancement of religion but will give "every furtherance" to the "the progress of morality and science." It is through these secular pursuits that religion will be strengthened.

During Washington's last week in office, Ashbel Green, the Senate chaplain, sent a letter on behalf of himself and several local clergymen to Washington, with the purpose, Green later said, of giving Washington, "a full and fair opportunity" to publicly "recognise his Christian faith and character." At a meeting on March 3, 1797, his last full day as President, Washington responded to their message. He presented the clergy with a letter that, while acknowledging the importance of religion and morality, avoided any mention of Christianity and focused on his concept of religious inclusion. Washington stated that, in his opinion, "Religion and Morality are the essential pillars of civil society." But Washington did not single out any religion or denomination for special praise. Rather, he emphasized the need for all religions to work together. He told his audience that he viewed, "with unspeakable pleasure, that harmony and brotherly love which characterize the clergy of different denominations... exhibiting to the world a new and interesting spectacle, at once the pride of our country and the surest basis of universal harmony."

According to Thomas Jefferson, Green bemoaned that while the clergy had written their letter to induce Washington, "to declare publicly, whether he was a Christian or not ... the old fox was too cunning for them."

The country would greatly benefit from that type of cunning today. There is always a temptation to appeal to the sectarian interests of one's audience. America's leaders must resist that temptation and teach that people of all faiths, and those of no faith at all, are equally valued and respected.