Mitt Romney's emergence as the early front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, along with Jon Huntsman's recent entry in the race, makes certain that the 2012 campaign will continue the trend of carefully weighing candidates' religious beliefs.
Both men will be scrutinized because of their affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, in Romney's case, because he has made religion a cornerstone of his campaigns. When he sought the presidency four years ago, Romney famously said, "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."
But even without the focus on the two Mormon hopefuls, the need for national candidates to establish religious credentials is growing. With each election cycle, it is becoming increasingly important for politicians to pledge their faith in faith.
Basically, we're entitled to know everything about candidates for high office, right down to whether Coca-Cola is their preferred soft drink, as Tim Pawlenty confirmed recently; whether they have a valid birth certificate, and whether they've circulated lewd photos of themselves on Twitter.
Religious views are worth examining, we're told, insofar as they might influence a candidate's decisions. But is that relevant? Let's say candidate A favors a woman's right to chose an abortion, while candidate B states that abortion violates his religious principles. Does it matter where the position originates?
A position is a position, regardless of how it's formed. However, yielding to pressure from religious organizations is something different, and certainly cause for concern.
Evaluating Huntsman's candidacy, Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank in Utah, wrote, I, like many Americans, care that our nation's highest leader is a person of faith. It matters to me because it becomes a point of commonality and a measuring stick for me as to how I might better understand that person's politics and policies.
That's where the religious litmus test comes in. Many of the declared or potential candidates appeared in Washington earlier this month at a "strategy briefing" sponsored by the Faith & Freedom Coalition, an organization headed by Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition. They gathered to state their support of the group's positions on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Back in 2008, as the campaign heated up, candidates appeared in a televised religious examination conducted by Rev. Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life." Among Warren's questions to Barack Obama and John McCain: What does it mean to you to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
Both men were guarded but answered dutifully. One wonders, however, if the reply, I'm not a follower, would have meant instant disqualification, especially among Republicans, where Christianity has the strongest grip.
In the last three presidential elections, voters who identified themselves as "Protestant" or other "Christian," voted overwhelmingly for the Republican. Jews voted by large margins for the Democrat, as did those who said they were unaffiliated with any organized religion.
In a Quinnipiac poll, only 45 percent of Republicans surveyed said they had a favorable opinion of the Mormon Church. That would seem to present a major problem for both Huntsman and Romney.
Romney spoke of the matter at great length in his campaign four years ago. There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines, he said. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith.
Yet, Romney's insistence that freedom requires religion, diffused his argument, particularly for those who have witnessed the religious-cloaked turmoil in many parts of the world, as well as among those with no religious beliefs.
Those worried about the increasing role of religion in politics should take note of the plan by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a possible Republican presidential candidate, to conduct a day of prayer on Aug. 6, with a strictly evangelical Christian theme. Perry says he's seeking spiritual solutions to the nation's problems.
Many politicians pay lip service to separation of church and state, while kowtowing to powerful religious groups and bending over to answer questions about religion that really should have no part in the election process.
"It is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in." So said John F. Kennedy, as he sought to become the nation's first Catholic president.
Clearly, JFK would not have imagined, nor favored, the intense role that religion plays in presidential politics some five decades later.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker, and also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.