This one really is a slippery slope. Once you have accepted that large numbers of people voted for W solely on the basis of his evangelical protestantism, then how can you argue against people voting against him or anyone else on similar, purely sectarian grounds? Ross is right that the constitutional issue is separate: there’s no legal bar on someone of any faith from becoming president. But there is a growing social consensus that religion matters in politics. The theocons have helped bring this about; the Christianists have pioneered it; the Catholic hierarchy in Rome is abetting it. Once public policy issues become religious and doctrinal issues, all this is on the table. But it is a dangerous and divisive world we are creating. It would be ironic if Romney, the theocon candidate for 2008, were a primary victim. Stupid poetic justice, as Homer would say. ~Andrew Sullivan

Mr. Sullivan’s riposte doesn’t really have much zing, does it? Oh, there are the usual shots at Christianists (has anyone ever met a Christianist? do they really subscribe to Christianism?) and the Catholic hierarchy (never one of Sullivan’s favourites), but in the end he comes at us with the dire warning: someday someone might vote against a religious candidate because of his religion! Now that is frightening. Except that it already happened in 1928, and this has already happened in 2000 and 2004–surely there were more than a few who voted against Mr. Bush because of his religion. Today we might look down on this opposition to Al Smith, and Catholics will presumably remember it with hard feelings, but there is nothing necessarily scandalous about such opposition unless you consider strong religious belief and confessional identity to be scandals. Mr. Sullivan evidently does find both to be a bit troubling.

But, he warns us, there is a growing social consensus that “religion matters in politics”! This is shocking news! As long as there are religious people in a community, religion will in some way or other “matter” in politics. Especially since European liberals spent the better part of the 19th century trying to drive religion out of politics, religion has continued to matter in politics even in those societies that are not very religious. In America, religion has mattered in politics in a big way ever since we became a multiconfessional society.

Like it or not, every major religion plays a significant role in shaping the “visions of order” people have for their societies, and this is true for religious people on the left and the right. Consequently, whether or not someone is religious, and the manner in which he is religious, will affect his politics in one way or another, and people will respond to a man’s religion according to their own commitments. What bothers Sullivan about the “Christianists” and “theocons” is that they make their references to their religious identity explicit and central to their understanding of political life and do not cloak them under vague phrases of “social justice” and “human rights,” which are the acceptable vehicles for religiously-inspired political action from the other side of the spectrum.

We have been treated to a number of these stories of the “ironies” of religious conservatism getting religion back into public discourse, most of which have centered around Wheaton College and Baylor University of late. Now comes Mitt Romney, who is allegedly the “theocon candidate for 2008″ (on the basis of what exactly?), whose likely defeat in GOP primaries thanks to evangelical opposition is supposed to be “ironic.” Honestly, I don’t see irony here. When evangelicals have talked about the importance of religion in public life, they have been talking first and foremost about their religion, and various Catholic intellectuals have been similarly forthright that the vision of religion in the public square that they are advocated is, well, their own religion. It is not generic Religion, the subject of anthropological study, but a living tradition in which these people are more or less actively participating, so there is no surprise or irony in Romney’s Mormonism hindering his chances in a largely non-Mormon country. What we are supposed to find surprising about this story is that a Mormon, who considers himself to be a Christian, gets no credit for being enough of a Christian in the eyes of his critics, when this was entirely predictable and would have happened long before anyone had ever heard of Christianists or theocons. This is not something that has just appeared on the scene, though it may be more conspicuous in some ways today, but has been present in American attitudes towards Mormons since the beginning of the Church of LDS.

Then Sullivan warns us about the “dangerous and divisive world we are creating.” I’m sorry, but has Sullivan read any history lately? The world is always dangerous and divided, and there is always a danger that our finest aspirations can lead to the slaughter of innocents. Ask the true believing democratists. Compared to the fruits of that crowd, choosing not to vote for a Mormon because of his church affiliation seems pretty benign. At bottom, Sullivan’s anxiety is rooted in the irrational fear and prejudice that strong religious belief must eventually entail pogroms and violence. It simply isn’t so, and often enough such eruptions of violence may often reflect a deficient embrace of the religious tradition in question. Take the hollowness and shallowness of Protestant Christianity in 20th century Germany, for example, for an example of just this sort of anemic faith.

It is part of the predicament of fallen man that any faith, any idea, any form of identity, any loyalty we have can be twisted or perverted into some destructive deformation of itself or can be in itself twisted and perverted because of the darkened mind of man. It is incumbent on those who are committed to the best in their religion to not let these distortions and confusions take hold. The answer is not to pretend that we do not differ strongly on matters of faith and doctrine. Suppressed and forced under the surface, these differences will only return later with a vengeance after having been artifically denied for so long.

If we want to preserve some measure of civility in all this, there should be candour and decorum whenever debating or confronting religious differences that can be, but do not have to be, potentially explosive. But spare us a treacly, artificial sense of unity that ignores one of the most fundamental drives in human culture for the sake of avoiding “divisiveness.” Would we find it scandalous that someone who is pro-life refuses to vote for a candidate because the candidate is pro-choice? Clearly not. We see nothing amiss in voting according to “values.” How much less should we find it scandalous if a person refuses to vote for a candidate when he is confronted with a candidate who does not accept the same truths about revelation, when arguably these are as important, if not more important than questions of “values”? That importance of doctrine is what Sullivan does not want to admit, or cannot admit. In this he is hardly alone. Most liberal doctrines of tolerance assume that differences between religions are mere differences of “opinion,” none of which has any superior claim to truth (if any are granted real claims to truth at all).