USA Today: Pleeeease tell us what you believe!

USA Today ran a column by George Washington U. Professor Jonathan Turley banging on the old “if you run on religion, you have to answer questions on your religion” nail. As Turley writes, “[I]t may be time to demand that, when politicians call to the faithful, they should have to answer to the faithful on their own religious practices.”

Turley spends most time applying this piece of wisdom to Mitt Romney, of course:

Yet, when one is campaigning evangelically, it is hard to maintain that the faithful flock should not question the shepherd. There is particular sensitivity over in the Romney camp. Mitt Romney is a former bishop and stake president (or head of a collection of congregations) in his church, but he has largely refused to discuss the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Romney admitted last week that his staff does not want any in-depth discussion of LDS on the campaign trail. The church remains controversial with many religious voters who view it as non-Christian and polytheistic.

Even so, Romney is actively courting the faithful, including changing his positions on key moral issues, such as gay marriage, due to personal (if belated) conversions. He has called Jesus Christ “my personal Lord and savior” and alluded to the Gideon Bible as his favorite reading, leaving Mormons and non-Mormons wondering about his faith values. If religion is the most important factor in a person’s life and directs his decisions on issues such as gay marriage, why should the electorate not learn about that faith?

This passage reveals Mr. Turley to be more interested in finding support for his tenuous point than dealing with actual facts. First of all, the sole piece of evidence that Romney is trying to appeal to religious voters is the mention of the Gideon Bible. It just so happens, though, that Romney’s only mention of the Gideon Bible is as part of a canned joke on the stump, in which he claims to use it as a somnifacient. Hardly a serious appeal for religious support. Did Turley really miss that this was a joke, or did he just need it badly enough to support his thesis to make it worth ignoring that fact?

Turley’s other basis for claiming that Romney is trying to go after religious voters is that he has flip-flopped on gay marriage. He hasn’t. There’s absolutely no evidence that Mitt Romney has ever held, or publicly taken, any position on gay marriage other than the one he presently holds. Ever since this issue has been a topic of public debate, Mitt Romney has opposed gay marriage. The basis for the flip flop charge is in Romney’s statements in earlier campaigns that he believes in equality for gay people (long before the issue of marriage was on the table). It happens that there are millions in this country who hold that exact belief but also oppose gay marriage (including myself). The idea that this is a flip flop is the result of extreme over-simplification, and is especially sloppy for a college professor. (Also laughable is Turley’s claim that non-religious voters have been “largely written off” by the current candidates. Seriously? Because it seems like Romney, et. al. have taken a few positions on secular policy issues. Or do you have to specifically address these platforms “for the benefit of my non-religious friends . . .” to reach out to the atheists?)

But this is nitpicking. Once you get past the erroneous factual assertions, you come back to the basic thesis: that Romney has played up his appeal so much to religious voters that he now has to answer to them. As I’ve said several times before, both the premise and the conclusion are suspect. First of all, Romney hasn’t done anything to use his religion as a means of drawing in voters. Every time he’s mentioned his faith, it’s been in answer to a question or in defense against an attack. Romney has nothing to gain by playing up his faith, and has wisely kept it in the background.

Second, even if he had done as Turley says he has, it doesn’t follow that suddenly his every religious belief and practice must be subject to intense scrutiny. There’s no precedent for that approach, and I can think of no general principle of democracy or political practice that supports it. The only possible basis for this contention is the writer’s desire to pin these candidates on exactly what they believe, so as to use it against them. Regardless of that parochial motivation, America gains nothing by subjecting every putatively religious candidate to in-depth belief tests.

Fortunate for American voters, the current campaign has focused largely on the important issues, with only occasional digressions to insignificant side-issues. Why intelligent people continue to call for more such digressions is a little hard to understand. Regardless, we can only hope all of the campaigns remain on their disciplined track, and continue to reject these calls for the second coming of the Spanish inquisition.