I suggested the other day that I think it’s stupid and misguided to treat criticism of religious ideas and doctrines—even harsh, sarcastic, mocking criticism—as a form of “bigotry” akin to racism. I think Atrios nailed this pretty well last week, and even before I read his captivating and deft The Elementary Particles, I had a soft spot for Michel Houellebeq for this:
France’s most controversial writer, Michel Houellebecq, appeared in court in Paris yesterday to defend his right to call Islam a “stupid” religion. [...] Yesterday he was asked whether or not he still thought Muslims were stupid. “I didn’t say that,” he said. “I said they practise a stupid religion.” Asked if he was racist against Islam, he answered: “You can’t be racist against Islam.”
But this cuts both ways. So I have to disagree with Andrew Sullivan when he regards as “bigotry”—or perhaps even a “religious test”—Mitt Romney’s recent comment, in response to an anti-Mormon heckler, that “We need to have a person of faith lead the country.”
First, at the risk of stating the obvious, the kind of “religious test” barred by the Constitution is any institutional requirement of faith for holders of public office; it doesn’t mean that candidates or others can’t suggest that voters should take faith into account (as polls show many do). There are surely plenty of reasons to hope this doesn’t become a more prominent theme in American political rhetoric. Nevertheless, there’s a huge qualitative difference between suggesting that a president ought to have a certain kind of belief system and suggesting that, say, the president must be of a particular race.
A few years back, I wrote a piece for Reason looking into why voters care about candidates’ faith. And one major factor surely is a kind of pure tribalism that might well deserve the epithet “bigoted.” But polls suggest that even secularists often prefer a little religiosity from their elected officials. Among some of the reasons I consider, aside from the obvious places where people might take faith as a proxy for certain policy positions: Given how powerful the presidents are, and how much leeway they often have to use that power secretly, some people might take solace in the thought that their leaders regard themselves as accountable to an omniscient judge as well as the verdict of the ballot box. I think this is misguided—there’s little reason to suspect that the religious are in general more moral than the secular—but it’s not the type of consideration that’s inherently suspect.