The religious issue

In September of 1928, Alfred E. Smith, then-governor of New York and the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party, gave a campaign speech in Oklahoma City. He was responding to attacks that had been made on him because of his Catholicism. Dragging the question of religion into a national campaign, he said, was "something that according to our Constitution, our history and our traditions has no part in any campaign for elective public office."

The United States Constitution states in Article VI, paragraph 3 that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." This was a departure from British practice, which imposed such a religious test that excluded Catholics and others from holding public office or even practicing law or going to university at the time of the American Revolution.

Al Smith declared, "I here emphatically declare that I do not wish any member of my faith in any part of the United States to vote for me on any religious grounds. I want them to vote for me only when in their hearts and consciences they become convinced that my election will promote the best interests of our country."

"By the same token, I cannot refrain from saying that any person who voted against me simply because of my religion is not, to my way of thinking, a good citizen."

Al Smith lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover, in part because of the anti-Catholicism that had been fomented by the Ku Klux Klan and other more respectable organizations, but also because he was a "wet " against Prohibition, an inveterate city guy of immigrant stock in an age of nativist reaction in the countryside. Al Smith commented, "The time hasn't come when a man can say his beads in the White House." It took Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy to finally break that stained-glass ceiling in the election of 1960.

I think of this history of religious intolerance because the same issue is presently facing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in his run for the presidency. Romney was recently attacked by a Texas Baptist pastor, who said, "Those of us who are evangelicals have every right to prefer and support a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian." Romney said in a recent Republican debate that it was "repugnant that we should choose people based on their religion." Judge for yourself, but I think Al Smith and Mitt Romney have it right.

Of course, I'm a Catholic, not a Mormon. On matters of faith, I think we Catholics have it right, as I'm sure the Mormons think that they have it right. That is what it means to have a different religion. Not that it matters, when it comes to electing a president. Our tradition of the separation of Church and state, and respect for people's free exercise of religion, mean that in the United States religion is irrelevant to one's standing in the political community. (Obviously, matters of faith do matter when it comes to leadership, or even membership, in our faith community; but we are electing a president, not a pope.)

The Mormons I have known, and there have been many over the years, have invariably been good neighbors, students, colleagues and citizens, people with strong families. They work hard at being friendly, virtuous and helpful and it shows; would that I could say the same of all my fellow Catholics, particularly those who are in public life.

Whether Mitt Romney would make a good president is a matter over which people of good will can and do differ, based on many factors. The fact that he is a Mormon should not be one of them. It is disgraceful that Maureen Dowd of the New York Times thinks it should: As she wrote in her column of Oct. 18, after quoting Bill Maher and other Mormon-hating atheists like Christopher Hitchens, "Republicans are the ones who have made faith part of the presidential test. Now we'll see if Mitt can pass it."

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.