As much as possible, the presidential candidates should refrain from talking about their religious beliefs. Perhaps even a self-imposed ban on public avowals of religious would be wise. It's all too easy to cross the fine line between expressing faith and aggressively declaring it, and religious tolerance is, I think, inversely proportional to the latter.
Still, it doesn't appear that this is going to happen. Religious beliefs have been a big issue in presidential politics for a while now, and many of the candidates, particularly Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, have opted for different reasons to talk about theirs.
This is a two-way street, however. If religion and religious ideas are going to be more publicly discussed, candidates and their supporters will have to accustom themselves to the free expression of doctrines contrary to their own, in particular to irreligious perspectives.
Their religiosity will eventually invite questions about their beliefs and their provenance more pointed than the usual vague queries about the role of faith in their lives. Here are a few such questions that might be directed explicitly to Huckabee and Romney — and then generally to some of the other candidates.
The setting, let us pretend, is a university auditorium somewhere in the Heartland with a panel of four slightly nervous, irreligious questioners facing the candidates. You can also envisage appropriate graphics and theme music proclaiming, "Free Thinkers Debate 2008."
A moderator would note the importance of the elections on Super Tuesday and, given the evening's topic, might even mention that the name of the day, Tiw's day, is derived from Tiw, the old Norse god of heroic glory, justice and combat.
The house lights dim and the first panelist begins with a few questions for Huckabee. The answers to all the questions the reader will have to imagine.
1. Do you really believe, Mr. Huckabee, that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that humans and dinosaurs cavorted together?
2. Religious people often accuse atheists and agnostics of arrogance. Do you agree? And is it arrogant to say, as you have, that your sudden rise in the polls was an act of God and that you wish to amend the Constitution to better reflect "the word of the living God"?
3. Article 19 of the Arkansas state constitution states, "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court." Although it and similar laws in other states are not enforced, do you support their formal repeal?
The next questioner turns to Romney.
1. Why, Mr. Romney, in your speech ostensibly devoted to religious tolerance, did you not extend this tolerance to the millions of atheists and agnostics in this country, people who, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, are still held in very low regard by many religious people?
2. Do you not see an implicit religious test in your statement that "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom"? Furthermore, are not, respectively, most of Europe and some Islamic countries obvious counterexamples to your statements?