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All presidents need to separate faith, politics

To the many people, both domestic and foreign, who are asking Mitt Romney to do as John F. Kennedy once did and make a speech explaining why his religion is not a threat to our cherished American way of life, I suggest that Romney respond by pointing to his Republican opponents and uttering two words, "You first."

Romney, of course, is a Mormon while JFK was a Catholic, but if the question is whether a candidate's religion should be of concern to the American people, the candidates who should respond are those who repeatedly assert that faith, not ideology, is what drives them and even leads them to question evolution.

Such a candidate is Mike Huckabee, the affable former governor of Arkansas and, more to the point, an ordained Baptist minister. He raised his hand in the negative last May when all the GOP presidential candidates were asked if they believed in the theory of evolution.

In doing so, Huckabee failed a religious test for the presidency established inadvertently by George W. Bush. Back before Bush, it was considered narrow-minded and, worst of all, elitist, to judge a person by the intensity of his religious convictions. Belief was not supposed to matter and so it was impermissible to conclude anything about a person even if they thought Darwin was wrong or, more recently, that homosexuals chose their sexual orientation presumably just to irritate the Christian right. Religion was irrelevant. Everyone said so - and I agreed.

Bush changed that. He infused government with religion, everything from ineffective programs that promote sexual abstinence to an adamant refusal to authorize most embryonic stem cell research. The administration even erected barriers to the marketing of the Plan B morning-after pill. All these measures ran up against obstacles that were essentially religious, not strictly scientific, in nature.

Even the war in Iraq had an undeniably religious cast to it. It's not just that Bush told Bob Woodward that it was not his own father - George H.W. Bush - to whom he looked for strength, but "a higher father," it's also that the president consistently aligns himself on the side of God in matters distinctly secular, such as his crusade for democracy. "I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom," the president has said. Maybe so, maybe not, but that's not a sound basis for a foreign policy.

Now we have Huckabee talking in a similar manner. A fair reading of the Huckabee literature - his Web site, interviews, etc. - shows a similar religious inclination, and while on "The Charlie Rose Show" or something similar, he can have moments of secular lucidity, his Web site forthrightly declares that he does not distinguish between his faith and his politics. "I don't separate my faith from my personal and professional lives," he says.

But a president should do exactly that. When Huckabee says he favors the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools, he's taking a distinctly religious position. It has no basis in science. And when any issue, any question, becomes a matter of faith, it means it cannot be argued. That's not what we do in a democracy. We argue about everything. (This column is my modest contribution.)

If anything, Romney is the anti-Huckabee. There is not the slightest hint that his religion has constrained his politics in any way. You name the issue and he's been both for it and against it - gun control, abortion, gay rights. Call this what you may, it is proof that Romney is not enslaved by any dogma. His religion, to which he is both serious and committed, is distinctly his business and would not, as far I can tell, have any bearing on his presidency.

At the moment, Huckabee appears to be coming on strong in Iowa. This is not as surprising as it might sound because, back in 1988, the Rev. Pat Robertson came in second (to Bob Dole) and, of course, proceeded to nowhere. This is likely to happen to Huckabee, too. But this year the race is more wide open, there's no dominant front-runner and Huckabee is proving to be a swell campaigner. If he wins Iowa, there's no telling what could happen.

So I call on Mike Huckabee to give the speech that others have urged from Romney. Tell us how your religious beliefs, your rejection of accepted scientific knowledge, will not impinge on your presidency. We know your faith matters to you. We want to know if it will matter to us.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Richard Cohen at cohenr@washpost.com.