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One hundred and twenty-three years ago, a presidential election may well have been decided by a matter of religion. On the eve of the close 1884 race between Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York and Republican standard-bearer James G. Blaine of Maine, a Presbyterian minister named Rev. Samuel Burchard earned infamy by characterizing the Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism and rebellion" in a speech given in Blaine's presence.
Everybody - including Blaine, who failed to rebuke the clergyman - knew what he was talking about. What Burchard meant was that he saw the Dems of his day as a party of drunken immigrants (an insult aimed at Irish-Americans), Roman Catholics and ex-Confederates.
The slur had the unintended consequence of enraging immigrants and Catholics, and causing them to turn out to vote. Most contemporary observers believed that it provided the margin of victory for Cleveland in New York and handed the Democrats their first presidential win since before the Civil War.
Ever since then, the dour shade of Rev. Burchard has hung over any campaign that consciously seeks to invoke religious prejudice for gain.
The moral of the story is that no matter how deeply ingrained such biases might be in the body politic, ours is too diverse a democracy for such a scheme to ultimately succeed.
Yet, with the Iowa caucus only a couple of weeks away, the question is whether Mike Huckabee, Southern Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, is aware of this chapter of history. If so, it would seem that he is bent on, if not erasing it from our political primers, at least providing a new interpretation.
Huckabee, who possesses a personality widely hailed as being as charming as the previous "man from Hope" (fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton), has emerged in recent months as a serious contender for the Republican nomination. He has taken aim at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his primary competition for the votes of religious conservatives, in ways both subtle and overt, while raising questions about Romney's Mormonism and touting himself as a "Christian leader." Romney responded earlier this month with a speech defending not only his own religion, but also asserting his own belief that religious faith had a place on the public square.
It's unclear whether it did him much good. It certainly did not deter Huckabee from continuing to harp on his Christianity. His latest gambit is a disarming television ad that seeks disingenuously to tone down the debate for the holiday season while still talking about the primacy of "the birth of Christ" while a cross-like image hovers over him in the background.
It remains to be seen if this revival tent act can win Huckabee Iowa or any other state. He may turn out to be a 2008 version of Howard Dean, whose Democratic star peaked in late 2003 and then plummeted to earth with a scream in the Hawkeye state. Should the Republicans actually nominate Huckabee, there's little doubt that almost any Democrat would dispatch this evolution-doubting foreign policy ignoramus in a landslide.
But even if all Huckabee gets is a Dean-like 15 minutes of front-runner status before being consigned to the dustbin of history alongside Blaine and Burchard, the ensuing debate about the role of faith in politics is still worth pondering.
ANTI-DEFAMATION League head Abe Foxman blasted Romney for the "subtext" of his defense of the separation of church and state.
Comparing Romney's stand with John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech, in which JFK answered those who opposed the election of a Catholic to the presidency, Foxman said that there was a big difference between the two. While Kennedy disavowed any impact his faith might have on his politics or his decisions as a leader, Romney made it clear that while religious tests are abhorrent, he had no intention of running away from his faith.
"I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty.
Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage," declared the candidate.
Romney is signaling Americans that while we should have no state church, he believes religious faith has not only helped shape America but that it ought to continue to influence us.
That is a message that alarms the ADL, whose strict separationist principles deem any overt political religiosity as a potential danger to our liberties.
To Foxman's credit, this is not the first time he has expressed his discomfort with a candidate speaking in this manner. Seven years ago, the object of his ire was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, whose message embracing faith was earning him ecumenical applause as the Democrat's vice-presidential candidate.
Though it was largely lost amid the hallelujah chorus sung for Lieberman's historic achievement, Foxman then saw a danger in the popularity of this faith talk. As with Romney, Foxman took Lieberman to task for flaunting his religious observance and his status as a person of faith as being a credential for high office.
Though the ADL's position certainly speaks to the fears of both religious minorities and secularists who worry about the future of church-state separation, it is tone deaf both to the sensibilities of the American people and the reality of our politics.
One need not agree with either of their very different political platforms to understand that the point here is there is a big difference between the likes of Lieberman and Romney, and that of a Huckabee. The former are men whose faith informs their consciences and policy decisions, and who rightly understand that Americans consider these to be trustworthy attributes. The latter is one who employs religion to trade on prejudice.
Contrary to the strict separationists, religious liberty in this country is not based on what philosopher Will Herberg once described as the "naked public square," in which faith is unwelcome. Though atheist books are the literary rage this season, the idea that the unique blessings of American freedom stem from a hostility to faith is an absurd misreading of history.
While their theology and their history could not be more different, both Judaism and Mormonism are safe in this country, not only because we do not "establish" any single religion, but because our shared national heritage of deep faith is inherently welcoming to all denominations that support the values of political freedom.
Our experience as an oppressed minority in Europe may have bred in Jews a phobia for public Christianity, but that's irrelevant to present-day America where it is believers, rather than unbelievers, who are more likely to stand up for Jewish rights and Israel. In 2008 - as has been the case in the past - the ability of American voters to understand the difference between principle and prejudice is something that we can all have faith in.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.