Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in American history to realize that freedom OF religion does not just mandate a government with freedom FROM established religion but also fosters freedom FOR religions. Roger Williams and his fellow Puritan fanatics certainly understood the dangers of mixing church and state – and wanted to protect their church from any state meddling. These seeds of freedom scattered throughout America’s land mass have resulted in one of America’s glories – the flourishing of all kinds of ideologies as well as the flowering of individuals with diverse worldviews.
Alas, amid the lush fields of freedom-nourished thoughts, poisonous bigotry has also festered. A definitive religious history of the United States and a definitive intellectual history would also require a definitive history of American intolerance, theologically and intellectually. True, European intolerance, let alone Asian, African, and South American intolerance, has often been more virulent, systematic, brutal, and lethal. Still, Americans need to stand guard, making sure that the noxious fumes of bigotry do not pollute our free, diverse atmosphere.
So far, Mike Huckabee is not only failing to be suitably vigilant on this score, he risks poisoning the 2008 campaign by stirring the already too-powerful undercurrents of anti-Mormonism shaping the Republican debate. Huckabee was already playing with fire with his heavy-handed appeal as a “Christian Leader” – a term used to describe him in his television commercials until just days ago. All of a sudden, he’s a “Proven Leader.” But Huckabee crossed the line in his already-infamous New York Times Magazine interview to be published this Sunday. Huckabee asked the reporter Zev Chafets during an interview: ‘‘Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’’
Huckabee’s morning-TV show apology – and private apology to Mitt Romney – are not sufficient. Huckabee has to make it clear that he is not running for America’s pastor in chief – and that he understands the distinction between his roles as preacher and political leader. Moreover, those Mormons who in Utah and environs tend to blur church and state may now understand why distant from the state protects the church, by creating barriers against bigotry and irrelevant religious tests. Defenses of freedom of religion should not only be coming from Romney and his camp. Huckabee’s provincial and small-minded appeals should trigger a wave of disgust and denunciations.
And as we exorcise these demons from our midst, let us also pat ourselves on the collective backs. Less than half a century ago, John Kennedy’s Catholicism played a major role in his candidacy. Today, the fact that Rudy Giuliani, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson are Catholic is not just irrelevant it is barely noticed by most voters and commentators. Let us not forget that if politicians had to be pious to be elected president, none of the great leaders whose faces are carved into Mount Rushmore would have even made it into office.