It was said of Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, that if he won the 1928 presidential election he would take orders from the Vatican and not uphold the Constitution.
John F. Kennedy famously confronted that anti-Catholic prejudice in a 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy said in part, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote..."
We've moved past the Catholic issue thanks largely to that speech. It is the second part of Kennedy's pronouncement that we are now forced to deal with. A Protestant minister, Robert Jeffress, said in response to a question from a reporter at last weekend's Values Voter Summit in Washington that he believes Mormonism, the religion of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, is "a cult." He is entitled to that belief, but he went further. He suggested that evangelical Christians should vote for Texas Governor Rick Perry and asked the audience, "Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person -- or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?"
Two points about this, one theological, the other political.
There are at least two other presidential candidates who would qualify as "born-again followers of Jesus Christ." Those would be Rep. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. What are they, chopped liver? Two candidates are Roman Catholic: Rick Santorum, a lifelong Catholic, and Newt Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism. Are they to be excluded from those acceptable to evangelical Christians, even though their positions on issues important to social conservatives are identical with those of most evangelicals?
Now the political point. The 2012 election, in fact every election, ought not to be about if, how, or what a candidate worships, but on his (or her) ability to do the job. If I am in need of surgery, it may be of some interest to me what religion, if any, the surgeon happens to believe in, but I am far more interested in how many of his former patients are still among the living.
America has a rich history of preachers from the left and right speaking from their church and public pulpits about a wide variety of social and moral issues, including slavery, war, civil rights, alcohol abuse and poverty, among others. Some have even claimed to speak for God, while taking the opposite, un-Christian position on an issue.
It is when preachers start endorsing or opposing candidates based on their perception of who is God's choice that serious problems arise. It suggests, especially to the non-believers in the world, that the Kingdom of God is part of an earthly kingdom. The result is a loss of power for that unseen Kingdom, which is the only one that can transform a life and, thus, a culture.
What makes conservative pastors think their church members are so ignorant that they need to hear from them before deciding for whom to vote?
Consider the words of the late Senator Edward Kennedy at Liberty Baptist College in 1983: "We must never judge the fitness of individuals to govern on the basis of where they worship, whether they follow Christ or Moses, whether they are called 'born again' or 'ungodly.' Where it is right to apply moral values to public life, let all of us avoid the temptation to be self-righteous and absolutely certain of ourselves."
In his forthcoming book, "Twilight's Last Gleaming" (for which I have provided an endorsement), Mr. Jeffress makes a strong case that the only way a culture can be transformed is through spiritual regeneration. For him that means a relationship with Jesus. The power of that message is diluted when he says Rick Perry would be the best president based solely on his specific brand of Christian faith.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.