Mitt Romney's great trek
At first, it sounds like a bad joke: What if a woman, a black, and a Mormon ran for president? Yet with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney running for the White House, this welcome burst of diversity in US presidential candidates is no joke.
Each of these politicians comes with enough experience, patriotism, and popular support to be taken seriously for the 2008 contest. Yet polls show a number of Americans still hold some prejudice against them simply for their sex, race, or religion.
Polls find that, while a strong minority of Americans say the US is "not ready" for a woman or black president, a vast majority of them say they could vote for one. A more worrisome poll finds 37 percent would not vote for a Mormon – a much higher negative response than for an evangelical Christian, a Catholic, or a Jew, although not as high as for a Muslim.
It is that religious prejudice against Mormons which provides an extra hurdle for Mr. Romney.
Just as John Kennedy had to allay public fears of his relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, so Romney is being encouraged to give a speech about his relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's already met with a few evangelical Christian leaders to assure them he shares their values – more than his Democratic rivals.
Still, his Mormon faith is often cited as why he may fail in early primary states such as South Carolina. One media columnist claims Romney's credibility is at stake if he believes his church's official history.
The Constitution bars such a religious test for presidential candidates, a provision inserted by the Founding Fathers to avoid the kind of religious strife they saw in Europe.
That guard against official intolerance helped enable one other Mormon, Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, to become Senate majority leader this year. And it helped Joe Lieberman, a Jew, to run effectively as Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 race.
While Americans appreciate their heritage of religious diversity and liberty, they constantly test the limits of their tolerance, often in court cases. Last year, some Christians protested the first Muslim elected to Congress. And one survey found that about 1 in 5 people favor making it illegal for Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist groups to even meet.
Just like the challenge for Kennedy in 1960 and for born-again Christian Jimmy Carter in 1976, Romney's candidacy will provide fresh opportunity for the US to reassert that its democratic traditions are above religion and serve as a protector of religion.
The unum is still greater than the pluribus, even as the diversity of spiritual seekers in the US increases.
The ability to reconcile conflicting religious values under a system of guaranteed rights, elections, and governmental checks-and-balances is what gives strength to the US and provides the freedom for faith to flourish. That would be true in the case of an avowed atheist becoming US president.
With women and blacks now more easily accepted as leaders, it's critical for voters to look beyond religious affiliation in judging presidential candidates. Romney was respected as a governor and businessman. His ability to be US president can be questioned, but not his right to be one.