October 13, 2011

I have been watching the recent controversy over Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith through two prisms. One is the vision of the appropriate relationship between government and religion, as set out by America’s Founders; the other is my own experience in 2000 as the first Jewish American to be nominated for national office.

The Founders’ vision is relevant because, from the beginning, America has been a creedal nation, defined by our values, not our borders. One of those founding values was a belief in God. The United States was formed, as the Declaration of Independence says, to secure for the people of this country the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that were “endowed by their Creator.”

In that way, the United States of America was and is a faith-based initiative.

While America was predicated on the religious values of our Christian Founders, our founding documents remarkably guarantee the right of every American to hold elective office regardless of religion. Article VI of the Constitution explicitly banned religious tests for elective officials; and the great First Amendment prohibited the “establishment” of an official religion, ensuring for every American the right to worship — or not to worship — as they choose.

Succeeding generations have stayed true to this founding vision, which I have always believed was a promise of freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. In fact, we have opened our unique public square to millions of Americans of different and increasingly diverse faiths.

One result of our religious freedom is the extraordinary tolerance and respect Americans generally have for religions different from their own. Another is the development of a set of shared religious values that constitute what President Abraham Lincoln called America’s “political religion” and Walt Whitman praised as “a sublime and serious Religious Democracy” in this nation.

In 2000, when Al Gore gave me the privilege of being the first Jewish American to be nominated for national office, I personally experienced the American people’s generosity of spirit, fairness and acceptance of religious diversity.

On the day I was nominated, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that each time a barrier falls for one person, the doors of opportunity open wider for every other American.

That warm sense of shared progress was perhaps most memorably expressed by one woman in Los Angeles who brought a hand-lettered sign to a rally of Latino Americans that read, “Viva Chutzpah!”

A veteran Secret Service agent who had worked several national campaigns told me he had never heard so many people say “God bless you” to a candidate. It was a reflection, I think, of how Americans embrace the faith that we share, even though we may be of different religions.

In the end, the Gore-Lieberman ticket received over a half-million more votes than the Bush-Cheney ticket — unambiguous proof that our ticket was judged on our qualifications and policies, not on the basis of my religion.

That’s the way our Founders wanted it to be and the way it should be.

Now we have two Mormon candidates running for president in 2012, and one of them, Romney, may well be the Republican nominee. Once again the promise of religious freedom enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution will be tested, along with our Founders’ dream that America would be a shining city on a hill where religious freedom, diversity and tolerance would thrive. And once again, a barrier may be broken.

I hope and believe that Americans of all faiths — and of no faith — will not base their votes on the fact that Romney’s Mormon faith seems “different.” Just as Americans rose above differences when John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith was “different” in 1960, and 16 years later when Jimmy Carter’s Christian evangelical faith was “different,” and again in 2000 when my Jewish faith was “different,” Romney must be judged on his personal qualities, experience and ideas for America’s future.

My experience in 2000 gives me great confidence that the American people will again reject any sectarian religious tests for office and show their strong character, instinctive fairness and steadfast belief in our Constitution. That truly is the American way.

The writer, an independent senator from Connecticut, was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000.