Thank God you have finally found a candidate to vote for. You like Addison Fretley's views on everything. He'd be a great president. Then you learn he is a:



Greek Orthodox

Born-again Baptist

Roman Catholic

Would you still vote for him for president?

The vast majority of Americans would not let any of those circumstances sway them from their man. Only 70 percent would vote for their man if they discovered (for there are always some who are a bit late getting the message) he was a minister or priest or rabbi. Even so, 70 percent is not to be sneezed at. And 87 percent of adults would not hold it against a candidate if he were Roman Catholic. The figure for Jews is 83 percent, for Greek Orthodox 74 percent and for born-again Baptist 81 percent.

What if he were homosexual? In that case, only 26 percent would vote for him, even though they liked everything else about him. And if the candidate were atheist only 31 percent would still go to the ballot box for him.

If a candidate is homosexual and atheist both, he should not count on a landslide, probably, though he might improve his chances if he turned Roman Catholic. As Henry IV observed, Paris is well worth a mass.

You may question the value of polls when you reflect how gung-ho everybody was for Vietnam, then suddenly not; or how the polls showed the country adored Ronald Reagan and then hot-potatoed him after the Iran-contra project.

It is quite conceivable the atheist homosexual candidate could win, after all, if he dashed into a burning building and saved two tots, or if he married Vanna White, or beat up a guy who had kicked his old golden retriever.

So a poll like this does not say anything really of how people will vote in the next presidential election, which does not occur any (alas) time soon.

What the poll does show is what people say would influence their vote. Why should more people turn off if the candidate is Greek Orthodox than if he is born-again Baptist? It may not stretch the evidence of the poll too much to say there is less prejudice against those Baptists than against Greek Orthodox, and less prejudice against Roman Catholics than against the Baptists.

Religion, or the claim of religious affiliation, is much stronger in America than in any other highly developed nation, and we have the oldest written constitution of the world, a document that gives careful attention to religion at the very beginning of its Bill of Rights.

This poll was paid for by the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, a new nonprofit group connected with no sect, which would like to see more discussion of the importance on the religion clauses -- the state may not hinder religion nor promote it.

Acrimony is never far beneath the surface when vast numbers of people believe deeply and contrarily on everything from the divinity of Christ to the moral nature of abortion. One man's health policy is another man's notion of utter damnation. One man's faith is another man's unforgivable mumbo jumbo.

Religion in America has never got so out of hand as it once did in England, and the authors of the Constitution were keen to ensure that righteous passion should not be the main door to murder and hate. And for all that you may marvel at some of the forms religion has taken in the republic, at least we have not had total disorder because of it.

The line between legal and illegal practice of religion is not as clear-cut as you might think. Probably the mass suicide of believers (as in the Jim Jones case) would be thought an irreligious act by most people, but even that is not certain.

In the Jim Bakker case some criticize the government for not clamping down on the financial fraud aspect of his ministry. But government interference in religious corporations is bound to be treated gingerly under our Constitution, and abuses of any kind will almost certainly advance to great lengths before an American government will interfere.

The balance between religious views and the state's interest in good order will always be uneasy. Textbooks used in schools afford a pretty example of this, to say nothing of Christmas cre`ches in town squares. A member of Jehovah's Witnesses may not be able in conscience to salute the national flag. The Supreme Court has held he need not do so. On the other hand, the government will not let me off if I maintain that my religious views oppose the income tax and I shall not pay it.

If I say I want my kids to be taught that rocks are not all that old and that Eve was made out of Adam's rib as a matter of fact, the state will not go along with that in its schools. People who believe that are free to teach contrary views in their own schools, however.

A lot of people seem to think that if they round up enough like-minded people they can establish by law their own notions about the Bible. The whole point of the Constitution on this matter is that the American government will not endorse or oppose religious notions and will interfere only in exceptional cases, as when legal abortion clinics are bombed, and even then will not oppose antiabortion propaganda.

The Williamsburg Charter Foundation would like to see a greater acceptance of the notion that two people can believe utterly opposite things and still get along beautifully in the general business of citizenship. (They can both pay their taxes.)

The foundation does not believe for one second (as some do, who pretend not to see the problem at all) that religious views are unimportant. The foundation is certain that religious views are the most deeply held of all views.

But the foundation's view is that other people's views must be acknowledged, preferably without great verbal hostility and certainly without riots or violent acts. The foundation would like to see far greater acceptance of the Constitution's position, that the right to free exercise of religious (or irreligious) views is not given by the state and therefore the state may not take it away. The right is unalienable. Where religious rights seem to collide with the state's rights (as in the abortion question) some tact is obviously required, if the matter is to remain debatable rather than inflammatory.

It is hard for some people to get it through their heads that people have a right to roll about on the floor and utter cries, or to bow at particular points of the Nicene Creed, or to handle snakes and get bitten, and to argue publicly that all or none of those observances should be practiced. They are free to believe the world is made of turtles. It's not likely, after all, that the religion of a doctor of theology at Princeton is going to coincide on all points with the religion of a sun worshiper. But if one or the other is encouraged to think he can ram his notions down the throat of the other, the Constitution is there to stop him.

The foundation is now hammering out the many points of the charter, which will be announced in June. Lectures and seminars are contemplated as well, and the office at 1250 24th St. NW is already staffed.

Can anything useful be said in a Williamsburg Charter about the First Amendment that has not already been said by the courts? Certainly. Our own obligations, for example, as well as our own rights can be far more fully explored than the courts have done, and a new depth of understanding what is involved by the religion clauses is certainly possible. A new civility is attainable and is overdue.