They say the first rule of debates is never to answer the question that is asked. Answer the question you want to answer.

“Should voters pay attention to a candidate’s religion?” Anderson Cooper asked.

Mitt Romney answered the question. It might cost him.

By the time the question made its way to him, it had been modified somewhat, strained through the cheesecloth of the responses of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, he of the offensive pastor who proclaimed Mormonism a cult and consequently urged people not to vote for Romney.

“You know, with — with regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that,” Romney began.
“What I actually found was most troubling in what the reverend said in the introduction was he said, in choosing our nominee, we should inspect his religion. And someone who is a good moral person is not someone who we should select; instead, we should choose someone who subscribes to our religious belief.

“That — that idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office is what I find to be most troubling, because the founders of this country went to great length to make sure — and even put it in the Constitution — that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion, that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there's a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths. That's bedrock principle.

“And it was that principle, Governor, that I wanted you to be able to [say], no, no, that's wrong, Reverend Jeffress. Instead of saying as you did, ‘Boy, that introduction knocked the ball out of the park,’ I'd have said, ‘Reverend Jeffress, you got that wrong. We should select people not based upon their faith.’ Even though — and I don't suggest you distance yourself from your faith any more than I would. But the concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to, I think, is a very dangerous and — and enormous departure from the principles of our — of our Constitution.”

He’s completely right.

No wonder the audience seemed a bit shell-shocked, and their applause was tepid at best.

Has he been watching this debate? Has he been watching this election?

What he should have said was, “My faith is just as good as yours! No worries here!”

What he said was, “You shouldn’t judge a candidate by faith.”

What’s sad is that might hurt him.

“The concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to”– surely that's in the Constitution somewhere? Newt Gingrich can point out the specific passage.

It’s beyond wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve. Perry began his candidacy with a day of prayer. Immediately after he started to pray, the economy collapsed and wildfires riled the land, but it was the thought that counted. This is how we do things.

This is not theoretical. I wish for Romney’s sake it were. It’s honestly not that he’s bland (he’s gotten better) or that he governed — gasp — Massachusetts (we all misspent our youths in certain ways) or that his health-care plan for that state bore more than a passing resemblance to President Obama’s plan for the nation (no one reads these things any more.) Frankly, people oppose him because he’s Mormon.

Don’t believe me?

Ask a given person what word first springs to mind when he thinks of the front-runner candidates, and overwhelmingly the first word for Romney is "Mormon." Not health care. Not even flip-flop. Mormon.

He can't avoid it. “The Book of Mormon” is on Broadway. People like Pastor Jeffress are out there.

“I wouldn’t vote for a Mormon,” is something you still hear from otherwise sane and reasonable people who would die if they uttered the words “I wouldn’t vote for a black man” or “I’d never elect a woman.”

Being anti-Mormon, as I’ve suggested, is somehow seen as a mark of enlightenment. “It’s a choice,” everyone says. That Onion headline — “Mitt Romney: Does He Wear That Weird Underwear?”— put its finger on it. “How seriously can I take you as a leader if you believe that someday you’ll be put in charge of a planet?” Serious People ask. “Yes, I know I believe that just under two thousand years ago, God literally visited the planet and gave out free fish. But Mormonism is different. I read an article about this in Slate that implied ominous things.”

The concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to – Romney is right; it’s dangerous. But as a criterion for office, it falls somewhere above the obviously frivolous — height, hair color, likelihood of enjoying a beer with — and below the clearly serious questions like experience and stance on the economy.

Some say that religious bigotry is not a form of bigotry. It’s not as though you’re born believing — although you might be born-again. Besides, Richard Nixon was a Quaker, and look what happened during his presidency.

Still, glancing at the field, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was a litmus test for faith — and wondering what Romney was doing there.

You could sense a stiffening in the crowd as he spoke. Plurality? Tolerance? Whenever those buzzwords turn up at Republican debates, the doorman politely suggests that they’re on the wrong side of the aisle. The people who interrupted Gingrich mid-spiel to applaud the rhetorical question, “How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” remained politely silent as Romney spoke.

Gingrich’s answer was right for all the reasons that it was wrong. Romney’s was wrong for all the reasons it was right.

“How can you have judgment if you have no faith?” Gingrich bellowed. “And how can I trust you with power if you don't pray? Who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God. But the notion that you're endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America.”

The church they pray at? The synagogue they go to?

Of course that's how we select our candidates. Dangerous? Sure. But there it is.