Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney distinguished himself from his GOP rivals at the debate yesterday in an important way: He refused to take the sharia-panic bait.

Following up on a question asked of Herman Cain’s proposal to make prospective Muslim employees take special “loyalty oaths,” Romney notably declined to demonize Muslims or latch on to the right-wing conspiracy that the U.S. is in impending danger of coming under Taliban-style Islamic law:

Well, first of all, of course, we’re not going to have Sharia law applied in U.S. courts. That’s never going to happen. We have a Constitution and we follow the law.

No, I think we recognize that the people of all faiths are welcome in this country. Our nation was founded on a principal of religious tolerance. That’s in fact why some of the early patriots came to this country and we treat people with respect regardless of their religious persuasion.

Obviously, anybody who would come into my administration would be someone who I knew, who I was comfortable with, and who I believed would honor as their highest oath — their oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States

This was exactly the right answer. The U.S. doesn’t need to ban single out Muslims by banning sharia because we already have a Constitution that forbids the establishment of religion, and this is a country that was founded in part by people escaping religious persecution. We shouldn’t forget that history by singling out one group of Americans for suspicion and scorn. It must have been tempting for Romney to jump on that particular culture war bandwagon and shoring up his social conservative bonafides, but he refused to.

Romney’s colleagues however, doubled down on their Islamophobia. Cain tried to have it both ways, defending his position while insisting that he was only worried about the Muslims who are “trying to kill us,” while Newt Gingrich implicitly defended McCarthy era loyalty oaths, stating that “we did this in dealing with the Nazis and we did this in dealing with the communists,” as though being a Muslim were in and of itself evidence of wanting to overthrow the country. More to the point, the McCarthy-era loyalty oaths were a national embarrassment, useless for weeding out subversives but effective at chilling free speech and curtailing freedom of association.

The utter uselessness of Cain and Gingrich’s preferred approach to Muslims was unwittingly affirmed by Gingrich himself, when he noted that attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad himself took an oath when he became an American citizen:

I just want to comment for a second. The Pakistani who emigrated to the U.S. became a citizen, built a car bomb which luckily failed to go off in Times Square was asked by the federal judge, how could he have done that when he signed — when he swore an oath to the United States. And he looked at the judge and said, “You’re my enemy. I lied.”

So in other words, loyalty oaths are useless, because a genuine radical will simply lie. Gingrich, for some reason, regards this as an argument for making Muslims who want to work in government take special loyalty oaths, rather than an example of how pointless they are.

There’s a difference between the oath of office, where everyone takes an oath to defend the Constitution, and the sort of oath Cain and Gingrich are proposing, which singles out a single religious group as disloyal. No one is compelled to serve the government, if you don’t want to take an oath to defend the Constitution you don’t have to run for office or accept an cabinet or judicial appointment. But that Constitution explicitly states that there will be no religious test for public office.

Gingrich’s campaign is imploding, and Cain is a longshot. However, by demanding that Muslims who might serve in their administration take a special oath, Gingrich and Cain have revealed themselves as fundamentally unprepared to take the oath of office as president of the United States. Ironic then, that they should spend so much time questioning the loyalty of others. Perhaps even odder is that in a party so committed to superficial constitutionalism, the refusal to accept one of the most basic tenets of the Constitution isn’t regarded as an immediate disqualifier.