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Originally published March 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 23, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Guest columnist

Here's praying the people will learn a candidate's faith is not an asset

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 marked the end of Spain as a global power. Before sailing, one Spanish commander...

Special to The Times

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 marked the end of Spain as a global power. Before sailing, one Spanish commander "reasoned" as follows:

"It is well known that we fight in God's cause. So when we meet the English, God will surely arrange matters so that we can grapple and board them, either by sending some strange freak of weather, or more likely, just by depriving the English of their wits. ... But unless God helps us by making a miracle, the English, who have faster guns and handier ships than ours, and many more long-range guns, and who know their advantage as well as we do, will ... blow us to pieces with culverins, without our being able to do them any serious hurt. ... So, we are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle."

So much for a faith-based foreign policy. Indeed, the melancholy fate of the Spanish Armada also suggests why it is time for the American electorate to reconfigure its view of religion and politics — specifically, the presidency. Now that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has joined the 2008 presidential contenders, the question has arisen: Is America ready to elect a devout Mormon?

I certainly hope the answer is "no."

Indeed, here is a controversial suggestion: It is high time for the electorate to reject a devout Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, evangelical Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Shintoist, Wiccan or committed practitioner of any other faith or creed. Our problem isn't too much prejudice against devoutly religious presidential candidates (e.g., Romney), but not enough. Let's reject any religiously orthodox candidate for high office.

Why? For one thing, it's time for politicians to accept responsibility for their actions instead of attributing them to divine advice or counting on supernatural intervention. Haven't we had enough of the kind of faith-based policy initiatives favored by the Bush administration? After all, President Bush claimed that in invading Iraq, he was acting out God's will. Now, most politicians are scurrying to distance themselves from this particular crusade. How many more, in the future, must we endure?

For another, perhaps the most dangerous attitude for any political leader is the insistence that he or she doesn't care about this life, being convinced that the real consequences of one's actions are to be encountered in the next. Think of the Islamic jihadis who devalue this world in favor of a forthcoming heavenly recompense. And remember James Watt, whose disastrous tenure as Interior secretary under Ronald Reagan was notable for his claim that America's natural resources don't really need careful stewardship since "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns." Not to mention those who might welcome a nuclear apocalypse because it would herald the "end times."

Just recently, the following comment — evoked by the Romney candidacy — was heard on talk radio: "I don't really care what religion he might be, I just want a president who prays." Instead, how about a president who carefully reads briefing papers, and maybe some detailed, complex and even occasionally contradictory and nuanced analyses of alternative courses of action and their likely consequences? Can anyone genuinely claim that it is in the national interest to have presidential decisions made, not via serious policy evaluation, but instead "in the confident hope of a miracle"?

In his book, "Shadow of Childhood," anthropologist Weston La Barre proposed that prayer is unique to our species: "No other animal when in distress or danger magically commands or prayerfully begs the environment to change its nature for the organism's specific benefit. Calling upon the 'supernatural' to change the natural is an exclusively human reaction. ... [O]ne doubts that even herding animals like the many antelope species in Africa have gods they call upon when they fall behind the fleeing herd and are about to be killed by lions, wild dogs, cheetahs or hyenas."

Give me a reality-based world view any time, certainly not a prayerful one! Admittedly, my preference is unlikely to be realized. The U.S. is the most pro-religious among the world's industrialized nations; extrapolating from polling data, I'd bet that Americans would rather vote for a microcephalic ax-murderer (if he were religiously devout!) than for the most admirable atheist. It doesn't seem to matter what the faith, so long as our leaders profess some religion, any religion.

But I can still hope (pray?) for my countrymen and women to recognize that religious fundamentalists have already done the republic great harm, and that a candidate's faith — belief without evidence — should be seen as a liability rather than an asset.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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