Rick Santorum, who appears to have taken this week's lead in the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency, accused President Obama the other day of following a "phony theology," elevating earth above humankind. On Face the Nation yesterday, he clarified those remarks, saying that he had in no way intended to suggest that the president is not a Christian.

Here's a little reminder for Presidents Day.

What Mr. Santorum appears not to understand is how tricky it is in our polity to discuss whether, or what kind of, Christian the president is, or what constitutes his theology. The United States Constitution does not impose a religious test on persons assuming the presidency. If there were such a test, it is highly doubtful that George Washington, nominally Episcopalian but essentially a Stoic and a Deist; John Adams, another Deist; Thomas Jefferson, who denied the divinity of Christ; and Abraham Lincoln, whose religious views were carefully concealed but plainly not standard-brand, would ever have assumed the chief magistracy.

In fact, and it is tiresome to have to repeat this for people who ought to know better, the United States is a secular republic. Its foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, make no mention of Jesus, and that is not an accident.The Founders knew from experience of the Church of England what the operation of a state church was like, and they were having none of it.

People who think that because America houses many Christians it ought to be a formally Christian nation have a great deal of history and law to throw over the side to achieve their goal.*

Mr. Obama's theology would become a public issue if he were to attempt to enshrine it in the statutes, an attempt that would have to get past the Congress and the Supreme Court. Should Mr. Santorum assume the presidency and attempt to legislate his theological views, he would face the same checks and balances. And the public.

 

*Imagine if evangelical Christians were to achieve their long-held goal of returning public prayer to public schools. Now imagine their reaction when those schools, constrained by the constitutional test of not favoring a particular religion, would allow Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu prayers. Or perhaos allow agnostics and atheists to read select passages from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Some people just don't know when they're well off.