Are they running for president or pastor?

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry said in a speech at the Christian-based Liberty University last week that he believes God has a plan for everyone, and God's plan for him will be revealed in time.

Michele Bachmann, according to a finely wrought profile in The New Yorker, believes in Dominionism — that the Bible requires that Christians lead all secular institutions, shepherding them until Christ returns.

Candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormon, and neither one has talked at length about his faith. But presumably they believe an angel appeared to Joseph Smith and instructed him to dig up tablets of gold on which was inscribed the history of the Christian faith in America.

Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum is a conservative Catholic who tried to have language inserted into the No Child Left Behind legislation that would have required that the religious theory of intelligent design be taught in schools.

What is supposed to look like a race for the White House among Republicans often looks more like a race to heaven — a slate of candidates who give new meaning to the expression "holier than thou."

We used to think that what went on between God and the president should stay between God and the president. It didn't belong in the cabinet room, the war room or the voting booth. We made John Kennedy promise not to be ruled by the pope.

But Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush broke that barrier with talk of conversion experiences that made some of us squirm and tug at our shirt collars.

We demanded that Barack Obama disavow his fiery pastor, and it started to look like it wasn't just your own religious beliefs that were open to inspection. It included those around you.

I wish we were back in the day when we worried about foreign policy experience or whether somebody dodged the draft when we sorted through presidential candidates. That way, I wouldn't feel like a bigot because I don't want somebody like Governor Perry — who orders his staff to pray for rain to end a drought and thinks God controls the earth's thermostat — to be president.

In the new book about Jacqueline Kennedy's memories of the White House, it is revealed that Jack Kennedy knelt by his bed every night and prayed, and Jackie thought it was charming. But the anti-science tone of some Republican candidates' religious convictions is anything but charming. In this political cycle, religion threatens to become a kind of litmus test. Baptismal certificates will soon replace birth certificates as proof of fitness for office.

We have plenty of religious tensions in this country, and this election cycle might only serve to highlight them.

There are evangelicals and Baptists who don't trust Catholics; there are plenty of people who don't trust Mormons; and then there are those who feel that Protestants are not God-like, they are God-light. There are also people who believe Sept. 11 was a plot by the Jews; and apparently the security guards in Minnesota's Mall of America suspect all dark-skinned people of being Muslim terrorists.

And all these religions' followers believe they have the keys to salvation, a personal relationship with God and that they are chosen by him for a higher purpose.

Like being president, I guess.

President Obama has been criticized in some corners as an Easter lily because of his infrequent appearances in church with his family.

And comedian and social commentator Jon Stewart confessed in a recent interview with Rolling Stone that he was confounded by the president's lack of direction.

"I still don't know what he believes in," Mr. Stewart lamented.

These days, that's almost refreshing in a politician.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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