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SCOT LEHIGH

Piety on parade

AM I THE only one whom this presidential campaign has left feeling like Tom Sawyer stuck in church on a lovely summer Sunday?

Tom found the religiosity that periodically washed over his hometown, and even occasionally swept up Huck Finn, to be more than a little trying. He'd be chafing this week, certainly, for the political professions of piety have the public square looking like the site of a religious revival.

During Tuesday's Republican debate, Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister by training, launched into a near sermon. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," proclaimethed he. "To me, it's pretty simple. A person either believes that God created this process or believes that it was an accident and that it just happened all on its own." Pretty simple indeed.

Huckabee went so far as to fret that there just might be nonbelievers among his rivals. And who can blame him for his suspicions? After all, only he, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo had responded in the first Republican debate when the call came for those who didn't believe in evolution to raise their hands.

Queried about his own religion on Tuesday, Mitt Romney laid out all that Mormonism has in common with more mainstream faiths: "I believe in God, believe in the Bible, believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe that God created man in his image." (And what a handsome fellow the Lord must be to have looked in the mirror and crafted the Mittster!)

Not to be outdone, the leading Democratic hopefuls this week offered testaments to their own devotion at a forum put on by Sojourners, a liberal evangelical group.

Hillary Clinton's religion, it turns out, was her rock when Bill lost sight of the Seventh Commandment.

"I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith," she confided. Perhaps I simply have more confidence than Hillary in her innate resilience, but something tells me that steely determination alone would have seen her through, particularly given her husband's previous history.

For his part, John Edwards confessed that "I sin every single day."

Every single day? How can that be? Has "Thou shalt not pander" suddenly become a commandment?

Joe Biden told CNN he says the rosary daily, Bill Richardson that he prays regularly.

As far as one can tell, all this public piety really got rolling with Jimmy Carter, and his being born-again and having committed adultery in his lusty left ventricle and so on.

Ronald Reagan, as Winston Churchill quipped of himself, was not a pillar of the church but more of a flying buttress in that he supported it mainly from the outside. But that didn't keep the Gipper from cozying up to the religious right -- and from invoking God with regularity.

These days, it's becoming the norm for candidates not simply to declare their faith, but to let questioners probe its depths and dimensions.

Call me a freethinker, but I think I see a guiding hand at play -- and it's the hand of politics, not of the Lord.

Seven in 10 voters think a president should have strong religious views, according to several surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Further, one of the single biggest predictors of where white voters came down in 2004 was the frequency of their church-going, says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. Regular attendees went for George W. Bush; those who weren't a persistent presence in the pews for John Kerry.

What's more, says Newport, a May Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Republicans said they don't believe in evolution. (The overall population is evenly split.)

Still, I'd prefer a candidate inclined to keep quiet about his faith, rather than wear it on his sleeve. Or even one who held with the philosopher Herbert Spencer: Whether God exists is intellectually unknowable.

I'd rather hear about a hopeful's earthly justifications for his policy positions, about the real world values that guide her. When a candidate says, "My religion teaches me . . . " what he or she is really saying is: I'm about to base my answer in a realm that helps me barricade it against rational argument.

Do we really want a president who relies on faith more than facts in making his decisions? Or who thinks he has the imprimatur of God as he moves forward?

Tom Sawyer wouldn't. And I certainly don't.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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