When will candidates learn that the cover-up is always worse than the deed itself? Buried in the middle of Mitt Romney’s religious mea culpa was a twist of logic that would take a knot-smith (like me) to untangle. He asserts that there are some questions about faith that a candidate should answer. Then he carefully chooses the one question that allows him to sound the most like an evangelical Christian. “What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.” Then he conveniently switches from the first-person testimonial mode to say that his church (but not exactly him) has some “… beliefs about Christ … not … the same as those of other faiths. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” But isn’t that the point? Why not confess those different beliefs?

This is why his answer is fundamentally dishonest. He wants to cover up his beliefs that are different so that he does not alienate people who he feels might reject him for not being the same. He wants to have it both ways. I am like you but I’m not like you. Affirm me for being like you and tolerate me for being unlike you — but I’m not going to tell you what ways I’m not like you. This is not exactly the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

He then moves from defense to offense to say, “There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.” In this claim he is exactly wrong. But he, like John Kennedy before him, gets away with it because of the ignorant confusion that generally reigns regarding this issue. The Constitution restrains the government from imposing any religious test for public office. This means only that no government official (such as a county clerk or secretary of state) can disqualify a person as a candidate on religious grounds. The Constitution restrains the government but has no such intent or power over the individual voter. The voter may impose upon a candidate any test his or her whim can conjure up. Voters base the decision to cast their vote upon all manner of criteria, from the petty to the profound.

When Bill Clinton was in his first term as president he was asked in a televised event whether he wore boxers or briefs. So would it be improper for a future YouTube questioner to ask whether Bishop Romney indeed wears “magic underwear,” the religious vestments of high Mormon officials? Of course it is the prerogative of candidates not to answer questions they deem of insufficient gravitas, but they do so at the risk of losing the questioner’s vote (along with perhaps the votes of those who share that curiosity). But what Romney believes about Jesus Christ is not trivial. And the differences of his beliefs are not trivial. Once he chooses to answer the question he should answer it honestly — and completely — or assert his right to not answer any religious questions and suffer the wrath of those voters who feel it’s important to know. Kennedy didn’t need to describe his faith because Roman Catholicism was well known. But Romney is no Kennedy, and Catholicism is not Mormonism.

Furthermore, the role of religion in politics has changed significantly since Kennedy was elected. Religiously, the civil rights movement of the 1960s was led by a Baptist minister (the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) and supported by thousands of reverends and rabbis and churches and synagogues across the nation as a holy cause (the natural sequitur of the abolitionist movement). Subsequently the peace movement raised the agenda of mainline Christianity to new spiritual heights. Politically, after one of the most corrupt administrations in history, the nation was ready for some good old fashioned morality, which is how we wound up with a Sunday school teacher named Jimmy Carter as president. He was a businessman farmer, a former governor of Georgia and a “born-again Christian.” He was matter of fact about the centrality of his faith, and so he didn’t sound preachy or shrill. Under the radar (just as with GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee today), born-again Christians flocked to this Southern Baptist deacon who promised “I’ll never tell a lie.” The Republican Southern strategy was undone by a faith-based Democrat.

However, Carter’s Southern Baptist faith was attached to a very liberal social agenda. Conservative Southern evangelicals felt betrayed and embarked on a concerted campaign to elect someone who shared their conservative political values and who would at least respect their fundamentalist faith even if he didn’t share it. So, straight out of central casting, along came Ronald Reagan. Reagan, a nominal Presbyterian, was a staunch conservative who claimed the mantle of Barry Goldwater, but with an “aw shucks” (à la Huckabee) veneer. Reagan was elected in a landslide, and the religious right was born.

The religious right has been a major player in national, state and local elections ever since. The irony of Romney’s challenge is that he would probably fare better running in the more religiously tolerant Democratic primary. That’s why his Mormonism was not a big issue in his race for governor in the overwhelmingly Democratic state of Massachusetts. But he is not running for governor of Massachusetts; he is running for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. To win this election, Romney will need to overturn the religious intolerance resident in the self same devout enthusiasts who will determine the outcome of the Republican race. But if he can do that then they wouldn’t be Republicans. And if he cannot do it he cannot be the nominee.

The Rev. Madison Shockley is a member of the executive council of The Center for Progressive Christianity and the minister of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ.

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