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It is eloquent in many parts, stirring in its defense of religious liberty, with only a couple of notes off-key:

Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.

Ahem. But it has two deep flaws. The first is the absence of any notion that religious freedom includes the freedom to have no religion whatever. A president of the United States does not just represent people of all faiths, he also represents those who have none. There is a lacuna in Romney's vision of religious tolerance, and it is a deliberate lacuna. In order to appeal to evangelicals, he places himself on their side against the other: the secularists. But that is simply another form of the religious test. By insisting on faith - any faith - as the proper criterion for public office, Romney draws the line, oh-so-conveniently, so as to include Mormonism but exclude atheism and agnosticism. And so he side-steps the critical issue in the debates over religion in public life: what if there is no unifying faith for a nation? What if faith itself cannot unify a nation - and, in fact, can divide it more deeply than any other subject? That is our reality. An intelligent and wise conservative would try to find a path to a common discourse that does not rest on religious foundations.

The second flaw is that he simply cannot elide the profound theological differences between the LDS church and mainstream Christianity. Since I'm a secularist - a Christian secularist - this doesn't make a difference to me. But if you are appealing to religious people, especially fundamentalists, on the basis of faith, you cannot logically then ask them to ignore the content of the faith. The religious right have tried to do this with the absurd neologism, the "Judeo-Christian tradition," as if the truth-claims of Christianity and Judaism are not, at bottom, contradictory. But the "Mormon-Judeo-Christian tradition" is a step too far even for those who have almost no principles in using religion for political purposes.

I think it's a tragedy that a man of Romney's obvious gifts should be reduced to this. But he asked for it; and the petard he has been hoist on is his own. If you want a religious politics,  you'll end up with one. That's why Huckabee is the natural heir to the Rove project. And why Romney is falling behind.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty.)