A Mormon voiced the best of the Baptist tradition on the separation of church and state in the first Republican presidential TV debate last night.

Asked about the denial of communion to pro-abortion-rights politicians by Roman Catholic clergy, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answered as a public official, with nothing to say to church hierarchy.

“Roman Catholic bishops are in a private institution of religion,” Romney said during the 90-minute debate hosted by MSNBC at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “They can do whatever they want in a religion. I can’t imagine a government telling a church who can have communion in their church.”

“Separation of church and state has served us well in this country,” Romney said. “This is a nation, after all, that wants a leader that’s a person of faith, but we don’t choose our leaders based on which church they go to.”

Romney described America as a place that celebrates different faiths.

Another former governor, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, said, “A person’s faith shouldn’t qualify or disqualify for public office.”

But Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor and denominational leader, added, “We ought to be open and honest about it, and I think it [faith] does help explain who we are, what our value systems are, what makes us tick and what our processes are.”

Huckabee’s comment echoed faintly what some other leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, have said about Romney’s religious affiliation as disqualifying issue for political support.

Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic, framed the issue differently. He addressed faith in terms of morals, not theological orthodoxy.

“Neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice,” said Giuliani. That position protects him from his own morally problematic marital history, while offering an honest rebuttal to the Christian Right’s claim that GOP stands for God’s Only Party.

Sam Brownback, one of the closest traveling companions to the Christian Right, repeated a tiresomely dishonest claim of fundamentalism.

“We’ve had 40 or 50 years now of trying to run faith out of the public square. And we’re a nation of faith,” he said. “We shouldn’t try to be running it out of the public square. We should invite it in and celebrate it.”

Candidates addressed different issues with a faith perspective.

Asked about global warming, Huckabee equivocated before saying: “I believe that even our responsibility to God means we have to be good stewards of the earth, be good caretakers of the natural resources that don’t belong to us. We just get to use them. We have no right to abuse them.”

One of the three program questioners asked if all candidates believed in evolution.

John McCain answered: “I believe in evolution. But I also believe that when I hike in the Grand Canyon and see a sunset that the hand of God is there, also.”

One of the strongest areas of disagreement was over stem cell research. McCain said he favors federal funding for stem cell research. Brownback said he opposes killing a human life to heal a human life. Others framed the issue similarly.

Most candidates offered the predictable anti-abortion position, save Giuliani, who said abortion is an issue of conscience. He said he hates abortion but respects a woman’s right to make a different choice. Romney offered an unconvincing explanation for his flip-flop on the abortion issue. Brownback said abortion is a central issue.

Candidates also sparred over how Congress handled the Terri Schiavo case, a tragic example of government intervention based on theology rather than medical evidence. McCain, Romney and Giuliani criticized the action by the Republican-controlled Congress and President Bush.

Nine of the 10 Republican presidential candidates have religious affiliations as Christians. One is a Mormon (Mitt Romney).

Sam Brownback, Rudy Giuliani and Tommy Thompson are Catholic. Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter are Baptists. Ron Paul has a generic affiliation as a Protestant. John McCain is an Episcopalian. Jim Gilmore is Methodist. Tom Tancredo is Presbyterian.

Almost all the candidates omit in their campaign biographies any reference to church membership or faith affiliations.

Huckabee does reference his being past president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. His failure to mention his attendance at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, is as odd as Romney’s lack of candor about his adherence to the Mormon faith.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews moderated the debate poorly, with a manic style that unfairly distributed time for answers.

The eight Democratic candidates’ religious affiliation includes four Catholics (Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson), three Protestants (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama) and one Unitarian (Mike Gravel).

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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