When Mitt Romney takes the stage at Tuesday night's presidential debate in Dartmouth, N.H., he will have the opportunity to answer a question that has plagued Republicans for decades: is the GOP a party defined by adherence to conservative ideals or a party in which those ideals matter less than the religion, race, or sexual orientation of the people espousing them?
It's never been a simple question. By definition, a conservative party seeks to conserve traditional norms, and in the United States, those traditional norms have included discrimination against Americans who are not white, male, Protestant, and straight. In some areas, Republicans have managed to liberate those values from the bigotry that historically encrusted them. When today's Republicans talk about America's traditional religious values, for instance, they define them as compatible with Catholicism and Judaism—something the conservatives of the early 20th century would have vehemently denied. Decades ago, the very idea of a female or African-American president would have struck most conservatives as a moral breach. Today most Republicans are fine with Michele Bachmann availing herself of the professional opportunities that feminism helped provide, so long as she doesn't praise feminism itself. And they're fine with Herman Cain availing himself of the professional opportunities that the civil-rights movement helped provide, so long as he does not harp on racism today.
This broadening of the traditionalist tent has been crucial to Republican success. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan helped make white Catholics comfortable in the GOP. George W. Bush helped make Orthodox Jews reliable Republican voters. And the GOP is fielding more African-American, Latino, and female candidates than ever before.
But the broadening is often accompanied by a new drawing of lines. It's possible in today's GOP to be a female candidate who champions traditional values or an African-American candidate who champions traditional values, but it's still not possible to be a Muslim or gay candidate who champions traditional values, because in much of today's GOP, espousing traditional values means being anti-Muslim and anti-gay. It's no coincidence that the most blatantly homophobic candidate in the Republican field is a woman, and the most blatantly Islamophobic is an African-American. One of the ways that candidates from historically discriminated-against groups legitimize themselves in the Republican Party, it seems, is by opposing equal treatment for other historically discriminated-against groups.
All of which brings us to Romney, who is seeking to prove that you can champion traditional values while also being a Mormon. Unfortunately for him, many conservative evangelicals disagree. This weekend, the preacher who introduced Rick Perry to a conservative conference as "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ" walked outside the hall and called Mormonism a "cult." The closer we get to the South Carolina primary, where evangelicals dominate, the more attacks like this we're likely to see.
In 2008, Romney responded to this bigotry the way Bachmann and Cain have this year, by requesting tolerance for himself while denying it to others. Twice during that campaign, Romney reportedly told private gatherings that he was unlikely to appoint a Muslim to his cabinet. And when he went to the George H.W. Bush presidential library to give a speech about religious tolerance, he made it clear that he was urging tolerance for people of different faiths, not tolerance for people of no faith at all. "Freedom requires religion," Romney declared, before adding that "we are a nation 'under God,' and in God we do indeed trust." Thus, Romney asked Christians to accept him as a fellow religious believer while implicitly distancing himself from those Americans who are not believers at all.
This year, Romney has moved further toward genuine tolerance. In a debate this June, he dismissed Cain's ravings about the threat that Sharia poses to the United States and declared that "people of all faiths are welcome in this country" because "we treat people with respect regardless of their religious persuasion." In today's GOP, that's profiles-in-courage material. But Romney still declined to suggest—as President Obama does routinely—that Americans show respect for people of no religious persuasion.
When Romney is asked about his faith on Tuesday night, as he most likely will be, the chances that he'll defend the liberty of all Americans, religious and nonreligious, are vanishingly small. That's too radical an idea to contemplate, especially for a candidate who is already religiously suspect in the eyes of many in the Republican base. But that's the standard to which Romney, and all Republican presidential candidates, should be held. That it's so hard to imagine testifies to the distance the GOP must still travel to become a party that rejects bigotry in all its forms.