Will Today’s Final Pre-Iowa GOP Debate Become a Theological Smackdown?

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From AP:

Republican Mitt Romney retorted to questions about his faith by surging rival Mike Huckabee on Wednesday, declaring that “attacking someone’s religion is really going too far.”

In an article to be published Sunday in The New York Times, Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, asks, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

Romney, vying to become the first Mormon elected president, declined to answer that question during an interview Wednesday, saying church leaders in Salt Lake City had already addressed the topic.

“But I think attacking someone’s religion is really going too far. It’s just not the American way, and I think people will reject that,” Romney told NBC’s “Today” show.

This is some setup for this afternoon’s GOP Republican presidential debate, the final candidate face-off before the Iowa caucuses. Will Romney this evening have to address that vital national issue: are Jesus and Satan half-brothers? Or might he be forced to say whether he believes the Book of Mormon is literally true? That Jesus really came to the Americas after his resurrection and established an enlightened society that lasted for several generations? That Joseph Smith in 1830 really found golden tablets that only he could read? Might Romney be asked to explain why he was a member of church that followed racist rules (by not allowing blacks to serve in its leadership) until 1978?

As for Huckabee, he could be asked why his campaign and the two Baptist churches where he once was a pastor have refused to release his sermons. He might also be queried about the declaration he made in 1998–when he was governor of Arkansas–that “we [must] take this nation back for Christ.” When Tim Russert asked Huckabee about that quote a year ago on Meet the Press, Huckabee said:

I think it’s dangerous to say that we are a nation that ought to be pushed into a Christian faith by its leaders. However, I make no apology for my faith….We are a nation of faith. It doesn’t necessarily have to be mine. But we are a nation that believes that faith is an important part of describing who we are, and our generosity, and our sense of optimism and hope. That does describe me.

That was a dodge. Huckabee seemed to be saying in 1998 that he wanted the United States to be a Christian nation. Does he still think so? (By the way, I’ve tried to get his campaign to answer a particular query: does Huckabee really believe that angels intervene when he goes hunting, as he suggested during a speech to the NRA? So far, no reply.)

With all these theological matters to address at the debate this evening, such matters as Iraq, global warming, or the alternative minimum tax may not even come up. But with Huckabee rising in the polls (both nationally and in Iowa and South Carolina), Rudy Giuliani slipping, Romney faring only so-so, and Fred Thompson and John McCain still lagging, there will be pressure on the candidates to swing sharply at each other. God–or perhaps the brother of Satan–only knows how messy it will get.

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