Outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens is weighing in on the debate over presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Mormonism, rejecting claims that questioning his faith amounts to prejudice.
"[W]e are fully entitled to ask Mitt Romney about the forces that influenced his political formation," Hitchens, author of Hitch 22: A Memoir and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, wrote in Slate.com on Monday.
And that influence, the atheist pointed out, is likely not small considering "he comes from a dynasty of his church and spent much of his boyhood and manhood first as a missionary and then as a senior lay official."
Hitchens' comments come as Romney's Mormon faith is back in the spotlight following remarks by Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress, who said Mormonism is not real Christianity and is a cult.
Jeffress, who leads First Baptist Church in Dallas, said earlier this month that Romney is not a true Christian and advised evangelical Christians to vote for a Christian, particularly one who integrates their faith with their practice.
The Dallas pastor drew fire from politicians, including presidential candidate Jon Huntsman – also a Mormon – and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody's ability to lead," Christie said after endorsing Romney this month.
For Hitchens, however, Romney's faith is fair game.
"[W]hat interests me more is the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS (Latter-day Saints), discussion of which it is currently hoping to inhibit by crying that criticism of Mormonism amounts to bigotry," the atheist wrote in Slate.com.
"So far, Mitt Romney, who praised [Cleon] Skousen as recently as 2007, has evaded most questions by acting as if he was being subjected to some kind of religious test for public office. He’s been supported in this by some soft-centered types who think that any dislike for any 'faith group' is ipso facto proof of some sort of prejudice. Sorry, but this will not wash."
Hitchens, who currently suffers from esophageal cancer, continued, "I don’t think I would want to vote for a Scientologist or a Moonie for high office, or indeed any other kind, and I think attempts to silence criticism of such outfits are the real evidence of prejudice."
"Unless he is to succeed ... and make this an election about 'competence not ideology,' he should be asked to defend and explain himself, and his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil," he concluded.
Influential evangelical Chuck Colson offered a contrasting view on Monday, saying he believes questions about a candidate's religion is more of a distraction than anything else.
While he doesn't view Mormonism as Christianity, he said he would rather "vote for a competent nonbeliever who would protect life, liberty, and marriage" than "an incompetent Christian – or even a competent one – who would not stand for those overriding moral issues."
"[A]s voters we are to choose the most competent people to be God’s magistrates to do justice, restrain evil, and preserve order," Colson stressed.
Noting that there is no religious test for public office, he exhorted, "Let’s stop criticizing candidates for their religious convictions."