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So let me get this straight.

If you believe God spoke to people and angels walked the Earth thousands of years ago, you're in a religion. If you believe God spoke to people and angels walked the Earth hundreds of years ago, you're in a cult. And if you believe God spoke to people and angels walked the Earth Thursday, you're in a mental institution.

Just what is and is not a cult became a hot topic last week when Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, at a gathering of evangelical conservatives to introduce Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, said front-runner Mitt Romney is not a Christian and his religion, Mormonism, is a cult.

Evangelicals are often suspicious of the Church of Latter Day Saints, preferring earlier-day saintliness. They say the New Testament of the Bible is the last word. Mormons say the Book of Mormon, delivered unto them by the Angel Moroni in the 1820s in western New York State, counts too.

From the Jeffress hullabaloo has sprung an outcry that describing the faith of a responsible and respectable group of Americans as a cult is practically slanderous, and certainly unacceptable. This is true.

But discussion of beliefs? That needs to happen. Consider that it is almost a prerequisite of a presidential run that a candidate profess a "deep and abiding faith" in God (those with shallow, intermittent faiths need not apply) and declare it a cornerstone of their lives.

But that means various things to each candidate. To some it means, "My advisers say I need to profess a deep and abiding faith in God, so here goes." To others it might mean, "The Bible is the literal truth, and holds all the answers to how our nation should be run."

Big, important difference.

If candidates say the first thing they ask themselves when faced with a tough decision is "What would Jesus do?" it could signify almost anything, except for "Wear a yarmulke, keep kosher, and observe the Sabbath on Saturday," which is what Jesus would actually do.

Do they mean, "Love all, judge none, seek peace" or "Teach creationism, bar Muslims from high office and make the United States a nation of Christian soldiers?" Voting without knowing could be like picking paint blindfolded: only a good idea if you're never going to take off the blindfold.

When it came out that President Barack Obama's longtime pastor had said God should damn America, it was reasonable to ask if Obama agreed. A voter ought to know.

There are no Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists mounting major campaigns for president this year, but if there were, they too would need to explain how their faiths would affect their governing.

Much of our reticence about questioning a candidate's religious beliefs springs from the accusation, when soon-to-be President John F. Kennedy was running, that he would take his orders from the Vatican.

That's wasn't a discussion of faith, though. It was a baseless charge of treason. Just because we can't accuse someone of planning to sabotage the nation doesn't mean we can't ask if they believe in miracles -- and if they'll rely on them in lieu of smart policy decisions.

Dividing the supernatural, faith-based belief of the candidates into religions and cults based on whether their last revelation came millennia ago or centuries ago is like exchanging angry rhetoric over whether the Harry Potter movies rock harder than the Star Wars saga (even though they totally, totally do).

But we must evaluate those beliefs, if we're going to decide which one deserves to occupy the mental institution that is the White House.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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