The ongoing war of words between Democratic presidential candidates (and U.S. Senators) Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seems somewhat unappealing, and may account for their recent six-point slides in an Iowa poll. But some comfort may be found in the idea that at least they’re bickering over substantial issues pertaining to defense and terrorism.

On the GOP side, however, the sniping has descended into something that looks like a schoolyard slappy-fight. The New York Times reports:

The fight is for second place in the Aug. 11 Iowa Straw poll, a traditional bellwether that signals the strength of Republican campaigns, and it pits Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, against Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. And it could mean life or death to either of their candidacies.

The current tensions stem from an e-mail message sent to two Brownback supporters by Rev. Tim Rude, the pastor of an evangelical church in Walnut Creek, Iowa. In the message, Mr. Rude, a Huckabee volunteer, compared the religious backgrounds of Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, and Mr. Brownback, who is Roman Catholic.

“I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002,” Mr. Rude wrote. “Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor’s.”

The message struck some as an attempt to highlight Mr. Brownback’s Catholicism in a state with a large Protestant electorate. After the message found its way into several blogs last week, Mr. Huckabee issued a statement on Wednesday saying that his campaign neither disseminated nor condoned the message. He called Mr. Brownback a “Christian brother” and added, “As believers, we don’t have time to fight each other.”

But the matter did not end there. After the Brownback campaign cried foul, Mr. Huckabee’s campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, a Catholic, said, “It’s time for Sam Brownback to stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he seems to always find lacking in others.”

He continued, “If Brownback is going to fall to pieces every time a supporter of the Governor says something he doesn’t like, he clearly isn’t tough enough to be President.”

Now, in the first place, I have no religion. To the other, I generally support the Democrats. What is this petty sniping supposed to mean to me? What should I take away from this exchange between Republicans? Does the Huckabee campaign expect to ride to victory on an anti-Catholic revival? Should we expect a campaign season riddled with accusing tracts and semi-pornographic insinuations? Is this the sort of thing where we’re going to have to put “No solicitors, missionaries, or Republicans” signs on our doors?

The thing is that I do consider religion when voting. A snake-handling Pentecostal revivalist would be less likely to get my vote than a Quaker. More reasonably, a Missouri Synod Lutheran would have greater obstacles to winning my vote than … um … a Lutheran who is not part of the MS. (Really, I’m a confirmed Lutheran, but I don’t even know which version of Lutheran that is, which should tell you something about the value of confirmation.)

It’s not the religious label, though. It’s what comes with it. I’ve heard some horrible things in various churches over the years. If anyone ever gives my daughter the “You’re born with black icky stuff inside you that only Jesus can cleanse” speech, there will, literally, be hell to pay. The difference in voting is whether or not a candidate believes such crap, and whether or not they intend to make it a part of their office. No more of this “God told me to invade” crap. No more of this argument that religious folks are discriminated against because public schools won’t teach creationism as a science. (Hint: If it doesn’t have an hypothesis we can test, or at least work toward testing, it ain’t science.) A candidate pushing such ideas, or using religious leverage against homosexuality, abortion, or free speech, doesn’t get my vote. It’s not the religious label, but how that label translates into practice.

Even this raises the occasional accusation of bigotry against Christians. So what should I think when the Huckabee campaign goes after an entire sect of Christianity? What can we say when someone smears at least 67 million Americans and over a billion people worldwide just to take a petty shot at a candidate with little, if any, chance of earning the GOP ticket?

And what does it say about the campaign’s integrity to trot out a campaign manager who happens to be Catholic in order to further the bigoted attack?

In the meantime, since we’re on the subject of religion and voting, I think former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney owes the Huckabee campaign some thanks. To further consider the role of religious outlook in my assessment of a candidate, I fully admit that Romney’s Mormon faith trips an alarm bell in my head. But the fact is that, despite the necessary confession that the entire LDS endeavor strikes a dissonant chord with me, I am well aware through prior acquaintances that we need not fear people simply because they are Mormons. Romney has done a good job, so far, keeping his political positions political; if his religious faith is to be a specific issue, it will be because he directly invites that consideration. It seems well enough to disagree with his politics instead of fretting over some seedy superstition about his sect. And the bigotry now staining the Huckabee campaign will only help other Americans look past their own superstitions about the Latter Day Saints. Mitt should make sure to send the Huckabee campaign a big thank-you card and some flowers.

Oh, and so should the Democrats. This whole mess can only help them.