My brother Terry (who just started a new blog) has an interesting post up today about Mitt Romney and religion. Much has been written about Romney’s Mormonism and I suppose much more will be written before all is said and done. Terry takes a little different approach to the subject:
Nevertheless, voters choose candidates for all kinds of reasons, some legitimate, some not. And sometimes, faith matters. For instance, if a candidate openly declared, “I am an atheist; God is a fairy tale invented to comfort children frightened of the dark”—I don’t think he or she would get elected in America. Ever. I think we’ll have a fat, gay Muslim president before we have an atheist one.
That’s because at some level we learn about people through their religion—or lack of it. A candidate’s faith is contextual—it fills out a public profile with the outlines of the most private of our commitments. And it is here—in the quest to understand what kind of man Mitt Romney, presidential candidate, is—that his Mormonism seems to matter to some.
Indeed, not only does Romney’s religion seem to draw criticism – even from some Christians – but some of the arguments used to question the former Massachusetts governor about his fidelity to the Constitution are eerily reminiscent of those used when Representative Keith Ellison was set to take his oath using the Koran.
One may object that all religious beliefs are irrationalâ€”what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Latter-day Saints is expanding rapidly and liberalizing in various ways, but it remains fundamentally an orthodox creed with no visible reform wing.
Beliefs that are “different” or hard to understand engender fear. I have frankly been amazed at the number of “Islamic scholars” who have emerged in the blogosphere over the last few years who, at the drop of a hat (and with a breathtaking casualness that bespeaks a shallowness of thought or just plain ignorance), will be more than happy to tell you that Islam is a religion of liars; that because of one line or another of text they’ve taken out of context from the Koran, there is proof that we can never trust Muslims, that Allah instructs them to lie to infidels in order to achieve worldwide conquest by Islam.
I have no doubt that the fanatics, the fundamentalists, the “Let’s Bring Back The Caliphate” crowd can justify anything by taking lines of revealed truth from the Koran and applying it to their jihad. A cursory glance at our own history reveals some dark truths about the way the Bible was used in similar fashion. Excerpts from the Bible have been used to justify slavery, war, capitol punishment (and anti-death penalty tracts), colonialism, forced conversions, and a host of other evils that any rational and loving God would never have intended.
The belief that Romney would be any less true to the Constitution as President because of his faith is a legitimate question. But how about questioning specific beliefs that may seem to some as outrageous or dangerous?
But there is a deeper argument about Mormonism and the presidency, and it deals with the contemporary authority of prophecy and revelation. As I understand it, Mormons believe we live in an age of prophecy—articulated in the pronouncements of the leaders of their church—and that these authentic revelations of God’s will are aimed at reforming Christianity and the world in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (which will be in Missouri—a tenet that makes a lot of people giggle. But if you’d told the Romans God was about to manifest himself on earth in Bethlehem, they’d have giggled, too.)
The issue for some (Damon Linker laid it out in The New Republic) is that if a person truly believes the utterances of church leaders are revelations carrying the force of prophecy—then they are binding, and binding on every aspect of life. Would a President Romney be bound by prophetic Mormon teaching on issues from abortion and stem-cell research to the Middle East? Is the question any different for a Mormon like Romney than it is for a Methodist like George W. Bush or a Catholic like John F. Kennedy?
The answer to Terry’s question can be found in history. In the most famous modern speech on religion and politics, candidate John F. Kennedy spoke before the ultra conservative Ministerial Association of Greater Houston in order to lay to rest once and for all the idea that a Roman Catholic couldn’t be President.
It was a brilliant speech. Kennedy challenged people to vote for him in order to prove that they were not bigots, a brilliant political ploy. And, he defined the role that religion should play in public life:
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewishâ€”where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical sourceâ€”where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officialsâ€”and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
Kennedy is referring, of course, to the notion still prevalent at that time that a Catholic President would be in the pocket of the pope – a fear directed toward Catholics that had been with the nation since the earliest of colonial times. In one afternoon, Kennedy swept away 300 years of history and replaced it with challenge for tolerance.
Will Romney be forced into a similar declaration as a result of Mormon tradition and beliefs? Given the ink already devoted to this subject, my guess is that he will have to do so sooner rather than later. One thing is certain, he can’t keep ducking the issue. People would believe he has something to hide if he continues to refer to his beliefs as “private.”
What does it say about the United States that here, in the 21st century, we are still grappling with issues of religion and politics? Freedom has a price. And sometimes the price exacted isn’t fair or equitable but simply necessary. Romney will realize this and eventually address the issue. How he does so will determine the way people judge him as a man and a candidate.