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Passing The People's Religious Test

This column was written by John B. Judis

The U.S. Constitution says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It also says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." These provisions meant that the new American nation would not sanction a state church and would also not follow England in banning Catholics from public office. But these two provisions had, or have acquired, a broader non-legal meaning: that, because religious matters would not fall under the state's purview, Americans would not make a politician's particular faith a prime consideration in evaluating him or her for public office. Religion was part of the "private" sector or of civil society.

Of course, there have been limits to American tolerance. In the country's first 170 years, this principle of pluralism was applied to different kinds of Protestantism but not to Catholicism or Judaism. These were seen as religious aberrations whose adherents could not be trusted with the public's business. But John F. Kennedy broke the Catholic barrier in 1960, and Joe Lieberman may have chipped away at the barrier against Jews in 2000. Still, some religions remain suspect. Virginia Republican Representative Virgil Goode wants to rule out Muslims who refuse to take an oath on the Bible, and Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, wants to exclude Mormons. Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, seems to want to exclude Mormons unless they make a public declaration of church-state separation similar to that which Kennedy made in 1960.

Goode (who said, "I'm for restricting immigration so that we don't have a majority of Muslims elected to the United States House of Representatives") has been rightly dismissed as a bigot, but what about Weisberg and Linker? Perhaps it's because I am a nonbeliever who fails to find one theology more compelling than another, but I don't think there is a lot of difference between their opposition to Mitt Romney (because he is a Mormon) and Protestant opposition to Democrat Al Smith in 1928 (because Protestants thought that, as a Catholic, he would take his orders from the Pope).

Romney is descended from generations of Mormons. His father, George Romney, was governor of Michigan, a Republican presidential candidate in 1968, and, later, secretary of the housing and urban development. George Romney was a moderate Republican--a supporter of civil rights and an eventual critic of the Vietnam War. I've seen no evidence that he made any decision as a public official that could attributed to his faith rather than to the usual calculations of interest and conscience that politicians make. His son, Mitt, ran for Senate in 1994 and served as governor of Massachusetts for the last four years. I've also seen no evidence that, as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney made decisions on the basis of his religion. And, when he was asked about his beliefs, Romney, like many politicians, said that they are "private."

But Weisberg and Linker are not satisfied. They produce two kinds of arguments to show that Romney's Mormonism disqualifies or (in Linker's case) potentially disqualifies him for office. First, Weisberg argues that a Mormon should not be president because what Mormons believe is "dogmatic, irrational, and absurd." Someone who holds Mormon beliefs, Weisberg argues, displays "a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is." Weisberg cites the historical claims made by Mormon founder Joseph Smith that he based on tablets he found in upper New York state during the Second Great Awakening. According to The Book of Mormon, descendants of the original tribes of Israel lived in America thousands of years ago. Smith later located the Garden of Eden itself in Missouri.

Absurd and irrational? Certainly. But no more so than the beliefs of many Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Is it more irrational to locate the Garden of Eden in Jackson County than in ancient Palestine or to ascribe magical powers of cognition to Smith or to Jesus himself or to a succession of Popes? I don't mean to blaspheme, but it's not obvious to me that one can draw a sharp distinction between the rationality of religious faiths. Weisberg, however, tries to do so. He disdains Mormonism because it is based on a "transparent and recent fraud." But it's no more recent than the Disciples of Christ, another Second Awakening Christian sect that claimed both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan as members.

What seems to bother Linker most about Mormons is the church's prophetic tradition, which makes the president of the Mormon Church a prophet and the "mouthpiece of God on earth." Linker worries what would happen if the president of the church issued a declaration that was immoral, and he recounts asking students at Brigham Young whether they would "commit murder in the name of their faith" if the president of the church commanded them to do so. According to Linker, "More than one pious young Mormon invariably responded by declaring that he would execute the prophet's commands, no matter what." But would Mitt Romney? This is exactly the kind of hypothetical situation that was posed by opponents of Smith in 1928 or of Kennedy in 1960.

Of course, you can find followers of any American religion who would do crazy things if asked by the president of the church, their minister, their rabbi, or the Pope. And you can find a few crazy ministers and rabbis and a bigoted Pope or two. But that's not the point. The first question is whether the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in America have been inclined to make such immoral pronouncements. They haven't, and there is no evidence they are about to. And the second question is whether Romney has displayed the kind of fanatical commitment that, if they were to do so, would override the moral and political considerations that a politician brings to bear in making decisions. And there is no evidence that Romney--or his father or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch or Jeff Flake--would. In other words, there is no reason not to give Romney the same pass that voters like Weisberg or Linker gave to Catholic or Jewish candidates.

Linker does make an interesting political point about Romney, which is that, to the extent Romney might like to distance himself from strict adherence to his religion--as he seemed to do during his 1994 senate campaign--he cannot do so now because he is seeking the votes of religious conservatives. That's probably right, but Linker also writes that, in trying to woo religious conservatives, Romney is not longer "soft-pedaling his faith," but that he "embraces it as central to his political strategy." That's not right, at least from the examples Linker gives. By opposing gay marriage and abortion, Romney has not embraced his Mormon faith, but merely the religious conservatism of the Republican Party, which spans Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, as well as Mormons.

There is a deeper point about American religion buried here. Weisberg compares the Mormon faith to Scientology--it's "Scientology plus 125 years." But there's a reason why we think of Scientology as a cult and the Church of Latter-Day Saints as a religion. One joins cults and becomes a follower--that implies a totalizing commitment that colors whatever one does. But one is born into a religious denomination, even one as recent as the Church of Latter-Day Saints. As a member of that community, one is expected to hold certain beliefs and carry out certain rituals, but there is an unspoken distinction between what one does as a member of religion and what one does as a business executive, public school teacher, or politician. Should this distinction apply to an Orthodox Jew and an observant Catholic, but not to a Mormon? Look at the political career of Romney and his father.

Certainly, there is a bridge between religion and politics that politicians cannot safely cross. And that consists in bringing particular, sectarian beliefs openly to bear on major national issues. George W. Bush is often accused of doing so, but he has actually has been fairly careful not to--for instance, in his decision on stem-cell research. It's a presumption of American politics that politicians will not cross this bridge. We've now given this benefit of a doubt to Catholics and Jews. It's time to give it to Mormons like Harry Reid and Mitt Romney.
John B. Judis
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