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Getting Romney’s Religion
Posted on Oct 20, 2011
In his 2008 speech, Romney, having treaded gingerly into theological territory in order to appeal to evangelical voters, gave incomplete information about his faith. What he said about his view of Jesus Christ was true as far as it went. Unfortunately, that left it to others who would exploit the religious biases of the electorate to explain Mormonism’s other “distinctive doctrines.” The belief that Jesus appeared in North America to Joseph Smith in 1820, that God has a human body and Jesus is a “spirit brother” of Satan are among the more inflammatory doctrines to traditional Christians.
So we seem stuck between no discussion of a candidate’s faith and a blatant appeal to the prejudices of the electorate. But the “sometimes” answer suggests that the particular history of a candidate gives the key to the issues that are meaningful to understand.
Romney may maintain that he does not speak for his church and his church does not speak for him but this was not always the case. According to a recent New York Times profile of Romney’s role in the Mormon church, he was a major figure in his faith. For more than a decade in the ’80s and ’90s, Romney served at times as a bishop and as president of the Boston stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney provided leadership within the congregation, gave large sums of money (Mormons are required to tithe 10 percent of their income), led evangelistic efforts of the church and represented it in its various public relations needs as it built a Mormon temple in his town of Belmont. This would seem to establish his religious background as an important part of his identity. It was also during this time that he personally intervened to prevent a woman with major medical complications in her pregnancy from seeking an abortion. That’s information the voter should know as we continue to debate the questions of access to safe and legal abortions in this country.
The prohibition to which Romney, Chris Matthews and others appeal is a prohibition preventing any government agency from disqualifying the candidacy of a person solely on the basis of their religion. U.S. Constitution Article VI Clause 3: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” [emphasis added]. The founders were reacting specifically to the 17th century Test Acts of England that required persons holding civil offices to adhere to the tenets of the Church of England.
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Voters need as much information as possible about a candidate to determine their choice. Candidates answer public queries from the serious to the ridiculous. One voter famously asked then-candidate Bill Clinton whether he wore “boxers or briefs.” If candidates have any religious experience it is important to the voters to understand whether and to what extent that religion has shaped their values, worldview, commitments and behaviors. It is also an important insight to candidates’ future decisions when faced with issues that overlap with the tenets of their faith. If a candidate does not have religious experience, people may make of that what they will but can do so only if they are aware. If it is important for voters to be informed, then it is important for the media to provide as much information as possible, including a candidate’s religion (or lack thereof) and his or her relationship to that faith.
A candidate’s faith does in fact matter, especially when the religious institution to which he or she belongs is involved in explicit political campaigns that affect millions of lives. Such issues as civil rights for women, immigrants and the LGBT community come immediately to mind. Roman Catholic candidates have an important clarification to make if they disagree with their church’s campaign against reproductive rights for women or to providing medical care to women in reproductive distress. They will also have to defend the position of their church favoring comprehensive immigration reform to voters opposed to such a policy. Mormon candidates have an important clarification to make if they disagree with their church’s campaign against marriage equality for LGBT folks. Southern Baptist candidates will have to explain why a secular voter should support them if they belong to a church that has a history of being racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-science.
Finally, it is hypocrisy to demand that candidates denounce their religion by distancing themselves from the statements of religious leaders or institutions to which they belong. Only voluntary statements of clarification or disagreement should be part of the discussion. Perry did volunteer his own statement that Mormonism is not a cult (he didn’t say it was a Christian faith) yet the media persist in hounding a “denunciation” out of him. But to do so would be to require him to contradict the orthodox teaching of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the country). Jeffress’ motives were not pure. He knows what the polls say about voters and Mormonism. But the only way that the American people can overcome their bigotry is to become familiar with persons of diverse faiths serving in office and to experience them as people in whom they can entrust civic responsibilities even if they aspire to a different heaven.
Romney, by hiding his faith, robs the American voter of this growth opportunity. President Obama gave his own speech on his faith in Philadelphia during the primary campaign in 2008. It did not hide the origins or doctrine of Black Liberation Theology but put it in a historical context that allowed American voters to grow in the breadth of their religious tolerance. But Romney wants to in one breath assert that he’s just like the average evangelical voter and then hold his breath when it comes to a greater understanding of this important faith. In this way he serves neither the founders nor the voters.
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