The Republican Party has prided itself on having cornered the “values voters” constituency through its unabashed displays of religious faith. It has sought political victory by direct appeal to the Christian evangelical vote while casting Democrats as godless socialists. Among the Republican candidates vying to be the party’s nominee, several talk quite openly about their faith. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry come immediately to mind. In fact, in August, Texas Gov. Perry (an evangelical United Methodist attending a Southern Baptist megachurch), held a highly publicized prayer meeting in Houston called “The Response: A Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation.” Contrast this with candidate Mitt Romney, whose Houston religious gathering in 2008 was a speech intended to quash any discussion of his religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormon church).

Romney has refused any interviews about his religious experience since his speech in 2008. In that speech, meant to mimic the effectiveness of John Kennedy’s speech in 1960, Romney stated the following: “Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are. And I will answer them today.”

After a very effective offering of his own record as governor of Massachusetts as exhibit A of his ability to separate his faith commitments from his governing practices (he was then a pro-choice governor while his church was adamantly anti-abortion), he delicately approached the tricky area of theology. Here, however, he wanted to have it both ways. He wanted the voters to see him as a Christian like them but didn’t allow for any examination of the “distinctive doctrines” of Mormon theology. He stated: “There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. …There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.”

Romney continued this theme in Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate when he claimed that “the founders of this country … put it in the Constitution … that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion. … The concept that we select people based on the church … that they go to, I think, is a very dangerous and enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution” [emphasis added].

If by we Romney means the American people, it is not at all clear that he has his Constitution right. But what is clear is that discussion of Romney’s Mormon faith is dangerous to his candidacy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in fact viewed with suspicion by many Americans. A Pew poll showed that among those who do not believe that the LDS church is a Christian faith, 42 percent would be less likely to vote for a Mormon for president.

Recently, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, leader of a Texas megachurch, introduced Perry to the Republican-friendly Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. He stated, “Those of us who are evangelical Christians are going to have a choice to make, and the choice is going to be this: Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or one who is skilled in leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good moral person or do we want a candidate who is a born again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? Rick Perry is … a genuine follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The veiled allusions to Romney in his unnamed choice could scarcely be more transparent. After the event, Jeffress was asked to explain his comments and he stated plainly that “Mormonism is not Christianity; it has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity. … ”

Immediately, a firestorm of protest broke out, led by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews of “Hardball,” claiming that such talk had no place in presidential politics, that the Constitution protected candidates from having to pass any religious test in order to hold office and that a candidate’s religion was a personal matter of faith and not appropriate for examination during a presidential election contest. But would the media be so shy about Romney’s religion if he were a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS, the denomination that continues the original Mormon practice of plural marriage)? Were Romney a member of this church but the husband of only one wife, would his religion be a matter of interest to the media? I think so. Or as Bill Keller asked in his New York Times column, “If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?” Although Keller’s question could not be obviously linked to any familiar religious body, the question raised is whether or not a candidate’s religion is a legitimate field of inquiry by the public and the press (not the government)? The best answer to this question is: sometimes. To the extent that religion is an important part of a candidate’s background it is a legitimate field of inquiry.

The public may learn something important about Romney by understanding more about Mormonism, or it may learn nothing relevant to its decision about his candidacy. But that is a decision voters can make only when they have the information.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.

Matthews and others have reinvented the founders’ purposes to deny that members of the public may even inquire as to the religious beliefs of a candidate who has asked them for their vote. Pressed by Jeffress in the interview, Matthews admitted as much but persisted that it was a “higher value” expressed by the Constitution than the blatant prejudice of preference for a candidate of one faith over another. This is only a slightly more sophisticated argument but still misses the point.

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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