It is widely considered improper to ask a presidential candidate about his religion and its political implications. The notion is mistakenly derived from the final clause of Article VI of the Constitution, which says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification” for any federal office. That means we may not bar a successful candidate from taking office because of his religion (or lack thereof). As Judge John T. Noonan of the Ninth Circuit argued against those who objected to his Catholicism, it also means that we cannot object to the conduct, or prospective conduct, of a sitting judge because of his religion. It does not mean, however, that we may not question a political candidate about the implications of his religion for public policy.
Before ending his presidential campaign, Rick Santorum presented a case study. During his campaign, Santorum made it clear that he was a very conservative Roman Catholic, and several of his political views clearly derived from Catholic principles. When, for example, Santorum declared his opposition to birth control, voters of many faiths, including more than a few Catholic women, withdrew their support. Like it or not, voters will not hesitate to turn down a candidate whose religiously based views they consider objectionable, and nothing in Article VI prevents them from doing so.
Because there are about 70 million Catholics in the United States, their numbers ensure that other Americans—friends, relations, colleagues—know a good deal about Catholicism and its possible effects on political positions. And most Americans know that there are considerable religious and political differences among Catholics. Unlike Santorum, whose political ideas have been strongly influenced by church teachings, John F. Kennedy insisted on the “absolute” separation of church and state in the conduct of a president (as he famously put it to a Protestant audience in 1960)—a position Santorum has said he finds nauseating.
The presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, belongs to the Church of Latter Day Saints, whose members believe that in 1830 their founder, Joseph Smith, found golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon, the foundational text of their faith. As Gary Wills recently reminded us, Mormons also believe that the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired.
Most of the country’s six million or so Mormons live in the West (many in Utah). Consequently, most Americans encounter Mormons only rarely and know little about their beliefs, apart from the fact that they abandoned the practice of polygamy at the end of the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Church of Latter Day Saints stopped discriminating against African Americans. When Romney was recently asked whether he regarded racial intermarriage as a “sin,” he quickly said no and moved on, reluctant to consider further questions about race and Mormonism. Although Romney has been actively involved in his church, we simply do not know the extent to which Mormonism influences his political thought today. When he served as governor of Massachusetts, the subject rarely came up. Perhaps that should not be surprising: the current leader of the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid, is also a Mormon, and we hear very little about that.
It seems unlikely that Romney’s religion would materially affect his conduct as president. Yet the powers of the presidency are extraordinary and unique. Presidents now take bold steps before (or without) winning congressional support: they and the officials they appoint make policies affecting same-sex marriage, environmental protection, illegal immigration, public education, and health care. Voters should therefore know as much as possible about what presidential candidates believe—and they have a right to ask how a candidate’s religious beliefs relate to his or her political beliefs. In other words, we should be curious about how Romney’s Mormonism affects his worldview, and Article VI is not a barrier to the inquiry.