Romney's Religion

Should it matter?

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. 

Photo: Gage Skidmore

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While I agree that Romney's beliefs should not bar him from the office of president and that Article VI does not prohibit us from asking, it would be even more to the point to indicate what kind of substantive policy questions would be appropriate vs. what type of spurious lines of questioning would be disparaging.

It often seems that the "dumbed down" version of such instersections of faith and politics are simply social policy rhetoric or the politicizing of WWJD if he were a member of my party. Neither approach shows a well integrated person capable of theological reflection.

While I am not voting for a theologians primarily in seeking to choose a president, it would be helpful to see someone capable of that level of integrated, deliberative, reflection.

"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."

Santorum's ideas have been influenced by a narrow and highly selective area of church teachings. The church currently supports universal health care, social justice, the living wage, the right to unionize, and several popes have pronounced that the economy exists for the people, not the other way around.

On top of which, the Catholic Church has accepted the truth of evolution. Sell that one to the Creationists.

As to seperation of church and state, it was Pope John Paul II who ordered priests out of political office. How much more seperated can Santorum ask?

Yes, many Catholic women did abandon Santorum when he spoke against contraception, I would go so far as to say most, as did most Catholic men. Contraception is fully acceptable to most Catholics, and even more prostestants. The political outcry is only politics, with no real involvement with morality.

Since the article was specifically about Romney, I will post a second comment. As a Catholic I am sensitive about bringing religion into the race. I should say, as an older Catholic, as I remember a classmate in 1960 asking how we could be sure JFK would not be taking secret orders from the Vatican. That is why he insisted on absolute seperation of church and state.

It was a wise position in any case, as whenever church and state are mingled it's bad for both of them.

However, in Romney's case, there are way too many questions. Romney himself opened the door when he said Jesus was his savior, just like he is ours. From what I have seen and read of Mormon teachngs, that is hardly even close to true. Jesus may be Romney's savior, but nothing like he is mine.

Which would not be a significant point, except, I have found it pretty well impossible to find any source that will give me authorative answers to the questions about Mormon beliefs. As a Catholic there are no church teachings I cannot tell you about, in fact I am encouraged to do so. That does not seem to be true of Mormons.

If Mormon teachings are destructive, or even so far out they won't talk about them, that is significant if the person running for office is devout in those beliefs, and will not speak the truth, the whole truth, about them.

 

There's a MORMONISM FOR DUMMIES available in most bookstores for anyone curious enough to want more FAQs about Mormon beliefs.  However, considering Romney's general tendency to obfuscate and -- how to put this? -- dissociate himself from reality whenever reality gets hard to handle, I'm not so sure 1. if Mormon doctrine has any direct association with Romney thinking, or for that matter, 2. if Romney thinking has any direct or even indirect association with Romney politics. 

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About the Author

Joseph D. Becker, a founding partner of Becker, Glynn, Melamed and Muffly, a Manhattan law firm, is author of The American Law of Nations (Judis).