Romney and Mormonism on the dock

…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. — Article 6 of the US Constitution

…one-in-four respondents to a recent nationwide Pew survey said that they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate for president… — How the Public Perceives Romney, Mormons, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

pluribusOn Thursday, presidential candidate Mitt Romney will give a speech on his Mormon faith and how it will affect his decisions, should he become President. It will be the first time since John F Kennedy’s 1960 address on his Catholicism that a candidate has been forced by polling negatives to talk about his faith.

Polling by the Pew Forum shows that Romney’s highest negatives are from white, evangelical protestants, 41% of which say they are reluctant to vote for a Mormon president. Among white mainline protestants, that number is only 16%.

In recent decades, Mormonism has received strong criticism from evangelicals, whose high view of Scripture conflicts with Mormonism’s expansion and reinterpretation of the Bible, primarily through the writings of founder Joseph Smith. Mormonism has been called a cult because of its tight hierarchy and revision of historic Christian doctrines. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints boasts some 13 million members around the world, which surely takes it out of the category of “cult” and into the mainstream.

I think it’s a good thing that candidates are talking more openly about their faith, or lack of faith. Belief and non-belief alters behavior, attitudes and political judgments. Voters need to try to predict how a candidate will respond to as-yet-undefined issues, and understanding a candidate’s mental reference points helps us understand how he or she will frame and decide those issues.

But I’ll admit that I’m uncomfortable about rejecting a candidate because of the flavor of his faith. That seems to be the explanation for Mitt Romney’s weak support among evangelical Christians. I think the Constitution has it right in rejecting religious tests for public office. If evangelicals shun Romney because of his Mormonism, it suggests to me that America is losing its claim as a place that values religious freedom.

Before Thursday’s speech, you might want to take a look at the resources the Pew Forum has assembled on Mitt Romney, including How the Public Perceives Romney, Mormons, and Resources on Mitt Romney and Mormonism.

For about a year in the early 1980’s I studied Mormonism, which included reading The Book of Mormon and The Pearl of Great Price. I then spent a number of months discussing the differences between my own understanding of Christianity and Mormonism with two Mormon missionaries. I’m aware of Mormonism’s doctrinal problems.

In his excellent essay for First Things, Is Mormonism Christian, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus rightly points out that Mormonism grew out of Christianity, but departs radically from it in a number of key areas of doctrine. I believe Mormonism and Christianity are two quite different religions, but I greatly respect some of the practices of Mormonism, especially their love of family and their commitment to community. I see the possibility that Mormonism wants to draw closer to mainstream Christianity in its doctrines. That would be a good thing.

Despite those differences, it seems to me a betrayal of the principle of E Pluribus Unum to reject an otherwise qualified and honorable political candidate because he practices a minority religious faith. Evangelicals have put the Romney campaign on the defensive, and that can’t be good for religious liberty.

(Update: Matthew Lee Anderson kindly links to this post at Mere Orthodoxy and makes a number of good points about the role of religion in politics.)

(Update #2: I read the text of Romney’s speech and I’m impressed. I thought he made a strong defense of America’s principles of religious freedom, and made a persuasive case that his Mormon faith will not compromise his duty to the nation if he is elected President. You can, and should, read what he had to say. Hugh Hewitt provides the text here.

By the way, I’m not endorsing Mitt Romney and haven’t decided who I will vote for. I’m interested in the free exercise of faith in the public square, and the questions that have been raised about Romney’s Mormon faith are important to all Americans who cherish their faith and our American traditions of unity in diversity.)

Photo credit: Adam Polselli

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  1. Charlie,

    Great post!

    I’m an evangelical Christian who has no problem voting for a Mormon for president. For quite a while (before he retired) my Congressman was Mormon, and he always voted the way I wanted him to. As much as I can, I talk to my friends to keep them from applying religious tests to politics. It isn’t easy.

  2. Presumably much evangelical reticence to vote for a president whose Mormon social conservatism matches their own is related to the phrase you use to descibe that faith: “tight hierachy”. The fear is that a Mormon president would be under the authority (to some extent) of this hierachy and that a vote for him is by default a vote for them; which would constitute a de facto violation church/state separation.

  3. Hideous Man,

    The people I’ve talked to (evangelical Christians) who have expressed reticence about Romney weren’t concerned about the Mormon church’s hierarchy directing him. They were more concerned about the religion itself, because they have a sense about it as this strange cult that believes in a different Jesus and has strange practices and beliefs about other planets, and it’s all too strange for them to want to endorse it by voting for a Mormon. Because if a Mormon is the president, it could encourage more people to embrace Mormonism instead of Christianity. It’s this fear that seems to drive them more than anything else–even though the societal values that Mormonism embraces are the very ones that will drive a Mormon president toward the policies my evangelical friends would want.

    I’ve tried to explain that if the vote comes down to, say Hillary vs. Rudy, they’d be voting for one or the other, when neither one seems to have any kind of heart-felt religious faith. Why could they vote for an apparent non-believer but not vote for someone whose heart, at least, is turned toward God? I don’t get it. It’s politics, not church.

  4. I think the problem many Evangelicals have with the idea of a Mormon as President is not about the allegiance to the church, but to the trustworthiness of the person who accepts the teachings. In the First Things story you mention, Neuhaus says “the founding stories and doctrines of Mormonism appear to the outsider as a bizarre phantasmagoria of fevered religious imagination not untouched by perverse genius”. To the evangelical Christian, one that accepts this “perverse genius” represents someone that possibly cannot be trusted with highest office in the country. Whether that is a correct assessment or not is a hard call, but from what I see and hear, that is what I think the problem is.

    So, I do not see that as a religious test of faith, but more a test of competence. It would be similar to the questions of character that have been spoken about by many in regards to candidates like Bill Clinton and John Kerry, and George W. Bush. In that way I think it is the freedom that we have in our faith and beliefs that enables us to determine that one candidate is qualified and another is not.

  5. Good comments, Bryan. I’ve certainly heard some others make this same case about Romney’s beliefs, and I think it’s a valid point. I guess my own thinking is that we Christian’s have some pretty bizarre beliefs, too — the virgin birth, for instance. I think it happened. I think it was a miracle. And I consider myself a rational person who accepts the scientific method for most things.

    If you take a strictly materialist position on life, you’d have to say that miracles are nonsense and people who believe in miracles are a little strange. So, I’m willing to cut Romney a bit of slack when it comes to believing things in his religion that are (to my way of thinking) a bit bizarre, because my own religion has its share of bizarre things in it, too.

  6. I loved the First Things article link.

    I’m not sure I share the “laissez faire” of most with regard to religion. Perhaps this question was not relevant to the Founders because of the shared assumptions of faith and doctrine of their day. Most, for example, certainly did not have even a decent respect for the “pagan” practices of the American Indian. And I offer this because I think that on some deep level most Americans share a religious boundary of belief that informs their worldview. Mormonism either straddles or is outside of this boundary. We are a nation of Protestants mostly, with exceptions, I realize. But so as not to single out Mormonism, my thought processes also require me to list reasons why I would not vote for a Wiccan, a Muslim, a Hindu, an Atheist, or a Scientologist for high office. Each of these faiths exist outside this shared “boundary” of American belief and would raise questions about trust, integrity, honor, redemption, hope, and human possibility. And I’m not trying to sound lofty here, but for me God is real and our highest office-holder must be established and nurtured in the Judeo-Christian heritage without too many questions or rejections of it.

  7. Richard Sell says

    Romney could vote “the way” some of us want but we need to remember that Mormonism is not Christianity, and religion has a great affect on someone’s personality. I know many Mormons, and most are nice, good valued people but the are confused. I can’t possibly discuss all the problems, contradictions, and weird “history” involved with the Mormon faith but I can say one thing: Jesus was the author and finisher of the faith and if real Christians accept Mormonism, they are denying that fact.