…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
On 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