You might expect a member of a religious minority running
for president to strongly support religious tolerance. You would expect this
candidate to likely be a fervent defender of the separation between church and
state. You'd expect him to passionately defend one's right to worship as he
pleases or even his right to not worship at all. In the case of Mitt Romney,
who is a Mormon, you would be mistaken.
Last week at Texas A&M University, Mr. Romney gave a
speech, "Faith in America," about his beliefs on the role of religion in
politics. It was supposed to be his "JFK moment" — in fact, it took place just
miles from where President Kennedy, a Catholic, gave his famous speech on
religion. Like Mr. Kennedy, the goal of Mr. Romney's speech was not to delve
into controversial Mormon doctrine and explain it in detail to voters, but
rather to show in a general sense how "the governor's own faith would inform
his presidency if elected," a campaign spokesperson told CNN.
This was his chance to put to rest any lingering doubts
about his Mormonism. And there clearly are a lot of lingering doubts among
Americans. A Pew Research poll from August found that only half the American
public has a favorable view of Mormonism and a quarter would be less likely to
vote for a Mormon candidate for president, including one-third of Republicans
and evangelical Christians.
Many evangelical Christian Republican primary voters are not
going to vote for Mr. Romney simply because he is a Mormon. They consider
Mormonism to be a cult, regardless of the similarity in social conservative
values he shares with evangelical Christians. A speech like the one he gave
probably won't help him with these voters, since the very idea of separation of
church and state is anathema to many conservative Christians.
But should the faith of political candidates be an issue at
all in a nation that supposedly has constitutionally guaranteed religious
freedom and historic separation between church and state? This is the essential
double-standard in American politics. We're supposed to accept that faith
permeates everything a religious person does. We passively acknowledge that
faith is a necessarily positive influence; as long as you believe in something,
you're more likely to have strong moral values. But we can't ask candidates
specific questions about religious doctrine.
Yet, can't we suspect that a person's deeply held religious
views will affect his policy positions? If a candidate's religion bans a
certain thing (say, birth control pills) and he is a strong adherent of that
faith, aren't we entitled to know if strict adherence to that faith will
require the candidate to impose his religious views on those who don't share
I don't think the YouTube question in the last debate about
whether the candidates take the Bible literally was out of bounds. If someone
does think the whole Bible is the inerrant word of God, it puts his or her
overall judgment into question. The same goes for candidates who would blindly
follow the decrees of the hierarchy of their religions.
This was exactly the kind of thing Mr. Kennedy was trying to
convince Americans not to worry about. Mr. Kennedy stated in his Texas speech
in 1960 that he believed in an America where "the separation of church and
state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to
act." Can you imagine any Republican saying that today?
Mr. Romney, instead, chose to speak in code, giving lip
service to "religious liberty," but insisting that faith permeates his life and
emphasizing the commonalities between Mormonism and Christianity, declaring "I
believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." He also
stressed the commonalities between all religions but omitted any reference to
Eastern religions and the nonreligious. He even insisted, "Freedom requires
religion," which would seem to indicate nonreligious Americans cannot be
As Maureen Dowd so aptly titled her column in The New York
Times on Sunday, "Mitt is no J.F.K." Ms. Dowd quoted Jon Krakauer, an author of
a bestselling book on Mormonism, as saying, "J.F.K.'s speech was to reassure
Americans that he wasn't a religious fanatic. Mitt's was to tell evangelical
Christians, 'I'm a religious fanatic just like you.'"
Mr. Romney recently told a Christian Science Monitor
reporter he wouldn't favor nominating any qualified Muslims to serve in his
cabinet if he were elected president, noting their small population size. This
would include Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. ambassador to the United
Nations. His spokesperson refused to answer a question about whether Mr. Romney
believes atheists even have a "place in America," after his refusal to
acknowledge them in his speech.
If you give lip service to intolerance, you shouldn't be
shocked if you eventually fall victim to intolerance. Mr. Romney has made a
calculation that he can't be nominated if he says anything tolerant of the two
biggest bogeymen to Republicans: Muslims and atheists. But Mr. Romney should
think hard about what kind of voters he wants to court because, as he is
beginning to figure out, it's not easy to be all things to all people.
Ryan Greenfield ([email protected])
is a junior majoring in political science and economics.