Religious Test for Public Office?

I have voiced extreme skepticism in the past about the electability of Mitt Romney based on his religious affiliation as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

See these two posts, for example:

- Romney and Reid

- Mormon vs. Mormon, or What Would it Take For a Third-Party Candidate to Win a Presidential Election in America?

Basically, I have always thought that Romney couldn’t win the primaries because of Evangelical opposition to him on religious grounds.  If he could get past the primaries, I think he would stand a great chance on the national level.  But I figured that he couldn’t survive the primaries based on a tacit — or more likely even explicit — religious test for office.  If that happens, it will not be a government-imposed, unconstitutional religious test for public office but rather a deep disagreement about theology and Christian doctrine that a large percentage of the potential constituencies in the primaries would have.

But I may have been wrong in my assessment, even though it is based on my personal observations about Evangelicals and how they act toward Latter-day Saints.  An intriguing blog called Evangelicals for Mitt attempts to dispel such theories by addressing the "Mormon question" head-on, and very satisfactorily, I might add.  The blog includes a page on why they support Romney, which includes the following statement:

But…He’s a Mormon.

Yes, Gov. Romney is a Mormon. We are not. According to the liberal media, this is an unbridgeable gap, and evangelicals will never turn out to support a faithful Mormon like Mitt Romney. As usual, the media have it wrong. And they root their error (as usual) in a fundamental misunderstanding about American evangelicals—seeing us as ignorant and intolerant simpletons who are incapable of making sophisticated political value judgments.

To be perfectly clear, we believe Gov. Romney is not only acceptable to conservative Christians, but that he is clearly the best choice for people of faith. He is right on all the issues, and he has proven his positions with actions. He is a gifted and persuasive spokesman for our political and moral values. Here is the bottom line: the 2008 election is for president, not pastor. We would never advocate that the Governor become our pastor or lead our churches—we disagree with him profoundly on theological issues. But we reject the notion that the president of the United States has to be in perfect harmony with our religious doctrine. In fact, that is not a test that has been applied before—after all, Jimmy Carter was probably more theologically in line with evangelicals than Ronald Reagan, yet we believe that Reagan was clearly the better choice in 1980.

Let’s leave the absurd religious litmus test to the Democrats. What we want is a president who shares our moral and political values and will put them into action. A President Romney would do that—just as he’s done in Massachusetts—making him stand head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

Finally, it is not just our theory that evangelicals will support Governor Romney. In March, 2006, he shocked the political establishment by finishing second at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll in Memphis, Tennessee. We led the grassroots effort that put him above John McCain and George Allen, and where did he get the vast majority of his support? From the very Southern evangelicals who the media is convinced will not support a Mormon from Massachusetts. (emphasis added)

I think this perspective is greatly needed.  First, I found it interesting that these Evangelicals who support Romney blame the media for creating this notion that Evangelicals will never vote for Romney.  By portraying Evangelicals as unsophisticated and ignorant, the media has created the perception that they cannot see past differences in religious doctrine.  Although I find this to be an interesting suggestion, the truth is, I do not believe it is true.  Unfortunately, Evangelicals have themselves to blame for the perception that they are so anti-Mormon that they would not even consider voting for a Latter-day Saint as President.  If some Evangelicals, such as those running the Evangelicals for Romney blog, have a problem with that, then they need to take it up with the likes of Pat Robertson and other instigators of the whole "Mormons aren’t Christian" campaign.

But Latter-day Saints are different doctrinally than Evangelicals (or other creedal Christians, for that matter).  That is just fine.  We can still all live together in society and serve one another as neighbors and in politics.   That’s why I find the first bolded portion so important.  We need to "reject the notion that the president of the United States has to be in perfect harmony with our religious doctrine."  If we can do that, we will all be better off in the long run, regardless of whether Mitt Romney becomes President.

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6 Responses to Religious Test for Public Office?

  1. myclob says:

    Great post. I’m trying to organize reasons to agree and reasons to disagree with Mitt Romney’s religious positions on this site:

    http://myclob.pbwiki.com/Religion

    Do you have anything you would like to add? If so, feel free to drop me a line.

  2. Hellmut says:

    This blog has been on the nacle before. Somebody claimed the URL and the hosting service were placed in Provo. They also showed that the authors had published together with BYU folks.

    I never looked into it myself. If that is true, however, then people close to Romney are merely astroturfing evangelical and Catholic support for Romney.

    That’s rhetorically useful but not an indication of widespread support.

    To get the pulse of the Robinson folks, I make it a habit of listening to AM evangelical stations whenever I drive across the country to Salt Lake. Every day there are several vitriolic anti-Mormon messages. Whatever some intellectuals who happen to hang out with the BYU crowd say, that’s were the Robinson people really are.

    I am not going to believe that evangelicals will tolerate Mitt until I see them knocking doors for Romney.

  3. john f. says:

    Great point, Hellmut. I very much agree with your short analysis.

    What’s worse is that, if it is true that Evangelicals would not consider voting for Romney merely because he is LDS and not out of policy-based objections, then they are no better than the Shia and Sunnis in Iraq. Why can’t they see this? A Shiite in Iraq simply will not vote for a Sunni politician based purely on differences in religious doctrine. The Sunnis by and large, after all, do not even consider the Shia to be Muslims! Evangelicals need to realize that they are playing the same game of sectarian pettiness that currently balkanizes Iraq and that prevents any number of tin-pot pseudo-democratic dictatorships from being true democracies. We need to take the approach that the President’s sect or creed simply doesn’t matter. In America, we should be willing to elect a Muslim President, or a Methodist, a Catholic, or a Jew. Unfortunately, I could envision the day when all that is possible and yet America would still balk at a Latter-day Saint.

  4. Adam Greenwood says:

    1. I don’t see any reason that Hellmut and John F. would be so willing to believe that Evangelicals for Mitt is some kind of front other than bigotry. Its excusable bigotry, at least in John F.’s case–the kind where experience forms expectations and later experience that doesn’t fit those expectations is discounted–but its still bigotry.

    2. “Evangelicals have themselves to blame for the perception that they are so anti-Mormon that they would not even consider voting for a Latter-day Saint as President.”
    This is largely true, but I wouldn’t discount the degree to which leftwingers and liberals play it up. Do not expect that Mormonism will become a dead issue once the primaries are over.
    Also, consider that the evangelicals who are the most anti-Mormon are not necessarily the same as those who are the most politically active. Evangelicals are not monolithic.

    3. “They need to take it up with the likes of Pat Robertson and other instigators of the whole “Mormons aren’t Christian” campaign.”
    You’re mixing doctrines and politics exactly in the way you decry. You and I agree that Mormons are Christians. For not very good reasons, and partly because of religious prejudice, lots of Evangelicals don’t. But that’s a theological issue, not a political one. Evangelicals for Mitt should not insist that evangelical leaders–who’ve publicly stated that they could support Mitt Romney–also embrace his as a fellow Christian.

  5. john f. says:

    Thanks for the notes, Adam. I agree that I shouldn’t expect Evangelicals for Mitt to accept him as a Christian. I thought I made that clear. My view is that a Presidential candidate’s religion should be irrelevant as a test for public office.

    But what did you think about the Shia and Sunni comparison to American Evangelicals?

  6. Adam Greenwood says:

    Shia and Sunni? I think comparisons are premature, because we haven’t seen yet that most Evangelicals refuse to vote for Mitt on the basis of religion. I’m betting that at most 2-3% of the rightwing electorate refuse to vote for him, which is a lot different than the Shia/Sunni problem you’re talking about. Still bad news for the Mitt campaign though.

    I don’t think even a widespread refusal to vote for Mormons would be a problem for American democracy, though, the way it might be for an Iraq. We’re just not that important, unfortunately.

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