Friday, December 07, 2007

The "religious issue"

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney made a speech at the Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas yesterday that can only be seen as a critical and defining moment in both his campaign and perhaps his faith as well. In the address, Romney sought to allay concerns from evangelicals and others about the idea of having a Mormon in office as President of the United States. It is easy for some to dismiss the issue as irrelevant until one recalls that Mormons do not have a history of a pleasant relationship with the federal government, with various State governments, or with mainline Christendom. Some of this was due to persecution on the part of former entities, but as much or more was the fault of Mormon leaders as well-one of Romney's ancestors (a member of the Quorum of the "Twelve Apostles") was part of the reason for anti-Mormon tensions in Arkansas. His death occurred there after he engaged in a polygamous marriage to another man's wife. When the Mormons fled to Utah, they did so not to settle the Salt Lake Valley, but to flee the United States.

It is impossible for many Christians (including myself) to see Mormons as Christian. Romney tackled this head-on:

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his
church's distinctive doctrines," Romney said. "To do so would enable the very
religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should
become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president, he will need
the prayers of the people of all faiths."

Romney is quite correct that the federal Constitution prohibits a religious test for federal office. This means that no man or woman can be denied the right to hold office at the federal level because of his or her religious faith or lack thereof. There is nothing in the Constitution that forbids the electorate from having a religious test of their own, however-and they are free to exercise that test in the voting booth at their choosing.

I understand Romney's religious dilemma because there are certain Protestant fundamentalists who do not see Catholics as Christian and there are doubtless those who would choose not to vote for me because I am Catholic. I find that truly saddening, but that is their privilege. I say that because I have a religious test of my own-I absolutely refuse to vote for a professed atheist or agnostic to hold office in any level of government at any time. I have never knowingly voted for an atheist, and (by the Grace of God) I never will. I choose to exercise that religious test on candidates as a voter, and it is my right to do so. Other voters have that same right during an election.

I have no problem whatsoever casting a vote for a Mormon, and Romney's Mormon faith plays no factor in my choice whether or not to vote for him. Whether he has been true to certain basic principles of his faith does play a part in that decision. On this point I agree with Mike Huckabee:

"I think it's a matter of what his views are - whether they are consistent,
whether they are authentic, just like mine are," Huckabee told NBC's "Today."
"If I had actions that were completely opposite of my Christian faith, then I
would think people would have reason to doubt if this part of my life, which is
supposed to be so important, doesn't influence me. Then they would have to
question whether or not there are other areas of my life that lack that
authenticity as well.

"It has nothing to do with what faith a person has - it's whether or
not that person's life is consistent with how he lives it."

The difficulties I have had with Mitt Romney have nothing to do with the fact that he is a Mormon, but that he favored abortion before he suddenly became opposed to it when he decided to run for President. He is now speaking in a conservative language that makes him sound like the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. I want to believe what the man is saying-he needs to explain the inconsistencies in his record more thoroughly.

When John F. Kennedy ran for President, his solution for tackling the "religious issue" was to completely disavow the moral authority of Church leadership. This is also extremely dangerous, for Kennedy was effectively saying "I will only be Catholic on Sunday as President." I want leaders who have faith and who exercise it every day of the week, not just when they aren't doing public business. Romney, Huckabee, or any other candidate needs to prayerfully consider how they can live their faith while doing their job effectively.

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