Monday, August 06, 2007

Religious Belief and Political Office

Mitt Romney was not happy Thursday morning when a conservative radio host in Iowa grilled him about the tenets of his faith and insinuated that he was not faithful to some of them when he was governor of Massachusetts. The host also argued that Romney was making a mistake distancing himself from his Mormon beliefs in order to woo conservative Christian voters in Iowa and elsewhere, because what mattered more to them than his Mormon beliefs was whether he had the integrity to embrace and live those beliefs regardless of whether or not it was politically expedient. A visibly irritated Romney replied that his views and actions as governor and as a presidential candidate were consistent with his Mormon faith, and that he was getting tired of being questioned about his Church and faith when he was not campaigning as a representative of the Mormon Church but as a man who has the right stuff to be a good president.

For instance, Romney argued, the fact that his church forbids him to drink alcohol does not mean that he, as a public official, should seek to deny other people the right to drink alcohol. He, like any good public official of faith, is able to separate his faith from the duties of his office without being untrue to either. Furthermore, he argued, the fact that his church forbids its members to encourage or participate in abortion does not mean that he, early in his term as governor, violated his church's prohibition by vowing to uphold existing law allowing abortion.

I do not like the underhanded way that much of this exchange was recorded during commercial breaks in the radio program and then subsequently released, presumably without Mr. Romney's permission, to the media when Mr. Romney apparently did not know that he was being taped. However, I think Romney--despite the fact that I do not want someone with his views on abortion, gay rights, universal health care, the Iraqi war, and other matters to be president--handled himself rather well, and it was interesting to get a behind the scenes glimpse of what he is like when he is upset and thinks the camera is off. The fact that he can disagree with someone without becoming irrationally and unpleasantly disagreeable speaks positively for his character and, I think, his capacity to exercise judicious self-control under the pressures of the presidency.

Nevertheless, I question Mr. Romney's view that the teachings of the Mormon Church, which he claims to embrace, are irrelevant to his suitability to be president, and I further wonder whether we should not give more consideration to the religious beliefs of ALL political candidates before we support or vote for them.

If someone, no matter how accomplished he might be, were running for president who claimed to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or Zeus, we would surely consider him much more of a candidate for the mental ward than for the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth. There is no way he could get elected, and, I would think, rightfully so. For who but a fool or a nut could, as an adult, believe in such ridiculous fiction?

But then, how much less ridiculous is it to believe, among other things, that in 1830 a man was guided by an angel to a book composed of golden plates buried in the ground near his home in upstate New York, that this book chronicled the history of pre-Columbian Israelites who settled in the Midwest and became the principal ancestors of the American Indian peoples, and that Jackson County, Missouri was the Garden of Eden? Well, the Mormon Church teaches this, and Mitt Romney, as a self-professed devout Mormon, presumably believes this and many other equally if not more dubious teachings. Should such beliefs disqualify him from high (and, for that matter, low) political office? Why would the believer in the Tooth Fairy be disqualified by his belief and not Mitt Romney by his?

And why wouldn't a fundamentalist Christian who believes, among other things, that Satan, disguised as a snake, tempted Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit which led to the corruption of humankind and all of nature; that God drowned the whole world except for the contents of Noah's Ark; and that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, never did anything wrong in his whole life, walked on water, materialized food out of nowhere, raised the dead and performed other genuine miracles, died on the Cross to atone for our sins, and bodily rose from his tomb to visit his disciples and then ascend to heaven; and that a domain of unimaginably excruciating eternal agony awaiting those who disobey divine commands is compatible with a Supreme Being of perfect love, justice, and mercy be disqualified for the presidency or any public office by his or her beliefs?

Clearly we do not disqualify fundamentalist Christians from elective office on account of their incredible beliefs, and it is remotely possible that Romney could be the Republican nominee and eventual president of the United States despite his equally if not more incredible Mormon beliefs. But is this how it should be? I really do not see an essential difference between belief in a literal Tooth Fairy and belief in the literal God of the Bible or Book of Mormon. Yet we, the public, draw a huge, if poorly articulated, distinction between the two. Even those of us who think the Bible and Book of Mormon are literal nonsense accept this distinction. But on what basis? And is it, perhaps, time that we stop doing so? And if we do, what then? Do we refuse to vote for any candidate who claims to believe in the literal teachings of any mainstream religion? If so, would the candidates who remain be any better qualified for political office?

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