Sunday, December 16, 2007

What Part of "No Religious Test for Public Office" Is Hard To Understand?

Frank Rich's column today is about Lawrence O'Donnell's rant against Mitt Romney's Mormonism on The McLaughlin Group:

This campaign season has been in desperate need of its own reincarnation of Howard Beale from “Network”: a TV talking head who would get mad as hell and not take it anymore. Last weekend that prayer was answered when Lawrence O’Donnell, an excitable Democratic analyst, seized a YouTube moment while appearing on one of the Beltway’s more repellent Sunday bloviathons, “The McLaughlin Group.”

Pushed over the edge by his peers’ polite chatter about Mitt Romney’s sermon on “Faith in America,” Mr. O’Donnell branded the speech “the worst” of his lifetime. Then he went on a rampage about Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion, shouting (among other things) that until 1978 it was “an officially racist faith.”

That claim just happens to be true. As the jaws of his scandalized co-stars dropped around him, Mr. O’Donnell then raised the rude question that almost no one in Washington asks aloud: Why didn’t Mr. Romney publicly renounce his church’s discriminatory practices before they were revoked? As the scion of one of America’s most prominent Mormon families, he might have made a difference. It’s not as if he was a toddler. By 1978 — the same year his contemporary, Bill Clinton, was elected governor in Arkansas — Mr. Romney had entered his 30s.

The answer is simple. Mr. Romney didn’t fight his church’s institutionalized apartheid, whatever his private misgivings, because that’s his character. Though he is trying to sell himself as a leader, he is actually a follower and a panderer, as confirmed by his flip-flops on nearly every issue.

I agree with Rich's assessment of Romney's character. There is no lack of reasons to shrink in revulsion from Romney's belief system (or the belief systems of any of the Republican candidates, for that matter). That said, I don't think his religious affiliation should be, in and of itself, one of those reasons. Personally, I am more offended by the idea that religious belief, or lack of religious belief, should have any place at all in a presidential campaign. I share Thomas Jefferson's view that religion is an entirely private matter that has no legitimate place in public policy or governance. I don't care what a candidate's religious beliefs are, and I don't want to know, either. I care what the candidate has said and done in public life -- what policies and legislation he supports, what his philosophy of governance is.

With that caveat, however, if the Republican candidates are going to hype and hawk their personal religious backgrounds as qualifications for high office, then I don't see why Romney's religious background should be exempt from that scrutiny. But neither should anybody else's. If Romney is to be expected to explicitly distance himself from Mormonism's racist history, shouldn't Mike Huckabee be expected to do the same for the racist history of Southern Baptists? Shouldn't he be expected to tell us whether he agrees with the Southern Baptist Convention's explicit and repeated calls for its pastors and lay members to missionize [i.e., convert] the Jewish people in the United States and worldwide? Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant movement in the United States. I certainly would want to know if the president of the United States shared his religion's stated goal of inducing Jews to reject Judaism and convert to Christianity. That's kind of an existential issue for me.

There's an enormous inconsistency in who gets asked to "explain" or justify their religion, and who does not. It's not just Romney the Mormon candidate, or Huckabee the Southern Baptist, or Rudolph Giuliani the Catholic, candidate, either. It's also candidates with Christian or Jewish backgrounds versus candidates with Muslim backgrounds or Muslim connections, imagined or real.

A couple of days ago, I quoted Mark I., a contributor at Redstate who believes that Islam is not "equal to" Judaism or Christianity -- that "[t]he practice of Islam in some parts of the world includes violence against unbelievers and apostates," and therefore "[a] Muslim candidate must ... distance himself from more radical elements in his religion to remain viable, and justifiably so, while a Christian or Jewish one does not."

That sort of religious bigotry is nothing new. It existed in Thomas Jefferson's day, too -- big time. Which is why Jefferson and the other Founders felt it so essential to include the "no religious test" clause in Article VI of the Constitution: "... no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

I say we start taking it seriously again.


libhom said...

Romney's anti-atheist bigotry during his "Mormon speech" makes him a less than sympathetic person.

Also, the Mormon church made political alliances with the Christian Right to promote misogyny and heterosexism. Now, a prominent Mormon is facing an atmosphere of religious intolerance that his own church has fostered.

If the Mormons don't want to be judged because they are not Christians, then they should not judge queers, atheists, and women.

Elayne said...

Just as you can't blame people for not being ahead of their time EXCEPT when they're supposed to be, so you should not require any religious attestation as a test for public office UNLESS the candidate has already MADE his or her religion a part of his or her campaign. I think pretty much all the Democrats ought to stop pandering about religion and call it like it is, a private matter, but just about every Republican rides religion like they ride symbolic patriotism, and thus makes his religion as valid a target as his moral hypocrisy.