Religious Doctrine and Politics, Part II

June 20th, 2011

By Dan Miller

This article is Part II of a three part series. Part I is available here and here.

Book of MormonSeveral Mormons have sought the presidency.  Governor Romney currently does, as does Ambassador Huntsman who said in a recent interview that it is “tough to define” whether he remains a Mormon even though he is “a very spiritual person and proud of my Mormon roots.” The Mormon religion has been among the reasons why no Mormon has thus far become the President.  This article reports that

[T]he fact that two of top-tier GOP contenders are Mormons is one of great sensitivity as Republicans contemplate the presidential race ahead. Conservative Christians have deep theological differences with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some evangelical ministers even preach that Mormonism is a cult.

A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday showed how this could be a problem. While one in four of the 1,509 surveyed overall said they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if he or she is a Mormon, the percentage among white evangelical respondents was 34 percent — the highest of any religious group. By comparison, only 19 percent of Catholics and white mainline Protestants said they would be more reluctant to support a Mormon.

Whether Mormons, Unitarians and others are Christians is above my pay grade; perhaps they should try to answer for themselves to the extent they consider it significant.  Whether there should be political implications is another matter. Should a Mormon become the President of the United States because of or despite his religion? During a recent interview, Governor Romney — the currently leading Republican presidential candidate — said that his Mormon religion has no relevance to how he would fulfill the duties of President. This raises some fascinating questions. Would a Mormon president behave differently in areas of U.S. domestic and foreign policy than, for example, a Methodist, a Roman Catholic or a Jew? As to Israel? Article Ten of the thirteen Mormon Articles of Faith states,

We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

Here’s what Governor Romney said recently about the intersection of religion and politics:

Asked whether it’s actually possible to separate his faith from his job as president should he be elected, Romney responded, “Absolutely. You don’t begin to apply doctrines of a religion to the responsibility of guiding a nation or guiding a state.”

Doctrines? Which doctrines? The doctrines of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and the resurrection of Jesus? The status of the Book of Mormon vis a vis that of the Bible?  The future of the New Jerusalem?  President Romney almost certainly would not apply the first four and probably could not figure out how to do so even if he wanted to.  As to the fifth, Israel has long been our ally and is a free and democratic nation surrounded by despotic, undemocratic and generally hostile nations where tolerance for other religions does not exist. It could be very instructive to learn about Governor Romney’s perceptions as to Article Ten quoted above and what impact, if any, they would have on his foreign policy; devising and implementing foreign policy is a principal function of the President.

But what about notions of general morality when church doctrine purports to define moral conduct?

Romney explained that he opposes abortion rights and that he is in favor of gay rights but believes that marriage should be a union between a man and a woman. Morgan pressed him on what the Mormon church says about gay rights, asking, “What is the Mormon position on homosexuality being a sin?”

“I’m not a spokesman for my church,” Romney responded.

“But don’t you know?” Morgan interrupted.

“I’m not a spokesman for my church. And one thing I’m not going to do in running for president is become a spokesman for my church or apply a religious test that is simply forbidden by the constitution, I’m not going there,” Romney said. “If you want to learn about my church, talk to my church.” …

“I’m not here in a religious context, I’m here as a candidate for president, and as a candidate for president or as a president I have to represent the interests of all the people,” he said.

The questions were reasonably well handled but in an essentially non-responsive way. Here is some guidance on moral and political matters from a Mormon site:

Although we believe in taking a stand on moral issues, as a Church we remain neutral in matters of party politics. Church leaders don’t dictate which candidate Mormons should vote for even if a candidate doesn’t agree with a publicly stated Church position. Neither does it dictate policy to elected officials who are Mormon. The Church may communicate its views to them just as it would to any other elected official, but it recognizes that these men and women must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies they were elected to represent. Mormons align themselves with whatever political party they believe best represents their individual views.

This statement appears to be consistent with Governor Romney’s comments quoted above and also here:

I think the right thing for matters related to abortion is very similar to one I’ve described in other measures, which is return this to the states,’’ Romney said. “I’m pro-life, and I think this is a decision best handled, like many other things, at the state level.

Senator Edward Kennedy, said to have been a devout Roman Catholic, favored “liberal” policies on abortion even though considered a very grave sin by his church.  Three years ago, I wrote here,

The Roman Catholic Church takes a very strong stand against abortion and euthanasia, and some Roman Catholic officials have threatened to deny communion to public figures who openly advocate such things. On October 8, 2007, the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy issued a statement supporting the view that communion must be denied to public figures who openly support abortion or euthanasia. Various prominent Roman Catholic politicians have been threatened with such action due to their public stands on abortion. In a 2004 letter to American bishops, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, stated

not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia  … there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about war and the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia … [priests] must refuse to distribute it to a Catholic politician [who] consistently campaigns and votes for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws.

Refusal of communion is, I understand, a big deal for Roman Catholics, who are thereby denied the full religious benefits of their church, with the attendant consequences for them in the hereafter. Denial of communion to someone seeking public office, if publicly known, could also result in fewer Roman Catholic votes. It seems likely that threats such as this might put some pressure on public figures who happen to be at least nominally Roman Catholics, but who nevertheless favor abortion rights, to withdraw from the society of the church or to moderate their public statements. (emphasis added)

Despite his open advocacy of liberal abortion rights and strong statements by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict, that public figures taking such stands should be denied communion, Senator Kennedy was not denied communion when Pope Benedict visited Washington and officiated at a mass. He and other abortion rights advocates received communion quite publicly during the visit of the Pope. Shortly before the rest of the very large crowd lined up to receive communion a priest delivered it to Senator Kennedy where he was seated.

According to the same article, the Church initially denied that this could have happened.  Shortly thereafter, Senator Kennedy’s office issued a one line acknowledgment that he had in fact received communion. There seems to have been some dissension within the Church hierarchy and the matter was left to the individual bishops.  An inference can be drawn that it is more objectionable publicly to advocate abortion and other activities deemed grossly immoral by the Roman Catholic Church than merely to vote in favor of them.

Senator Kennedy was apparently willing to risk extreme censure by his church for his well known and continuing stand on abortion even though his church publicly cautioned against doing so. Although I don’t agree with his abortion stand in many respects and think he was an unprincipled jerk in most respects, I think he did the right thing there. The United States is not a theocracy and for a public official to parrot whatever line his church takes because his church demands that he do so would be inconsistent with our basic, traditional values.  Governor Romney, to my mind a far more honorable man than was Senator Kennedy, is at least as likely to let his conscience be his guide when he and his church take strongly divergent view than was Senator Kennedy. It also appears that Governor Romney’s Mormon church takes a more tolerant view of dissent than does the Roman Catholic Church.

Governor Romney’s statement that the application of “a religious test” is “forbidden by the Constitution” of course has nothing to do with the rights of voters to vote for or against whomever they please, on the basis of race, gender,  religion, celebrity status, hair color, cuteness, gravitas or anything else. We have that right and should exercise it or not as we individually decide. It is not entirely correct even as to the actions of a president. A president is expected to, and should be required to, follow the Constitution and the laws enacted pursuant to it. Could the President nominate a Mormon, an Atheist, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Methodist, or a Muslim to a cabinet level or other high position in government because he is one?  Perhaps to alter a perceived imbalance in government?

Federal discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender and other factors is, of course, generally prohibited by the Constitution and by various federal statutes (although a Roman Catholic priest could not likely be selected as a Protestant military chaplain and vice versa). Yet it has long been a common practice at least to consider such matters in many Presidential nominations, including to the Cabinet. This story is told in John Morton Blum’s book The Republican Roosevelt:

The dinner, the story goes, celebrated Roosevelt’s appointment in 1906 of Oscar Straus as Secretary of Commerce and Labor. He had selected Straus without regard to race, color, creed or party. His concern had been only to find the most qualified man in the United States. This Jacob Schiff would confirm. Schiff, presiding at the celebration, good-naturedly senescent, wealthy, respectable, and, regrettably for Roosevelt, now quite deaf, nodded. “Dot’s right, Mr. President,” he acknowledged. “You came to me and said, ‘Chake, who is der best Jew I can appoint Segretary of Commerce?’” William Loeb, Roosevelt’s secretary, persuaded the newspapermen to suppress the exchange.

Doubtless apocryphal, this story nevertheless contains the stuff of authenticity. Aware, as he was, of the political importance of self-conscious groups in American society, Roosevelt throughout his Presidency took care to find important posts for labor leaders, Grand Army men, Hungarian-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and Methodists.

The list seems to have been expanded to include Islamists, Atheists, devotees of the Church of Global Warming and others as seems politically expedient.  Appointees who are to some extent vetted by the Senate during the confirmation process may not be insidious.  However, many in high government positions, such as these, need not go through that process:

The 44th president has just appointed Azizah al-Hibri to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.  Al-Hibri believes that sharia law is superior to American law.  Yet, al-Hibri is only one of the pro-sharia adherents that Obama has placed in influential positions since he became president.  Dalia Mogahed was one of the earliest appointees and as Nonie Darwish has written, “[t]he empowerment of Radical Islam under the Obama administration” is extremely disturbing.

Last year, Obama appointed two devout Muslims to Homeland Security.  Obama’s record concerning Islamic terror was alarming from the beginning of his term and it has only become more entrenched.

* * *

Herman Cain, a leading Republican candidate and an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta, recently took umbrage at an interjection of religion into politics:

Herman Cain had an interesting reaction to the speeches by Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann to the Faith And Freedom Conference:

After our interview, Cain asked me about the other candidate speeches I’ve seen covering FFC this year. There was no indication that Cain had seen them. I mentioned that Bachmann had highlighted her remarks with a prayer — she led the crowd in a long, politically-tinged prayer ending in “Amen” at the end of her remarks Friday.

In a similar vein, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) recited a Bible verse during his speech Friday night, while many in the audience spoke the words from memory along with him.

Cain is no stranger to leading prayers — he’s an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta — and there’s little doubt he will be warmly greeted by the evangelical audience here.

But Cain said that the prayerful moments, which were well-received when Bachmann and Pawlenty delivered them yesterday, smacked of candidates trying a little too hard.

“Well, that sounds like the ultimate pander,” he said, dismissively.

Does prayer have a proper place in church but not in political gatherings? For those so disposed, I think it has a proper place in both.  Those who do not want to pray are not required to do so; if they want to leave, they can.  If a candidate wants to lead a prayer, because he believes it appropriate to invoke the blessings of the God in whom he believes, to call it pandering seems itself to be a type of pandering.  Prayers may also provide some useful insights into candidates’ beliefs.  If a candidate does not mean what he says in his prayer or does not believe in the Divinity to whom he addresses it and is, in fact, pandering, that’s different and he should be called on it as inconsistencies surface; that is more likely now than ever before due to the internet with its multiple alternative news sources.

This, of course, leads back to Governor Romney and, indeed, to “far right,” “middle of the road” and “far left” Christians, Jews and others.  Governor Romney did well to claim that he would be guided by his conscience rather than by any dictates of his Mormon religion and his church apparently permits if not encourages just that sort of independence.  As noted above, theological matters of doctrine such as the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and the like are very unlikely to produce a conflict.  Long held moral and social views imbibed from one’s religious associations are more likely to have their impacts.  However, that’s equally true of any candidate who claims to be religious; the teachings of one’s church often have significant implications as to what one’s views actually are.  Unless a candidate makes it clear that he disagrees with certain teachings of his church — and thereby risks alienating some of his coreligionists — those teachings are likely to be assumed to be consistent with his own views.  Even if he can successfully mask his personal views and their religious bases (or lack thereof) for political purposes, should he? I don’t think so, because the voters should not be asked to make choices without knowing what those choices mean.

It’s a long time until the Republican convention and even longer until next year’s presidential election; we will be better able to make judgment as time passes.  Part III, to be written as the campaigns progress, will discuss some of these matters in the context of various leading candidates for the presidency, perhaps even President Obama.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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3 Responses to “Religious Doctrine and Politics, Part II”

  1. Tom Carter |

    If Romney or, perhaps to a lesser extent, Huntsman secures the Republican nomination for president, we’ll see a rash of articles like yours. Most probably won’t be this good, though.

    One point that emerges here and is worth thinking more about is the fact that the Catholic Church has historically made much stronger efforts to influence politics than have the Mormons. They’ve done it, and still do it, by trying to influence Catholic politicians and by trying to sway public opinion. As with most things religious, however, their efforts are consistently hypocritical. The examples of pro-choice politicians like Kerry and Kennedy, themselves religious hypocrites of the first degree, continuing to be in the good graces of the Church are instructive.

    Personally, I don’t care what a politician’s religion (real or merely professed) may be. I’m much more concerned about his performance in office, and so far I can’t think of a president who has permitted his religion to unduly influence him (although Bush 43 was of some concern). One thing that does irritate me a bit is the certainty that a Mormon president would be shamelessly used by Mormon missionaries to enhance their aggressive efforts to proselytize and convert non-Mormons.

  2. Dan Miller |

    I wonder whether flocks of Mormon missionaries could descend into the Holy Oily lands to convert Islamists. That would be an improvement, I think.

  3. Tom Carter |

    I’ve spent some time in the Middle East, and I never saw or heard about clean-cut young men in short-sleeved white shirts and ties, religious tracts in their briefcases, prowling the streets of cities and villages or poking their heads into Bedouin tents. That seems to be a part of the world they’ve wisely abandoned to the unenlightened. Good thing, too, because beheading of young missionaries would become something of a problem.

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