Monday, January 22, 2007

The Religious Test

(from today's USA Today)

The religious test
Posted 1/21/2007 7:28 PM ET
By David E. Campbell and J. Quin Monson

Should Americans fear Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon? In spite of what some political pundits have recently argued, the answer is a resounding no.
Should Romney fear how some Americans will react to his religion? Unfortunately, recent polls say yes. But just like another Massachusetts politician who faced questions about his religion, namely John F. Kennedy, Romney can, and should, tackle uneasiness about his religion head-on — sooner rather than later.

Romney has not yet officially announced his plans to run for the Republican nomination, yet the darts have already begun to fly. In fact, some critics have argued that Romney should not be elected solely because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS):

•Writing in Slate, columnist Jacob Weisberg says that if Romney truly believes in his religion, "I don't want him running the country."

•Damon Linker, in The New Republic, says voters should reject Romney on religious grounds. Echoing precisely the same concerns raised about Kennedy's Catholicism, Linker argues that a Mormon president would be controlled by his church's hierarchy. In his words, "would it not be accurate to say that under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would truly be in charge of the country?" Actually, no, it would not be accurate, any more than it was accurate to say that Kennedy would take orders from the Vatican. And neither would it be accurate to accuse the LDS church of pulling the strings of other prominent Mormon politicians, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., the late Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., and numerous others.

It is true that, like many religious groups, the LDS church occasionally makes policy pronouncements, as it did last June in support of a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. However, this kind of political activity has not served to constrain Mormon elected officials. Reid, at the time the Senate minority leader, led the opposition to the amendment. In response to a reporter's question about his open opposition to the LDS church's public position, his press secretary Sharyn Stein said that the church had asked members to express their opinions on the issue, so her boss was doing so "loudly and repeatedly on the Senate floor."

A President Romney would have the same autonomy to speak and act independently of his church.

Kennedy's approach

Romney's challenge, however, is to make this clear to the American public. It is here that the parallel to Catholicism is instructive.

John F. Kennedy was not the first Catholic to run for president. That distinction belongs to Gov. Al Smith, D-N.Y., who, after winning the Democratic nomination in 1928, faced outright hostility to his Catholicism and suffered an ignominious defeat at the polls. The anti-Catholic bigotry that Smith confronted was in the living memory of many Democrats as Kennedy began his bid for the presidency. In an era when primaries were non-binding and often ignored by the leading candidates, Kennedy entered the West Virginia primary to show that a Catholic could win in a heavily Baptist state and thus settle the "Catholic question." He won the primary and the nomination. But still doubts lingered in the minds of the electorate about his religion.

To put those doubts to rest, Kennedy marched into the proverbial lion's den and delivered a speech to Protestant ministers in Houston. That speech is a classic appeal for religious tolerance. In it, Kennedy declared, "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

Similarly, enough Americans have doubts about Romney's religion that he should not wait for the primaries to tackle the "Mormon question." Recent polls find that about four out of 10 Americans say that they are unwilling to vote for a Mormon. We suspect that many voters are simply reflecting the fact that Mormonism is unfamiliar to them; it is natural to be uneasy with the unknown. However, Romney's own election in Massachusetts as well as the elections of Gordon Smith, Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., and former U.S. Representative Richard Swett, D-N.H., demonstrate that voters outside the Mountain West, where Mormons are most heavily concentrated, can become comfortable with Mormon candidates from across the political spectrum.

Making his case — now

The heavy scrutiny focused on presidential candidates, even this early in the campaign, and the unease of some voters with a Mormon president, means that Romney should do now what Kennedy waited until the fall of 1960 to do. Romney needs to take a page from the Kennedy playbook and address his religion forthrightly, in a high-profile venue.

At a time when religion and politics are increasingly intertwined, it would be an opportunity to remind all Americans why the wall between church and state has served the country well.

Whatever issues voters might have with Mormonism, it is wrong to reject Romney because of his faith, just as it was wrong to reject Kennedy for his, or to disqualify today's Catholic politicians, such as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for theirs. It is no different from dismissing Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., because of her gender or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., because of his race.

This is not an endorsement of Romney — we leave it to the voters to decide whether he deserves to be president. Rather, we endorse the spirit of Article VI in the Constitution, which states that there should be no religious test for public office.

Kennedy captured that spirit well in 1960 when he said: "While this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist."

Or even a Mormon.

David E. Campbell teaches political science at the University of Notre Dame. J. Quin Monson teaches political science at Brigham Young University. The views expressed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of their respective institutions.

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