Faith and reason in politics

On Dec. 6, during a speech in College Station, Texas, Republican presidential candidate George Romney assured America that his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a private matter, without implications that should worry anyone about his fitness for the presidency. Some commentators and columnists regretted that he felt a need for such a speech, at all, recalling a similar speech by John F. Kennedy about his Catholicism. That action should have put to rest 40 years ago the matter of religion’s place in politics.

I’m not ordinarily put off by moderate expressions of political correctness; generally PC is merely too much of a good thing. But surely the notion that a candidate’s religious beliefs are irrelevant to his or her suitability for office is an extremely peculiar one.

Of course, there’s no religious test for holding office in our country, but we do expect our leaders to be religious; I suspect that we’ll elect a woman or a black to the presidency long before we elect an avowed atheist or an agnostic.

Nevertheless, we’re comfortable with leaders who go through the motions of religion, more or less, but whose faith, in practical terms, has little real impact on how they live their lives or conduct our country’s business. Kennedy himself comes to mind.

Richard Nixon professed the gentle Quaker faith, but was foul-mouthed and bellicose. And Bill Clinton’s faith didn’t insulate him from the temptations of the flesh. Perhaps our presidents aren’t much different from the rest of us in this regard, which is probably as it should be in a representative democracy.

On the other hand, President George W. Bush has professed his faith as publicly as nearly anyone, and we have little reason to doubt its authenticity. And if his faith is genuine, why should we be surprised by its influence on his attitudes toward abortion, stem-cell research, science in general, faith-based institutions, abstinence education, prayer in schools, and American and Christian exceptionalism in our conflict with extreme Islam around the world?

Romney’s religion has gotten special attention because some of the beliefs of the Latter-day Saints are out of step with conventional American Christianity, in spite of a trend in the general direction of the mainstream. Some of the more unusual ones, like polygamy, were abandoned long ago. Others, like the practice of barring blacks from the LDS priesthood, were given up as recently as 1978.

But other LDS beliefs simply don’t jibe with what we know about the world. For example, traditional Mormon doctrine links Native Americans with the so-called “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel, a belief that finds no support in modern science. However, LDS beliefs shouldn’t be subjected to any more critical scrutiny those of more mainstream believers simply because they happen to be of more recent origin. When Republican candidates — mostly conventional believers — were asked recently during a debate whether they believed in evolution, three of them were willing to admit their rejection of this important paradigm of modern science. This doesn’t disqualify them from serving in public office, by any means, but isn’t it something that voters should know before the election?

In short, real faith will have real effects on public policy, and voters have a right to understand the implications of a candidate’s faith. If one genuinely believes that the Second Coming is imminent, then why would one bother with preserving our finite resources for the long haul?

Preferring faith to reason is a legitimate choice that shouldn’t bar anyone from the presidency, but the psychological orientation that permits or requires this choice should be open to the scrutiny of the voters.

Except perhaps for his actual public record, what could indicate more about a candidate’s perspective regarding the proper course for our country and the world than the nature of the friendly truce between faith and reason that every modern man and woman has to somehow negotiate in his or her mind?

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)

4 Responses to "Faith and reason in politics"

  1. old_curmudgeon  December 18, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Pretty sure the author meant to say “Mitt” since George has been dead for 12 years, but that’s just a guess.

  2. JerZGirl  December 18, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    True – I was about to comment on the name error myself. The writer also doesn’t understand the level of control the Mormon church holds over its members nor the level of obedience they are expected to demonstrate.

    If the Mormon religion WERE like other religions, where the person’s faith is a matter between them and God with the church merely a focal point for like-minded believers, it would matter little. But the Mormon religion is a “lifestyle” and as such expects adherence at all levels and deals ramifications to those to violate its dictates.

    Since many, if not most, members’ social lives revolve around the church (not to mention many of their business ventures), any kink in their armor is subject to disciplinary action, particularly if they go against authority in any way. Members cannot move without notifying the church – they do not have a choice of what church in their area they’ll attend. Their records follow them wherever they go and “wards” are assigned geographical areas. Only members in that particular geographical area may attend that ward on a regular basis. They expect and demand full control of a member’s life and finances – members are expected to give an accounting every year’s end, showing the last pay-stub or W-2 so the church can compare tithing received to the actual amount earned. If the amount is less than 10%, they are asked to pay the difference. Permission to enter their temples can be denied if this is too out of balance. This is no mere religion. This is a controlling organization and as such everyone should be wary of having an active member in a high government office with as much authority as the presidency holds. I’m not a nut – I’m a former member who has seen it from the inside. In this situation, yes – we should make a note of what Romney believes – because it has the power to affect all of us.

    ————————————————–
    Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.

    Wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad.

  3. adamrussell  December 19, 2007 at 3:03 am

    None of that is true of the mormon church from my experience. They do not hold a lock on members lives. Im not mormon, but I know and have known some.

  4. JerZGirl  December 20, 2007 at 12:39 am

    Actually, every bit of it is true. I attended enough tithing settlements to know the procedure and I had my new bishop show up at my door within two weeks of moving when I had deliberately not told anyone where I moved. He told me they regularly go to the utility companies to get members’ new addresses (I’ll admit, this second situation was in Utah, but the principal is the same). I WAS a Mormon and this IS how they operate. They are very good at appearing one way in the public eye and another within the fold. I do know that there is a marked difference in general attitude outside Utah, but it still stands that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.” How many Catholics do you know who follow every dictate of the Vatican? They can attend any parish, no one asks who they are or what their membership status is when they take the sacrament. This is not so with the LDS church. Please understand – I have several LDS friends and do appreciate the good things they offer. But, free thought among members is not something they generally promote. I do not exaggerate even though it may appear that way to others. These are the facts with which I have lived.

    ————————————————–
    Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.

    Wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad.

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