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.)