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The Collective
Thursday, December 6, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: Romney: No religious test for president

“There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines,” Romney said. “To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.”

This is simply not true. There is nothing that prohibits voters from considering the religious beliefs of candidates when determining whether or not to elect them to office. Indeed, quite the opposite, I would argue that it is incumbent upon voters to seek to understand what candidates believe and why, as such issues will directly determine how a candidates will govern once elected.

Romney is correct that someone cannot be barred from being a candidate or from holding office because of their religion, but that has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not a candidate’s religious views are relevant to voters.

Clearly a candidate who ran as a Satanist would have no shot at the presidency in the US based on that fact alone. Adherents to the Taliban’s view of Islam would similarly be automatically rejected based solely on religious beliefs.

Beyond poorly applied constitutional principles here, Romney actually reinforced some of the prevalent criticisms of Mormonism, notably that it is ultimately too secretive (or, at least, very evasive) about its core doctrines when he suggests in the quote above that he basically doesn’t have to go into a detailed explanation of his”church’s distinctive doctrines.”

Setting question of who is “right” in terms of theology, it is a fact that the Church of Latter Day Saints adheres to doctrines that deviate substantially from Catholic and Protestant theology, differing on key issues such as the Deity of Jesus Christ-no minor issue there. As I wrote just over a year ago on this very subject (man, this campaign has been long):

The main issue between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity (Catholicism, mainline protestantism, Evangelicals, etc.) of various stripes is pretty fundamental: it is disagreement over who Jesus of Nazareth was and is. One cannot get more fundamental than this issue. Orthodox Christianity sees Jesus as the literal incarnation of God and the doctrine of the Trinity states that the Father, Son and Spirit are all God, not Gods, not part of God, not simply manifestations of God, but God: God in three persons. And the God in question is the eternal God, the creator of all things, and is ultimately singular in all of existence for all time.

The Jesus of Mormonism is literally the son of a God, although Jesus Himself is also a God. However, instead of being a complex ontological proposition like the Trinity, the idea here is that there are actually many Gods throughout space and time, Jesus being only one. Further, we all, as humans, can become a God as well.

It is this fundamental difference, in different iterations, that separates orthodox Christian theology from Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. Regardless of any other issue, they have different views on the essence of Christ. This is why, in a nutshell, orthodox Christians will often call these groups, Mormons included, as being cults.

One can see why Romney wouldn’t want to go into the doctrinal issues here.

Further, the LDS does not like to discuss the inner workings of the church (indeed, there are parts of their ceremonies that are not open to the general public, unlike the aforementioned Catholics and Protestants) nor does it like to deal in public with the more controversial elements of its doctrines (again, a fact that Romney is reinforcing by his statement).

Despite all the JFK comparisons, the issue for Romney is really quite different. For Kennedy the main issue was independence from the Pope and the Bishops. For Romney is about overcoming the perception that he belongs to an odd sect that many see as a cult. Moreover, Romney’s problem is fairly acute insofar as the issue is not convincing the vaguely religious that he is a-okay, but it is convincing hardcore Evangelical voters in the South that being a Mormon is really not that different from a Baptist. That is going to be a hard sell and it would appear to me that this speech won’t help much.

Back to the JFK comparison, Romney said:

“When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God,” Romney said in a pledge echoing the famous speech Democrat John F. Kennedy made in 1960 when he was seeking to become the first Catholic elected president.

This is a good place to illustrate the difference: Protestants see Catholics as worshiping the same God (although there are Catholic-haters who see the Pope as agent of Satan, but that is a fringe element) while they see Mormons as worshipping (and wearing an oath to, in this case) another God (one that they would see as fictitious).

One last note. In comparing his faith to that of Huckabee, he noted in an interview:

“It has nothing to do with what faith a person has — it’s whether or not that person’s life is consistent with how he lives it.”

Considering his inconsistency on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, this strikes me as an odd thing to say-especially if he is trying to persuade Evangelicals that he is just like Huckabee on the issues that matter to them.

Excerpts of the speech can be found here: Excerpts Of Governor Romney’s “Faith In America” Address

BTW, I am not arguing that his Mormonism would make him govern differently than, say, a mainline Protestant. Rather, the issue here is solely about how it affects his campaign.

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Filed under: US Politics, 2008 Campaign, Religion | |

14 Comments

  1. Indeed, quite the opposite, I would argue that it is incumbent upon voters to seek to understand what candidates believe and why, as such issues will directly determine how a candidates will govern once elected.

    Of course, one of the problems with a section of American voters is that they actually WANT their candidates to initiate policy based on religion.

    The British have it right-Blair was subjected to continual ridicule for wearing his religion on his sleeve. The argument-rightly-was that his faith clouded his judgment. This certainly has been the case with Bush who famously looked to a “higher father” than his own old man when making foreign policy decisions. Had he based his decisions on the reality of the existing world-as opposed to voices in his tortured mind-we might not have had all of the miscues that characterized his presidency.

    Comment by Ratoe — Thursday, December 6, 2007 @ 11:35 am

  2. In many ways, you make my point: if a candidate will, in fact, think that some vague religious consultation on a matter like war trumps consulting with terrestrial experts, that seems like the kind of thing we have the right to know.

    I also agree that politicians rather significantly overplay the religion card, using it as a marketing tool rather than as a reflection on their characters. Beyond that, count me as a cynic in regards to the notion that religious considerations actually come into play as much as politicians say that they do.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, December 6, 2007 @ 11:40 am

  3. I am quite certain that as a Harvard law grad, Romney understands that the “religious test” prohibition is only applicable against the government, and not its people. However, he brought that up to underscore the importance of not allowing one’s particular beliefs (such as the ones you described above) to unduly influence a person’s judgment of a candidate.

    There are many in this country who would happily carry a banner stating:

    “Mormons wear weird underwear - DO NOT VOTE MITT ROMNEY”

    Romney’s statement is hopefully a response to those who might otherwise be duped into being affected by such a banner. He clearly articulated that his core of morals (which he defended with conviction) are identical in all relevant respects to other religious patriots.

    In that regard, his statements are perfectly consistent.

    “There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines,” Romney said. “To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.

    He hopes to disable those who would carry such banners.

    Further, you stated:

    “One last note. In comparing his faith to that of Huckabee, he noted in an interview:

    “It has nothing to do with what faith a person has — it’s whether or not that person’s life is consistent with how he lives it.”

    Considering his inconsistency on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, this strikes me as an odd thing to say–especially if he is trying to persuade Evangelicals that he is just like Huckabee on the issues that matter to them.”

    Romney’s inconsistencies on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CONSISTENCY WITH WHICH HE HAS LIVED HIS RELIGION. I don’t know why you would imply such a thing.

    Mormonism teaches principles about abortion and same-sex marriage, but it does not bar a member or the church from any rights or privileges for holding a political beleif that appears to contradict those doctrines. One can be a consistent mormon and not favor the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

    Comment by Jordan — Thursday, December 6, 2007 @ 12:14 pm

  4. I didn’t say that he misunderstood the prohibition against a religious test for office, but rather said that he is misapplying it here-and I stand by that position.

    In terms of consistency, the issue is that on matters that resonate with social conservatives, he hasn’t been consistent. Would you deny this fact?

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, December 6, 2007 @ 12:29 pm

  5. Romney intentionally used (you would say “misapplied”) a conlaw principle with a specific purpose in mind, which I believe he accomplished. He said we don’t let the government do this - we should be wary of enabling in the public (or even the private) perception it when a candidate seeks office. He used the conlaw principal to encourage others to take a balanced approach in their analysis of his candidacy- and not to give too much weight to the fact that he wears strange underwear. I don’t call that misapplying. Maybe you do.

    “In terms of consistency, the issue is that on matters that resonate with social conservatives, he hasn’t been consistent. Would you deny this fact?”

    No, I agree with that fact. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the consistency with which he lives his religion.

    Perhaps you object to the mere fact that someone who is percieved as inconsistent as Romney would dare to drop the word “consistency” in any context - even if he were referring to cake batter. Romney (I suppose) lives his faith consistently - evangelicals should respect that. As a Romney supporter, I lament that he has not done the same with his politics.

    “It has nothing to do with what faith a person has — it’s whether or not that person’s life is consistent with how he lives it.”

    Why does that strike you as odd? Why should that strike evangelicals as odd? I must not be getting your point.

    Comment by Jordan — Thursday, December 6, 2007 @ 2:32 pm

  6. The point is pretty straight forward: a politician who already has serious consistency problems probably ought not highlight the question of consistency. Further, he is doing it in the context of making comparisons to Huckabee, who has been consistent on the issues at hand. Further, the target audience hear are Evangelicals who see abortion and gay rights as religious-based issues. While you may not see any inconsistency and Romney may not see any inconsistency, those voters will, and that’s the point.

    Back to the “religious test” business-he is simply employing the clause for rhetorical effect. And I am arguing that it ultimately doesn’t work-voters make these decisions all the time.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, December 6, 2007 @ 6:14 pm

  7. I’m apparently going to be changing the subject here, but I will note one problem with your Catholic v. Protestant comparison. You say: Protestants see Catholics as worshiping the same God (although there are Catholic-haters who see the Pope as agent of Satan, but that is a fringe element) while they see Mormons as worshipping (and wearing an oath to, in this case) another God (one that they would see as fictitious).

    Beyond the problems with the Pope, there are definitely Protestants that believe that Catholics worship Mary and the Saints equal to (or possibly above) the Trinity because they pray to Mary and the Saints. I don’t know if this is a fringe element or not, but it was what I was taught growing up. It didn’t stop me from marrying a Catholic, mind you, but it is what I was taught.

    Comment by Jan — Thursday, December 6, 2007 @ 11:47 pm

  8. But the issues of Mary and the Saints are a different one-those aren’t about the definition of God Himself. Yes, Protestants object to the practice, and consider praying to Mary as an intercessor to be ascribing a role of Jesus to Mary. However, that’s small potatoes compared to the differences between traditional Christians and Mormons.

    (The notion that this puts Mary above the Trinity would be illogical, as the point of Mary as intercessor is that she can appeal directly to her Son, who is part of the Trinity-and regardless they pray to Mary because of his relationship to God, not because she is God, or even a god).

    In the specific context I was dealing with, a Protestant would not see a catholic as swearing to a different God when he swore an oath on a Bible, while both would see the Mormon (by the LDS definition, btw) as swearing that oath to a different God.

    The Protestant and Catholic are both, according to their theology, swearing an oath to a unique ands singular being-the one, true eternal God. According to Mormon theology, there are many gods, of whom the current god is just one of many, and that all Mormon (males) can also become like god in their own universe.

    That’s a rather substantial difference.

    Clearly there are theological differences between Catholics and Protestants, but nothing on the scale of the differences between Mormons and Protestants/Catholics-not even close.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Friday, December 7, 2007 @ 8:09 am

  9. I really didn’t need an explanation of what Catholics believe. Having married into a Catholic family I am very familiar with the explanation of praying for intercession. I’ve even had to make that argument myself on more than one occasion. I was never suggesting that I believed it was anything else. What I’m saying is that there are some that view the Catholics as equal to the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews or Muslims, or any other group not exactly like theirs. Just as some will argue that it is all the same God, the God of Abraham, but with very different views on the rest of the Trinity and theology in general. And that it is about more than just the pope. That’s all I was saying.

    Comment by Jan — Friday, December 7, 2007 @ 9:12 am

  10. I currently live in North Carolina, and there was once a time that the North Carolina constitution prohibited Catholics from holding public office. That was only open to “Christians.”

    I think the reasoning was that the Constitutional ban on a religious test only applied at the federal level. Obviously that changed a long time ago. In fact, the only reason I know about the historic ban is that the current governor is Catholic.

    Overall I agree with Dr. Taylor’s point, but small potatoes have a way of becoming big divides in homogeneous cultures.

    Comment by Max Lybbert — Friday, December 7, 2007 @ 9:49 am

  11. Heck, it was illegal in Virginia at one point to go to Mass. It isn’t that I don’t understand that there have been, or indeed still are, people who are virulently anti-Catholic.

    The fact of the matter is, however, that on balance that is considered a fringe position. Evidence to this fact is that John Kerry did not have to deal with the Catholic Question the way that Romney is dealing with the Mormon Question and that even when JFK had to deal with the Catholic Question it was about allegiance to the Pope and the political implications thereof, not a theological debate about the very nature of God.

    Put another way, it is a mainstream position in most protestant and Catholic circles that Mormonism is a cult, or at least a different faith at its core than traditional Christian sects. This is a substantial political problem for Romney, who will need Evangelicals in particular to win the nomination and to win office. And that is the main issue here.

    To Jan’s post in particular: I do understand all of that. But that really isn’t directly relevant to the question of whether a preponderance of Evangelical voters will see Romney as swearing to the same God that they would swear to.

    And my point, again, most of those same Evangelical voters would not take that view of a Catholic.

    The Mormon issue is more of an apple/orange situation in the main, and that’s the basic point.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Friday, December 7, 2007 @ 10:03 am

  12. Well, you are more familiar with Evangelicals than I am.

    You, too, are comparing apples to oranges by comparing Romney to Kerry. Kerry was running as a Democrat and therefore did not need to court the Evangelical vote, which was going to go Republican no matter what he said about his faith. If he had been running as a Republican, he likely would be in the same boat as Romney. Maybe I’m wrong about that, as I said before, you know more about Evangelicals than I do apparently.

    Comment by Jan — Friday, December 7, 2007 @ 10:17 am

  13. Ok, let’s go with Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic and a Republican, who was endorsed by Pat Robertson.

    Further, there have been numerous documented examples of sermons preached about Mormonism as a cult because of Romney in large, non-fringe churches. However, no such response to Catholicism of late.

    And, ultimately, Romney’s problem isn’t just the nomination (although clearly that’s the issue at hand). His Mormonism is still a national one that goes beyond simply the GOP, should he manage the nomination.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Friday, December 7, 2007 @ 10:24 am

  14. Uncle.

    Comment by Jan — Friday, December 7, 2007 @ 10:36 am

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