Mitt Romney is about to deliver the most hyped speech about religion by an American presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. The stakes are similar, but the conditions somewhat different.
Kennedy was up against an organized effort by some of the country’s most prominent Protestant leaders to keep a Catholic out of the White House. By comparison, what Romney faces is closer to an anti-Mormon whispering campaign. And it isn’t just Romney’s faith that has kept him from sealing the deal with evangelical voters — he faces a potentially larger “Massachusetts problem” from having to govern in a political climate that demanded adherence to the dogmas of social liberalism.
Whatever Romney says at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, the stakes are just as high for the Christian right. Even if the media somehow succeeds in drawing Romney into a discussion about temple garments and the Book of Mormon, politically active evangelicals and conservative Catholics should resist the temptation to follow.
Ever since the Moral Majority era, the religious right has been maligned as a purely sectarian movement aimed at using the government to impose its version of Christianity on an unwilling public. Conservative Christians have usually had two answers to this line of argument. The first is that they entered the political arena to defend their own religious freedom, not to diminish anyone else’s. The second is that they were raising transcendent moral issues that are legitimate objects of public concern, like protecting innocent human life.
Religious right leaders haven’t always practiced what they have preached in this regard, but there is substantial truth to both defenses. So much so that debates over abortion and other social issues did more to develop ecumenical political cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals than Kennedys’ 1960 promises to strengthen the wall of separation ever did. Statements like Evangelicals and Catholics Together — and indeed publications like First Things — were made possible by “co-belligerency” in the culture wars.
Appearing to endorse a religious test for public office, especially one that excludes Mormons, would constitute a giant step backwards. It would bolster the arguments of those who decry “Christianists” against the idea the religious conservatives practice defensive politics. Such a move would also cast aside a set of reliable allies in the fights against abortion and same-sex marriage, instead making common cause with secularists who find Mormons reactionary and weird.
Note to conservative evangelicals and Catholics: Secularists find your religion reactionary and weird too. Mock Mitt Romney on temple garments and it is only a short step toward similar scrutiny of Mike Huckabee’s belief in Genesis. Belief in the virgin birth looks no less strange to secularist eyes than the Angel Moroni. When Slate editor Jacob Weisberg disqualified believers in Mormonism’s “founding whoppers” from the presidency, he didn’t have kind things to say about people who take seriously the supernatural aspects of Judaism or orthodox Christianity.
Moreover, a rejection of Romney on solely theological grounds would provide a useful data point for the religious right’s critics. Before conservative Christians enlarged their role in American politics, they will argue, a Unitarian could become president — and George Romney could launch a credible campaign in 1968 without having to give a speech like his son’s.
As Paul Chesser recently reported, many evangelicals with misgivings about Mormonism are driven by less earthly concerns. They fear increased conversions to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which they regard as a matter of eternal life and death rather than a pew-filling competition. Yet my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, doesn’t seem to be growing based on the influence of my coreligionists George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Nate Oman wonders if the antipathy toward Mormons might even provide “an important theological marker that legitimizes the other theological compromises that have made the [Catholic-evangelical] coalition possible.” He continues, “In effect, it allows Protestant and Catholic activists to tell themselves, ‘I didn’t sell out my beliefs for control of Congress; after all we both believe in Nicea and Chalcedon.’”
All this can easily be overstated: Mitt Romney has already been endorsed by far more evangelicals than would have ever openly supported John Kennedy 47 years ago. They often say they appreciate the difference between choosing a president and a pastor. Perhaps they also understand that the arguments used to disqualify Mormons today may be applied to them tomorrow.
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