I’m getting really tired of the role that religion is playing in this year’s election campaign. One obnoxious aspect of the current obsession with religion is the way Mitt Romney keeps getting questioned about his Mormon faith. This morning on Meet the Press, Tim Russert pursued the Mormons-were-racists-until-recently theme:
Romney handled Russert’s question very well, but the premise underlying the question–that a political candidate should be answerable for the theological precepts of his religion–is offensive and un-American.
Nor is it clear why only Mormonism is the target of such inquiries. The Democratic Party maintained segregation in the South until the 1960s. Why aren’t Democratic candidates questioned about their party’s racist history?
And if we are going to talk about candidates’ religions, we are on a very slippery slope. Russert beat up on Romney because blacks formerly couldn’t become Mormon priests. But the Catholic Church still doesn’t ordain women as priests. Isn’t that sex discrimination? Why shouldn’t Catholic candidates be peppered with demands that they quit the church? Most Christian denominations don’t ordain practicing homosexuals, either. Why shouldn’t Hillary Clinton, for example, be cross-examined about the Methodist Church’s “discrimination” against gays?
People talk about the separation of church and state all the time, but many don’t seem to appreciate what it means. Churches are entitled to practice their theologies, and those theologies need not conform to secular notions of equality. If Catholics believe, as a matter of church doctrine, that only men should be priests, it is nobody else’s business. Those who think that women should be ordained (as they are in my own church) should join a different denomination.
People who run for political office should be judged on their records in public life, their opinions on the issues of the day and their character as revealed in their actions. They should not be held to account for the theological precepts of whatever religion they may belong to, or for a lack of theological principles if they are nonreligious. Any other approach is inconsistent with Article VI, section 3 of the Constitution, and with American political tradition.
Of course, religion may play the same sort of tribal role that ethnicity often does. Thus, there is nothing wrong with most Catholics supporting John Kennedy, most Greek-Americans voting for Michael Dukakis, most Texans supporting George Bush, and so on. That is entirely different from commentators and–worse yet–rival candidates trying to use a religion’s theology to smear a candidate.
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with either a voter’s or a candidate’s views on a particular issue being informed by his religion. Thus, a Quaker may vote for a candidate he perceives as pacifistic, or a candidate may take a tough anti-crime stance because his religious faith makes him sympathetic to the victims of rape, murder, assault and so on. This is very different from making a candidate’s theology, per se, into a public issue.
This year, religion has been used negatively against Mitt Romney. But if a candidate’s religious faith has now become fair game for political attack, our public life has changed, profoundly and for the worse, with consequences that will reverberate long after 2008.
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