Religious test

As America gears up for another presidential election season, do we really have to agonize yet again over whether being a Mormon disqualifies a person for the presidency? Because the answer apparently is “yes,” let’s try to get some use from the discussion by understanding what’s really at stake. 

With two Mormon ex-governors (Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah) in contention for the Republican nomination, the polls — those omnipresent, omniscient and too often uncriticized monitors of public opinion — find fully 25 percent of Americans less likely to vote for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

But hang on. Upon closer examination, it turns out that figure is deceptive. Within the larger group that makes up the 25 percent, liberal Democrats — 41 percent of them, we’re told — are less likely to support a Mormon. The reason, suggests The Washington Post, is “the church’s social conservatism and the fact that Mormons tend to be Republicans.” 

Well, yes. But in that case the antipathy is based not on religion as such but on politics. Think what you like of it, at least it isn’t an expression of religious bias — and there’s less dislike of Mormon candidates on theological grounds than the 25 percent figure might suggest. 

All the same, it does seem likely that at least some of those who look askance at a Mormon contender for the White House do that because of his church. Just here we run up against the Constitution’s ban on a religious test for public office. 

It’s extremely important, however, to grasp what the no-religious-test principle does and doesn’t rule out. Specifically, this is a guarantee of the right of anyone of any faith persuasion to run for public office and, if he or she wins, to serve. It has nothing to do with the right — indeed, the duty — of voters to apply relevant criteria derived in part from their own religious formation to the task of evaluating candidates. 

For example: Where does a candidate stand on abortion, on capital punishment, on same-sex marriage, on cutting entitlement spending? These are questions that voters are entitled to raise precisely against the background of their own deeply held faith-based convictions. 

More than 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy muddied these particular waters by promising the Protestant ministers of Houston that as president he wouldn’t be influenced by his Catholicism. Kennedy’s privatizing of religion has borne much bitter fruit in the past half-century. Among other things, it’s been extended to imply that citizens shouldn’t be influenced by their religiously grounded values in deciding how to vote. 

But many are so influenced. And, provided the values in question are pertinent to true political concerns, that’s not only inevitable but also right. As there are no atheists in foxholes, so in the voting booth, voters — including atheists — should be guided by their conscientious convictions. 

And those two Mormon would-be candidates — what about them (or, for that matter, what about Michele Bachmann, who severed her ties with a Lutheran sect that thinks the pope is Antichrist)?  

If Romney, Huntsman or Bachmann winds up on the 2012 ballot, the appropriate question for a conscientious voter who’s a person of faith won’t be: How do I feel about this individual’s church? It will be: How do I rate the candidate’s ability to promote a good and just society according to my own religiously formed convictions about what such a society should be like? 

That’s responsible citizenship. Don’t let some secularist mouthpiece in the media tell you differently.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.