Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Candidates should not have to explain faith

Not since then-Sen. John Kennedy had to assuage the fears of Baptist pastors has a candidate’s religion been so central to a national political campaign. Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion has become a real stumbling block for some Republican voters, particularly in the South.

Fear of a “Catholic” presidency centered around whether Kennedy would answer to the Vatican rather than to the American people. For Romney, the sentiment is less concrete, revolving more around some ephemeral sense about whether Mormons are Christians. So far, no one has laid out how the answer actually bears on governing the country.

Wisely, the framers of the Constitution recognized the danger that lies in the conflation of private faith and public purpose. These men, after all, were citizens of specifically Catholic colonies and Puritan colonies, and only in the case of Quaker Pennsylvania a colony based on religious tolerance. That is why Article 6, paragraph three insists, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Mitt Romney is hardly the first Mormon to seek or hold public office. Those of us who have lived in the West are well aware of the plethora of Mormons who have served in government on both sides of the political aisle. Stewart and Morris Udall served in Congress from Arizona, with Stewart Udall serving in John Kennedy’s cabinet. George Romney, Mitt’s father, was governor of Michigan. Republican John Huntsman used his fluency in Chinese languages as ambassador to China when asked to do so by Democratic President Barack Obama. He has been widely criticized by his own party for his willingness to serve his country, not for being Mormon but for throwing in with the man they want to defeat in November.

One might choose to support Mitt Romney based on his record as governor of Massachusetts, his record in business, even his basic decency as a husband and father. One might choose to oppose Romney for his heath care plan in Massachusetts, his inability to pull it off as “one of the guys” or his flip-flopping. These choices are the stuff of politics.

As Michael J. Fox’s character says in the movie “The American President,” the American people have a funny way of deciding for themselves what concerns them, what is important and what is not. We sincerely hope that we are past the point where candidates have to explain or apologize for their faith tradition, whatever it might be, in order to serve their country.

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