At some point, the question of Mitt Romney’s faith will come up and loom much larger than any of his business past. It will come up not just in circles of evangelical conservatives, but as a controversial subject necessary for a healthy discussion of religion and politics. Or at least it should.
I have nothing at all against Mormons themselves, and tend not to hold peoples’ faith against them (or try not to) unnecessarily. But faith is an important question when it comes to our leaders, and religion makes me nervous. Or rather the mixture of religion and political power makes me nervous. As well it should.
Electing an evangelical to the presidency makes me nervous, too, and I’d be equally cautious about a Muslim or a Scientologist or any other person hailing from a faith that might affect their decisions in the Oval Office. Which actually describes most faiths, or at least those that people hold with conviction.
Am I an awful person for saying so? Perhaps. It is at least a little taboo to go too far down this particular rabbit hole.
To be honest, I don’t think that cleaving to a religious belief system disqualifies anyone from holding high office, or building a religious building near Ground Zero, or doing much of anything else for that matter. But religion, like any other belief or practice, really should weigh into our thinking and our own decision-making at the ballot box.
For one thing, Mormonism isn’t “open” in the way that many other Christian denominations are, at least to the non-Mormon public.
“The most common and visible target for charges of suspicious secrecy in the Mormon religion are the temples,” according to PBS. “After dedication, these buildings are closed to the public and church members do not talk openly about the rituals that take place within. The church holds that the temple and its rituals are sacred and therefore private, not secret. They maintain that early Christianity featured similar special practices and bodies of knowledge that were kept quiet to preserve their sacred nature.”
Secrecy is a word that often comes up when discussing government; it also comes up when discussing the more cult-like elements of the Roman Catholic Church, or other straight-up cults for that matter. Or Scientology. It’s also a word that anyone concerned with civil liberties should find at least a tiny bit troubling and even a bit frightening. How would this secrecy affect Romney’s policies as President of the United States of America? What sort of double standard would be applied to Mormon and non-Mormon groups? Who knows?
Then there is the Romney family’s polygamist past:
His paternal great-grandfathers, Miles Park Romney and Helaman Pratt, were born in the United States but lived for decades in Mexico. Pratt was a Mormon missionary there; Miles Park Romney left Utah for Mexico with a tribe of polygamous Mormons after the practice was outlawed in the United States in 1890.
Pratt had five wives. Miles Park Romney had four, and 30 children, one of whom was Gaskell Romney. The polygamy stopped at Gaskell, who had a single wife and seven children. One of the children, George, was born in a Mormon colony in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, although he was nonetheless a U.S. citizen. He was Mitt’s father.
If you’ve read Under the Banner of Heaven (and you should if you haven’t) you’ll understand that the concerns surrounding the FLDS church go much deeper than simply having several wives. Obama, it turns out, has family in his past with multiple wives as well, but there remains a glaring difference: Obama does not hail from any African tribal religious tradition. Romney is very much a Mormon – though not a fundamentalist.
“You know, the principles and values taught to me by faith are values I aspire to live by and are as American as motherhood and apple pie,” Romney told The Atlantic. (Motherhood is American?) “My faith believes in family, believes in Jesus Christ. It believes in serving one’s neighbor and one’s community. It believes in military service. It believes in patriotism; it actually believes this nation had an inspired founding. It is in some respects a quintessentially American faith.”
It is, indeed, a quintessentially American faith, and in many respects I think it is inevitable that eventually an American president will be Mormon. Fine, so what are the implications of that inevitability? Has Mormonism gone “mainstream” with the American public? Is it not so different than the now all-but-erased Catholic/Protestant divide? Religion is a huge part of the national conversation in this country, and in spite of our church-state separation, it looms larger here than almost anywhere else in the Western world.
Do I think we should disqualify Romney because he’s Mormon? No, I don’t. I know lots of Mormons, and have family who are Mormons, and I wouldn’t want to disqualify any of them simply for holding a set of beliefs. I don’t mean to pen this in the hopes of offending anyone who happens to be Mormon, or to say that their faith is any less meaningful or important than any other. I’m fairly egalitarian in that sense: anyone should be able to hold any religious belief they choose, and those of us who do not hold the same faith should be able to critique those beliefs on their own terms.
Part of adopting a faith is answering critiques about it, and Romney is going to have to do that if he wants a shot at the White House. There is no reason his Mormonism should be “off limits” either in the press or in religious circles (or anti-religious circles, for that matter.) It certainly won’t be off limits at the voting booth.
There’s a right and a wrong way to do this, of course. The “Mormonism is a cult” card isn’t particularly helpful, even if that secrecy I mentioned earlier does have the faintest whiff of cult to it. Nor is religion necessarily the number one most important component of a candidate’s fitness to be president.
But it’s a part of the whole package, and unlike race, religion is something we choose for ourselves. There is nothing bigoted about discussing what having a Mormon president would mean for this country, any more than asking that same question of an atheist, Buddhist, or Baptist.