Politicians, Faith, and Reason

by A. Jay Adler on May 24, 2012
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Invariably in American politics, the faith of political candidates will be scrutinized. Because of protestant strains in the nation’s colonial origins and its long-time demographic majority, the scrutiny has always been heightened for the non-Protestant. In the evangelical age, for the Protestant, the scrutiny has taken the form less of a necessary demystification – and easing of anxiety – than of personal testimony. Even for a Protestant, though the faith required no justification, the call has been for representation in biography. From a George W. Bush, the MSM acquiesced in seeking to know how religious faith would comfortingly shape Presidential rectitude and decision making. For a JFK, a Mario Cuomo, or a Mitt Romney, the anxious, mistrustful call from a media still representing a Protestant perspective was for reassurance of all the ways religious faith would not shape their performance in office. Cuomo, like many Catholics, needed to assert that whatever his own beliefs about abortion, he would not impose them on Ceasar’s realm. In contrast, for a Protestant conservative these days, the demand is that the office seeker commit to imposing his beliefs.

Mitt Romney, as that Mormon man of faith more deviant even than Catholic or Jew, has provoked even greater anxiety. Thus we get standard reviews of the role of religion in his life like that by Jodi Kantor in The New York Times.

When Mitt Romney embarked on his first political race in 1994, he also slipped into a humble new role in the Mormon congregation he once led. On Sunday mornings, he stood in the sunlit chapel here teaching Bible classes for adults.

Leading students through stories about Jesus and the Nephite and Lamanite tribes, who Mormons believe once populated the Americas, and tossing out peanut butter cups as rewards, Mr. Romney always returned to the same question: how could students apply the lessons of Mormon scripture in their daily lives?

Now, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mr. Romney speaks so sparingly about his faith — he and his aides frequently stipulate that he does not impose his beliefs on others — that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.

But dozens of the candidate’s friends, fellow church members and relatives describe a man whose faith is his design for living. The church is by no means his only influence, and its impact cannot be fully untangled from that of his family, which is also steeped in Mormonism.

Smug enough are the faithful that they will little consider the anxieties of those more committed to reason – which is not to say cold logic – than faith. Easy enough even for the Christian to mock the Nephite and Lamanite tribes and even the poor resurrected Jesus having been transubstantiated from Judaea to the Adirondacks. What enables this smug ease is both the difference and recency of Mormon belief. Christianity and Judaism, even considering the ultimate tensions between them, receive protection under the halo of religious antiquity. Adherents excuse themselves from the “faith fallacy,” the implicit belief that while all their other ideas in public life must withstand logical scrutiny, the peculiar spiritual and doctrinal notions they profess and even embody in life need meet no similar test of reason. So we read of Romney that

Mr. Romney’s penchant for rules mirrors that of his church, where he once excommunicated adulterers and sometimes discouraged mothers from working outside the home. He may have many reasons for abhorring debt, wanting to limit federal power, promoting self-reliance and stressing the unique destiny of the United States, but those are all traditionally Mormon traits as well.

The non-Mormon person of faith may ratify or not these practices as national policy or culture, but regardless mistrust their source. The non-faithful may wonder how this differs in the least from the Catholic Church seeking to build a wall of protection around itself in violating the rights and equal protections and access by women in its employ to contraception and other reproductive services. One is to feel more reassured, over the the Golden Tablets in Manchester New York, by the Holy Trinity?

“He is an unabashed, unapologetic believer that America is the Promised Land,” said Douglas D. Anderson, dean of the business school at Utah State University and a friend, and that leading it is “an obligation and responsibility to God.”

It is one argument to make that the United States is existentially exceptional by virtue of the historic ideas that gave rise to it, the long success of its democratic and constitutional system, and the wide embrace of its motley and vibrant immigrant culture. It is an entirely different, arrogant, and dangerous argument to make the essential claim attributed to Romney above. Many, more traditional Christians believe it too.

There are many reasons to mistrust Mitt Romney, as many to abjure his vision of the country. But if his Mormonism is cause for concern, it is a cause and concern no different from those that any other religious doctrine should engender. And any scrutiny of its doctrine and sense – and the effects they might have on U.S. policy and American life – should be equally applied to all faiths.

AJA

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