Jonathan Last was happy with most of my post on Mormonism the other day, but he did object to one point. Before holding that a person’s religion is fair game for public comment during an election, I had written, it would be necessary to make a number of distinctions and to make explicit a number of assumptions. Last then asked whether these criteria had been met by the words from Father Richard Neuhaus that he had cited before, which appeared in First Things last April:
I believe that many Mormons are Christians as broadly defined by historic markers of Christian faith. That does not mean that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christian. It is indisputably derived from Christianity and variations on Christianity, but its distinctive and constituting doctrines are irreconcilable with even a very liberal construal of biblical Christianity. It is, as Rodney Stark and many others have argued, a new religion and, by the lights of historic Christianity, a false religion. It is true that there are Mormon scholars who are working mightily to reconcile the LDS with Christianity, and one wishes them well, but they have their work cut out for them.
It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who, unlike Alan Wolfe et al., care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney. The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.
Last found this quite satisfactory even according to my criteria, and asked if I agree with it. Actually, I do not agree with it. I did not want to get into all that in replying briefly to Last’s first post. I would just as soon not argue publicly against a dear friend like Richard, but challenged on it twice in the pages (so to speak) of his own online blog, I think I must.
To begin with a little historical background. Often, the Founders of the United States used to distinguish between true religion and false. The question of truth was important to them. When it came, though, to explaining how religious liberty in America would actually work, the Virginia Assembly voted against adding to the phrase “the Holy Founder of our religion” the clearly identifying name, “Jesus Christ.” They did so exactly because they had gone far enough in identifying the source of their own reasoning about conscience, they thought, a clearly Christian way, not found in other world religions. They did not want to go so far as to limit the reach of this reasoning only to Christians, but wished to make Muslims, Buddhists, and even nonbelievers feel at home here, too.
When General Washington asked Charles Carroll of the Continental Congress what Catholics would want from a new independent state, Carroll replied without hesitation “No religious test for public office.” The whole Carroll family had been barred from public office in Maryland where there was just such a religious test, intended to bar Catholics like the Carrolls.
To this tradition Fr. Neuhaus is adding a new test: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? Of course, any private citizen is free to invent any new religious test that he desires, in deciding whom to support in an election — but one would hope that he would be restrained by canons of good judgment, prudence, and concern for the public good. If Mitt Romney would make a great president, why deprive the nation of his services? And if he does become a great president, he would give a lot more credibility and prestige to the United States, and to religious believers in general, than simply to his own church. In any case, why should any of us begrudge the Mormon church the satisfaction of basking in the glory earned by one of its sons? In fact, as one of my Jewish friends puts it, contemplating the strong families and good citizens that Mormon families tend to produce: “Hell, I’m voting for Romney because he is a Mormon.”