Salt Lake Debate
Mitt Romney, the presidency, and prestige.


Would the prestige of the Mormon Church rise with a good performance by Mitt Romney? This is true of the close associations of any and every president of the United States, of whichever faith, or of none. This new test is not constitutional, and if it has been employed at any time in our presidential history I am, except for one possible instance, unaware of it. During the election of 1800 some parties, asserting that Jefferson was an atheist, on that (false) ground urged that he be rejected by the electorate. He was not. He became president, and not at all a bad one. (It is probably true that Jefferson was the second or third least religious of the top one hundred Founders, but he nonetheless supplied the Marine band at public expense for the largest Sunday religious service in the United States at that time, held for some years in the U.S. Capitol building.)

The example Father Neuhaus gives as a reason to oppose a candidate because of his religion is this: Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? I feel fairly certain here that Neuhaus does not object to voting for presidential candidates whose faith he does not consider “true” in the full sense that he considers the Catholic faith “true.” The distinction that I suspect he wishes to make is between theological views concerning the nature of God, the human community’s relation to God, and the conscience and dignity of the human person, on the one hand — on which matters he is less comfortable with Mormons — and, on the other hand, those theological views that include God’s relation to political and social matters, and perhaps even to those moral matters that are of necessity regulated by public law, such as abortion and euthanasia.

Much more would have to be said here. The short version of it is this: I agree that questions may well be raised in good faith about a person’s religion in respect to some doctrines of that religion that bear upon social and political matters and public law. For instance, it once seemed to me permissible to inquire whether the Quakerism of Richard Nixon would, on pacifist grounds, prevent him from leading the country during a just war; except that, in that case, Nixon’s prior record rendered such a question moot. A presidential candidate’s religious views on capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, the taking of peyote, and other such public issues would seem to be legitimate grounds for raising questions or clarifications. It seems legitimate, too, to question a Muslim about his take on jihadism, suicide bombers, threats against cartoonists, shar’ia law–and about a new conception of Islam showing its compatibility with this republic’s own laws and institutions. I construe all such tests as tests of political and social policy, and perhaps legal and public moral policy.

I think it is not right to ask a candidate to defend each and every ruling of his church in the past. The Kennedys pressed matters of past history during Romney’s race for the Senate, and even more recently. And then called it “off limits.”

Thus, although I have agreed with Father Neuhaus on most matters for a great many years, I do not, alas, agree with the views he stated in the two paragraphs (above) which Last asked me to evaluate. But I can imagine Father Neuhaus coming at some point to endorse Governor Romney for president, if the race goes in certain ways. I do not take the questions he raised eight months ago as his final word.

In another vein, a writer in The Weekly Standard, a former Mormon, urged publicly testing candidates even about purely theological matters — transubstantiation, baptism by immersion, circumcision, and other particular practices or beliefs of various faiths — just to see how, by the criteria of Enlightenment and liberal correct reasoning, the candidate “reasoned” about such matters. This, I think, makes Enlightenment and liberal political philosophy a new orthodoxy. And that test would provide a very narrow gate into republican self-government. By that test, only a small part of the population of the United States might pass. Most Americans have a much larger definition of “reason” and the “reasonable” than that.