In case you’ve not heard, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor now running for president of the United States, is a Mormon. In case you’ve not heard, Mormonism is somewhat unusual from the standpoint of orthodox Christianity. In case you’ve not heard, this may or may not be problematic for Mitt Romney in his pursuit of the presidency.
There are three ways to deal with this issue: address it forthrightly and openly; declare it ipso facto off-limits in the public square; or obfuscate when asked. The first approach, of open acknowledgement and exposition, has been adopted by NRO’s Jim Geraghty, who recently noted at The Campaign Spot that Gallup Poll results, among other things, demand a frank addressing of Mormonism and its meaning for the Romney campaign sooner or later. This is not because Mormons are uniquely bad citizens, but because Mormonism is sufficiently alien to the American mainstream to demand a more full explanation than that needed from, say, Methodists.
To state this is no condemnation of Mormonism, but simply an acknowledgement of the heritage of a faith whose roots lay in the deliberate establishment of an “American Zion” well over a century ago. Mormonism has not been a geographically-cloistered sect for decades now, but it still promotes a sort of benign social separatism amongst its adherents in its demands on time and its orientation toward directed activities for family, stake and ward. (When my wife and I moved to San Francisco, we were helped immensely by a Mormon friend who gave us her ward’s local orientation packet — something that our own non-Mormon parish did not have.) Compounding its alien status in secular eyes is Mormonism’s peculiar insistence on publicly believing in itself and its tenets, and furthermore proselytizing by virtue of that belief. There is no need to refer back to polygamy, bearded prophets, theological racism or frontier wars here — these things alone make Mormonism decidedly odd to a generation of Americans inculcated with the idea that faith has no place in the public square. In this light, then, the questions about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism spring from the same place as the American Left’s outrage at the Catholic Church’s insistence that Catholic officials abide by their own faith.
On the Catholic front, the response of Catholic public intellectuals and activists like First Things’s Richard John Neuhaus, Fidelis’s Joseph Cella, and NR’s own Ramesh Ponnuru has been to affirm faith’s place in the public square, and defend the right of the faithful to advance their interests and beliefs within the context of the Constitution. As important, they assert the general propriety of public officials making decisions from the context of faith. This is tremendously important — and concurrently hateful to the secular left — as its denial is tantamount to a denial of faith as a source of morality or first principles for any policymaking. It is a denial that the Founders themselves would have rejected: we know from the very Declaration of Independence that they derived their knowledge of human nature, and hence their political principles, from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Men are furthermore “endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights.” The Declaration is therefore intrinsically theistic — although phrased in such a manner as to not be intrinsically Christian. And we know the Constitution to be the fulfillment of the promise and premises of the Declaration — certainly not a rejection of its fundamental hypothesis — because the Founders themselves tell us so.
Yet for all this, though faith must be reclaimed as a valid font of policy and participation in the public square, it does not follow that faith and the faithful should be rendered immune from critique within that square. Full participation is both benefit and burden, both to the faith itself — and its adherents. It means that Catholic officeholders may rightly be asked what they will do when their Church and their politics conflict; and it means that we may fairly discuss Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and what it signifies for his governance. We may further discuss Mormonism per se and its role in public life.
This is not uncontroversial: the second means of dealing with questions of a candidate’s faith is to declare it ipso facto off limits in the public square. Where Mitt Romney is concerned, radio host and conservative blog kingpin Hugh Hewitt leads the charge on this count. In a published riposte on his site, Hewitt scolded Geraghty for the latter’s mulling-over of Romney’s faith: “Some aspects of Mormon practice are strange to the public,” wrote Hewitt, “and the vast chasm between Mormon theology and Protestant and Catholic beliefs cannot be bridged, and the debates between Mormon and non-Mormon theologians are loud and vigorous. The point is that these facts should not matter in American politics, and that folks who want them to matter have bad intentions…”
Hewitt has made a sort of cottage industry out of pushing this point over the past several months: his book, A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney, is basically an extended argument for the Romney candidacy that implicitly blames anti-Romney sentiment on anti-Mormon bigotry. Unfortunately, the argument is bogus on two counts: First, because there are plenty of reasons for critiquing Romney that have nothing to do with his faith; and second, because, for all the reasons previously stated, religion is not privileged and immune from question in American democracy. Hewitt’s rhetorical roping-off of the faith issue would be absurd in any era — but in an era when we are at war with explicitly religious fanatics around the world, it is downright dangerous. Declaring that those who want to discuss faith issues in politics “have bad intentions” is not, then, a statement of principle, but mere bullying on behalf of a political campaign.
The irony is that the campaign in question may not especially care about that sort of effort. The third way of dealing with questions of faith in politics is to obfuscate when asked — and this is what Mitt Romney has taken to doing when confronted with Mormon-related questions on the campaign trail. A June 11, 2007, New York Times story reported on this phenomenon, including a mention of Romney’s affirmation of orthodox Christian, and hence non-Mormon, eschatology. This is, of course, Romney’s choice, and his co-religionists’ reaction to it is their choice. But at least Romney — like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — is willing to talk about his faith. That’s more than can be said for some of his fellow Republicans, who, as conservatives, ought to know better.
– Joshua Treviño writes at joshua.trevino.at.