My mother grew up in small-town Alabama. She was Catholic and went to a parochial school through the eighth grade. When she went to the local public high school she got a taste of anti-Catholic prejudice. People asked her questions like, “Is it true that when you get married, you have to sleep with a priest before you sleep with your husband?” It was a sometimes humiliating experience, but she lived through it and today, Catholic and Protestant relations in that same town are very comfortable. In fact, the pastor at a Southern Baptist church in the city gave a sermon praising John Paul II after his death. He went on to say that we should fervently hope the next Pope is a man like him because the Pope is the face of Christianity around the world. This rapprochement between Catholics and Evangelicals hasn’t happened by avoiding questions or hiding behind identity politics. It has been earned through engagement.
So now, Hugh Hewitt writes a book about Mitt Romney as the first Mormon in the White House. I’ve already questioned whether the book is premature in the extreme. It’s not as if there has been some amazing groundswell for the one term governor of Massachusetts who skipped out on the second term at least in part because everyone knows he would likely have lost. But the part that concerns us here is Hewitt’s claim that by acting as if Romney’s faith matters at all we somehow violate the spirit of Article VI’s prohibition on religious tests for officeholding and that evangelical Christians in particular should hesitate to consider Romney’s religion because they don’t want to have their own political hopes stymied by others considering their faith.
I think Hewitt is fundamentally wrong. Let’s tease this thing out a bit, shall we?
Article VI prohibits any religious test for officeholding in the federal government. So we will have no official requirement that only Episcopalians or whoever may serve in the federal government. Historically we know that set-up was basically about federalism (different states endorsing different denominations thus requiring federal stalemate), but let’s forget that and deal with it as we see it today. No official test set in legislation, executive order, etc. Fine. But then there is the question of the individual’s vote and you may exercise that however you wish. No Article VI interaction there.
Now, Hugh Hewitt wants to play the left-wing game and say that Article VI sets out an American value we should observe and that paying any attention to Romney’s religion is a violation of that value.
I disliked that argument just as much the first time I read it in a little book titled The Godless Constitution by Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore. Kramnick and Moore were concerned that evangelicals and Catholics would refuse to consider a candidate who wasn’t religious enough and would therefore, apply a sort of religious test against an atheist, for example, running for President.
Historically, there is plenty of precedent for considering a candidate’s religion and it hasn’t been such a terrible thing. Jefferson was nobody’s idea of an orthodox Christian. He was the perfect picture of a deist, believing in morality and punishments and rewards in the afterlife, but not in the specific Christian revelation. New England Clergy who were members of the Federalist party raged against Jefferson’s lack of correct faith. They preferred Adams, who was also not a picture perfect Christian in theology, but who was more favorable to religious establishments. Tellingly, Jefferson’s supporters felt the need to deny the attacks on his Christianity.* Despite the religious controversy, Jefferson did defeat Adams and won the presidency. He required no rule against debating religious convictions of a candidate to do so.
John F. Kennedy was another example. In order to keep the Democratic party’s southern support base intact, he had to deal with the issue of his Catholicism by taking it up directly with the people, as he did with Baptist ministers in Houston. Kennedy insisted he would be the president and not a proxy for Rome. Work it out for yourself whether that was correct theologically for a Roman Catholic, but Kennedy didn’t hide behind some kind of insistence that his faith was off limits.
In interviewing Erick Erickson, Hugh Hewitt wanted to compare caring about Mitt Romney’s religion to caring about someone’s race. The entire line of argument is wrong-headed. The left has enchanted us into thinking about everything in terms of categories and how wrong it is to consider categories. On the face of it, Hewitt is right. Certainly, it would be illogical and malicious to refuse to consider voting for someone based on the surface reason of their race or religion. But there is a second layer to the inquiry. If a white candidate’s beliefs about the world, about government, and about culture were significantly impacted by his race, then I think it’s fair ground to know exactly how. If it leads him to believe in some kind of white superiority, then it’s worth taking into account when voting. The same is obviously true of a disciple of Louis Farrakahn, in which case we are considering his race AND religion. I do not say such persons have no right to run for or hold office. I am saying WE have to right to ask such persons questions and to withhold our vote from such persons.
Would anyone willingly relinquish that right?
The point Erick made repeatedly in the interview that Hewitt treated as though it were no point at all is that there is very little public knowledge about the Church of Latter Day Saints. As a Ph.D. candidate in religion and politics, I know a great deal about some of the ways Mormons have been terribly mistreated in American history, but I know very little about their actual theology. I’m an evangelical Christian with great sympathies toward the Catholic Church. My theology certainly affects my view of politics and I think I would be a cad to take the position that if I were running for office no one would have a right to ask me about it and wait to hear what I would say. I would assume that equal respect for a Mormon would be to assume that his religious beliefs are not purely private but actually have some impact on what he thinks, believes, and does.
To hold otherwise is to become a secularist who says that religion is only private and doesn’t matter in the public square. I don’t think Hugh Hewitt has come out in favor of secularism before, but maybe that’s his new position. Religion is private and doesn’t matter a whit to politics. Is that what you think, Mr. Hewitt?
No, Erick Erickson had the correct position. It’s okay to be curious about the Mormon faith. It’s okay for Mitt Romney to face questions about how his faith impacts the other areas of his life, including his political life. There’s nothing unconstitutional or immoral about it. This is the process that will make the Church of Latter Day Saints a part of the fabric of American religious, political, and social life. Just being open to engagement is the key.
*The part about Jefferson’s backers defending him from attacks on Christianity is telling because it denies the claim that the founding generation wasn’t much concerned with the Christian faith. Jefferson couldn’t come straight out with it and hope to still be elected.