Thou shalt worship, but only where we approve
October 15, 2007
Mitt Romney is a deeply religious fellow, and arguably the most conservative candidate in the field of people competing for the U.S. presidency.
You'd think that would stand him well with those on the Republican right looking for a new champion. Romney is just as devout as George W. Bush, and was a much more successful businessman.
But Romney is a Mormon. And, as newspaper readers here are constantly told, many Christian conservatives consider Mormons to be members of a cult.
This information is related without irony.
No one points out that while Mormons may indeed perform "baptisms for the dead" (Romney reluctantly admits to having performed some himself), many evangelical Christians see nothing peculiar about speaking in tongues, an event in which the faithful go into a trance and speak gibberish.
Pride, prejudice and polls
Nonetheless, the prejudice against Mormons is a fact, and it isn't just evangelicals who hold it. So, according to polls, do many Roman Catholics, who, presumably, would be insulted if someone labelled them cult members for receiving the eucharist, which, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, involves the literal consumption of a deity's flesh and blood.
Poll after poll suggests that a large percentage of Americans would be reluctant to vote for a Mormon. The newest — a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey — puts the figure at 25 per cent. Among Republicans it is higher.
And so, Mitt Romney has crafted an almost Canadian campaign strategy where his religion is concerned: He discourages discussion of it.
"We don't have a religious test to say who should be able to run our country," Romney told a questioner in Iowa last summer. And, indeed, so says the U.S. Constitution, using almost exactly that language.
But the very fact that Romney would make that statement to pre-empt his questioner shows he knows better. In private meetings with Christian conservatives, he has appropriated evangelical argot, saying he "accepts Jesus Christ as his personal saviour." And in answering the Iowa woman, he went on to criticize Muslims, saying that "we" don't impose the sort of state religion found in the Middle East, the way "the people we are fighting" do.
The fact is that most Americans have a hard and fast rule. If you want to be elected here, you had better worship at some altar or other, the more mainstream the better.
That same Pew Forum poll found that 61 per cent of respondents — Republicans and Democrats — expressed reservations about any candidate who does not believe in God. They had various levels of objections to a Mormon, a Jew, a Muslim or a Catholic, but worst of all, by far, was an atheist. And the field of candidates, as lawyers would say, is "alive" to that sentiment.
Candidates about faith
Democrat Hillary Clinton, who describes herself as a "praying person," told a television audience last June that it was her lifelong Methodist faith that saw her through her husband's infidelity. Democrat John Edwards told the same audience that his lapsed faith "came roaring back" after his wife's cancer diagnosis and his son's death in a car accident. He didn't explain how the diagnosis and accident, presumably permitted by God, could deepen his faith in God, but people who make such proclamations of faith rarely do.
Barack Obama, another Democrat, kicked off his campaign by avowing "All praise and honour to God," a common salutation in the deeply religious black community whose vote he is seeking. He talks about "kneeling beneath that cross."
Among Republicans, Senator John McCain recently said he'd be more comfortable with a Christian in the White House. Senator Sam Brownback, emulating Jesus, used to wash the feet of his employees. And the actor Fred Thompson fairly exudes old-time religion.
In fact, apart from Romney, the only candidate who persistently avoids discussion of his spiritual beliefs and churchgoing record is Rudy Giuliani, the twice-divorced former mayor of New York City. It's safe to assume, given his marital status and pro-choice stand on abortion, that Giuliani's relationship with the Vatican is a distant one, but, as the Pew Forum notes in explaining his political viability, he at least belongs to an established religion.
What all this politically public faith translates into, once a candidate is elected to public office, is less clear.
Even the devout George W. Bush and the overtly religious pre-2006 Republican leadership in Congress resisted tampering with the role of religion in the public square. Prayers were not reintroduced in classrooms, abortion was not banned, the theory of evolution was not expelled from U.S. schools and the Constitution was not amended to forbid gay marriage. Or pornography.
That may be because those political leaders wanted to retain consent to govern.
Religion and political reality
A good many religious voters here are liberals — or, as they like to call themselves, "progressives" — who insist upon the maintenance of a wall between the institutions of church and state, and who are not interested in the imposition of religious values.
There is also the political reality of self-interest. An example: Abortion rates in the more religiously inclined heartland states are equal to — or in some cases higher than — rates in the more secular areas.
There are also the non-believers. Polls suggest about 10 per cent of Americans believe in no god at all or doubt the existence of one. (However, they generally tend toward a discreet silence when religion is publicly discussed, as much as they may privately cheer books like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great or the weekly needling of comedian and atheist Bill Maher).
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago, religion is this country's first political institution. It is a force of enormous electoral power, more so than anywhere in the world, with the possible exceptions of Ireland and some of those Middle Eastern countries Mitt Romney chastised in his answer to the Iowa questioner.
In Canada, Jean Chrétien, and Brian Mulroney before him, used to tell reporters that as Catholics they were personally opposed to abortion, but that as public officials it would be improper to let religious beliefs affect the way they carried out their duties.
Here, that answer would be no answer at all.