Monday, August 20, 2012

Ignoring The Elephant In The Room

Chris Beneke and John Fea are academics, historians, and authors who recently penned (penciled? typed? e-mailed?) a commentary in The Philadelphia Inquirer examining the religious test for office in the U.S.A.

That would, of course, be a de facto, rather than de jure, test.     Article VI of the U.S. Constitution stipulates "no religious Test shall ever be required a a Qualifcation to any Office or public Trust under the United States."  Still, as Beneke and Fea point out, President-elect Eisenhower in 1952 argued "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is.... With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal."     Accordingly, few people care that the current Vice-President of the United States is a Roman Catholic, either of the two men who will serve in that office the next four years is a Roman Catholic, or that of the nine sitting Supreme Court Justices, none is of the majority American religion, Protestantism.

Of course, no Muslims or atheists need apply.    Beneke and Fea conclude

So here's an update of our unofficial religious requirements for the presidency:   An unprecedented array of traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, and, probably to a slightly lesser degree, Judaism, now qualify candidates for the office.  But Eisenhower's Judeo-Christian criterion clearly abides.

This is not the founders' religious test for office, or even your parents'.   But it's a religious test all the same.

And so it is.   But Beneke-Fey could get great odds in Las Vegas betting on their suspicion "if recent eletions are any guide, Romney and Ryan  must maintain a steady drumbeat of God-fearing, Jesus-soaked expression until November."

While both Republicans will refer periodically to God, neither will allow his statements to be immersed in references to Jesus.   The Christian right will march in lockstep with the ticket anyway, less so because of a suspicion that Barack Obama is a Muslim than because Romney and Ryan pledge fealty to conservative policies.   And heaven forbid any candidate for national office even hint at a fear of God while appealing to voters, most of whom are convinced they're good people, have nothing to fear from God, and will be presented upon death with a deserved one-way ticket to heaven.

In particular, though, the religious views of Romney, once a Bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has presented a dilemma in his two presidential runs.    He could have publicly embraced his faith, asserting its importance to him in his family life and perspective toward politics and culture.  Or he could have, just as courageously, gone the JFK route, assuring the public that he would decide issues strictly on the basis of their merits, without regard to his religious affiliation or perspective.

We shouldn't be surprised that, faced with two options which would have boldly opened to discussion among the American people the role of religion in American life, Willard Mitt Romney has chosen neither.

Notwithstanding a speech during his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, Romney has ignored the issue this cycle.    He has instead subtly raised the matter of religion, telling a town hall audience that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are "probably inspired"- i.e., directly or indirectly, likely emanating from God.

It's safe in a Repub primary to imply that our founding documents have received more than a divine vote of confidence.    It might come as a surprise to individuals stuck under a totalitarian government that rights come from God.   However, most of them aren't of a Christian denomination (nor are they Jewish, for that matter) and few conservatives would conclude that those folks are quite our equals, anyway.  With a figurative nod and a wink from Romney, most conservatives recognized what he was saying; others probably disregarded the remark. It was a clever way of injecting religion into politics, but in such a manner as to permit the candidate plausible deniability, if necessary.  Which it wasn't.

Presidential candidates are never shy in exploiting their background, especially their family, to create their own narrative as to how their lives have been shaped and their views come to fruition.  (This is especially true with Paul Ryan, now shamelessly using his mother to campaign with him.)   But Mitt Romney has temporarily forgotten his prior life with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.    Consequently, Helen C. Whitney, who produced the PBS series The Mormons, and Gregory Prince, a practicing Mormon who consulted on the documentary, have posed the following nine questions they believe Romney should address:

1. How have your early experiences within the Mormon Church -- particularly your two-year proselytizing mission to France and your service as Bishop and Stake President -- shaped your character and your worldview?

2. How does Mormonism's boundless optimism, which transcends even death in a manner unlike any other religion, shape your vision of America's present and future?

3. All religions have fabulous foundational stories. The Mormons are no exception. The difference is that their theology is younger and famously literal. It tells us that God has a body, that there is a plurality of Gods who eat and drink and mate as we do, that the golden plates were real, and that when we die there is a concrete and specific heaven where families are reunited. How has the singular physicality of your faith shaped your view of the world, not only as a private citizen but as a national leader?

4. When Mormons are asked about Joseph Smith's powerful final vision about man becoming God, "God-like" is almost always substituted for becoming God. But Mormonism's oft-quoted tenet is unambiguous: "As God is, man may become." Can you explain this core belief in a way that addresses the charge of blasphemy made by other religions?

5. Why do your new positions on immigration, social welfare, gay rights and abortion differ from official positions of the Mormon Church? Can you place these differences in a context that reassures Americans that Mormonism is not a philosophical monolith -- that indeed there is ample room within the label of "devout Mormon" for people as diverse as you and Senator Harry Reid?

6. What your church labels "sacred" is frequently termed by others "secret" or even "sinister," leading many to conclude that Mormons may not always be telling us what they truly believe. How can you assuage these suspicions by articulating your beliefs?

7. Given that your church's highest leadership councils consist entirely of white males, that it denies its lay priesthood to women and that it played the decisive role in the passage of California's Proposition 8, how can you assure the American public that the composition of your administration and the policies that you would pursue would be reflective of, and responsive to, the diversity that is the foundation of this nation's strength?

8. When asked about the part of his Baptist faith that meant most to him personally and as the nation's leader, President Clinton spoke movingly -- and in his words --about "the God of second chances." Human fallibility and the possibility of divine redemption -- these were Clinton's themes. What element of Mormon history or theology has had special resonance for you and has shaped your view of human nature, and of God?

9. Of all the misconceptions surrounding your religion, which one has offended you the most? Or, to interject a lighter note, what misinformation or stereotype has caused you to roll your eyes and even laugh when you are with your Mormon friends?

Whitney-Prince cite the candidate's "reluctance to be open about his religion" and assess a willingness to respond to the questions as "an opportunity for him to begin to emerge from obscurity."   Romney obviously will not address these, but he hardly can be blamed for not opening a Pandora's box that would likely lead to his defeat.   More importantly, the media will continue to please the presumptive Repub candidate by ignoring the issue.     This may not be a conscious attempt to favor the GOP but rather a skittishness at considering religion at all.   The media, however, play a major role in setting the terms of debate in an election.    And in  an electorate which knows far more about Reverend Jeremiah Wright than about Joseph Smith, those terms are lopsided.

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