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Tim Rutten: A religious 'test' for Mitt Romney

Op-Ed

Objections to the former Massachusetts governor's presidential hopes because of his Mormon religion mark a dangerous turn in American politics.

June 01, 2011|Tim Rutten

Things being what they are these days, and with Mitt Romney currently the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, it's not too surprising that objections to the former Massachusetts governor's Mormon religion would resurface, particularly in Iowa, where evangelicals wield so much influence in the Republican caucuses.

Romney was the target of both left- and right-wing Mormon-bashing in the last presidential campaign, proving once again that vulgar religious prejudice is one of the few areas of our national life where true bipartisanship still prevails. Even so, last week's attack on Romney by the influential evangelical publisher and writer Warren Cole Smith was notable — not only because Smith is closely aligned with religious factions that recently fueled the campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had overturned a ban on same-sex marriage but also because he argued that it doesn't matter what Romney believes on social or economic issues.

In an online essay aimed at fellow evangelicals, Smith argued that "you can't have it 'both ways' when it comes to Romney's faith. You can't say that his religious beliefs don't matter, but his 'values' do. The Christian worldview teaches that there is a short tether binding beliefs to the values and behaviors that flow from them. If the beliefs are false, then the behavior will eventually — but inevitably — be warped.... There's a lot about Romney I like. He seems to be a competent manager; he's a fiscal conservative and his positions on some social issues — while problematic in the past — seemed to have genuinely changed. But certain qualifications make a candidate unfit to serve. I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve."

In other words, Romney's positions on the issues or governance itself are of no avail; his personal history, his demonstrated character count for nothing because his conscience is objectionable. Smith has done us all a service by taking us quickly and clearly to where our politics' creeping religiosity inevitably has been leading: a de facto religious test for office.

There's also been something of a sea change in rhetoric since the last election, with the theocratically inclined — from Sarah Palin to the Catholic archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput — arguing that John Kennedy was wrong in his famous 1960 speech that set the paradigm for looking at candidates and their religion. Kennedy, this line of thinking goes, was guilty of marginalizing religious belief, which is an indispensable quality in a political officeholder. It's a short step, though, from insisting on some display of faith to demanding that it be the "right" one.

Functionally, this sort of thinking threatens to make a dead letter of the Constitution's ban on religious tests for office, and we ought to consider the implications. Article VI of the Constitution couldn't be more clear: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

This clause is the most crystalline expression we possess of the framers' views on the relationship between church and state. It predates even the establishment clause in the 1st Amendment. It's also, as the ethicist and political historian William Lee Miller pointed out, evidence that "the new nation was electing to be nonreligious in its civil life." Miller also reminds us that the Constitution contains no references to God, a creator or even the "providence" to which the many deists among the framers often alluded.

Like his friend Thomas Jefferson, James Madison drew the architecture of his thinking on this question from John Locke's great 1689 essay, "A Letter Concerning Toleration," in which this summary appears:

"I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men's souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth."

Place the politics and society that Locke and Madison envisioned against those Smith, Palin and Chaput urge, and ask: Which is the saner?

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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