(Longtime readers of this weblog will know that I published a version of this post some years ago. But it seems, somehow, newly relevant…!)
U.S. presidential aspirant Mitt Romney continues to attract attention because of his allegiance to the religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), known popularly as the Mormon Church. Above all that attention is the “meta-question” about whether his Mormonism should even matter in political discussion. I suggest that there should be no question that it does.
Many point to John F. Kennedy as the first successful non-Protestant to win his nation’s highest office. So if Kennedy’s faith wasn’t a problem, so this logic runs, nor should Romney’s.
But Kennedy, as several decades of history have subsequently shown, was different from Romney not only in the type of religion he had–Roman Catholic versus LDS, which is a pretty big difference in outlook–but also in his adherence to it. Romney, by all accounts, is a faithful Mormon. Kennedy, by all accounts, was no one’s idea of a faithful Catholic. So of course Kennedy could be relied upon not to take political orders from Rome. He certainly wasn’t taking sexual orders from the Church. His Roman Catholicism literally didn’t matter. But Romney really believes LDS doctrine and really practices that religion’s faith.
So of course it matters that Romney believes that Joseph Smith really received divine revelation and offered us the latest, greatest gospel of Jesus Christ; that Jesus visited North America; that lost tribes of Israel came to this continent; that women shouldn’t hold office in the church; that God has a body of flesh as we do; that all true believers will reign as deities over their own worlds some day; that family life is sacred; and so on. In any such list of LDS propositions and values, key insights into Mr. Romney can be ascertained.
If someone ran for office and believed in Scientology, that would matter, because it would say something about that person’s intelligence, outlook, values, and so on. If someone ran for office and was a faithful Islamist, that would matter for exactly the same reasons. If a candidate is a Richard Dawkins-type atheist, or a James Dobson-type evangelical, or an Ayn Rand-type libertarian (UPDATE: and Romney’s running mate is!), of course it matters. Politics is all about understanding situations as clearly as possible, assessing plausible responses to those situations, selecting the best of those responses, and working well with others to actualize them. Beliefs, values, and practices all pertain to how one meets challenges.
Therefore of course it matters whether you believe in UFOs or a Supreme Being or a mindless universe. Of course it matters whether you believe that love for others is more important than love for self, or that God has given us guidelines for ethical behavior that must not be second-guessed, or that this holy text (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, The Fountainhead, The Origin of Species) is authoritative in a way no others are.
So let’s just agree that Romney’s world-and-lifeview does matter (it’s easier to drop the word “religion” here as distracting, as if other people’s views and values do or don’t matter because they are or aren’t “religious”), and move on to assessing three things: (1) what that world-and-lifeview actually is; (2) what it says about that person that he or she holds such a view; and (3) what difference it would make in acting as President of the United States to make decisions in the light of it.
We should do exactly the same thing with Barack Obama—or anyone else. What are these people’s fundamental convictions and what difference will they make in office?
Of course all this matters.