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Last week, most leaders of the Republican Party condemned the statement of the Rev. Robert Jeffress that Mormonism is a “cult.” We were told that religion has no place in politics and reminded that the Constitution expressly states there shall be “no religious test” for public office.
As a nonbeliever committed to keeping church and state completely separate, I wholeheartedly agree that Mormonism is no disqualification for the presidency, nor, in principle, should there be any discussion of the doctrines of the Mormonism during the campaign. Is the story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets credible? No — but as an atheist I can say the same thing with confidence about the doctrines of any religion. So let’s allow people to believe whatever they want and concentrate on discussions of public policy.
The problem is that many of our politicians — including Mitt Romney — and many members of the public want it both ways. They don’t want to entertain questions about their religious beliefs, yet at the same time they invoke these beliefs, sometimes expressly sometimes implicitly, as bearing on a person’s qualifications for office. Moreover, on some issues, religious beliefs are frequently invoked as justifications for policy stances.
Romney’s definitive December 2007 speech on religion and politics was awash with references to the importance of religion. He argued that American values are based on religion. Yes, he said we should exhibit a tolerance for others, but a tolerance for people of faith. Notably he stated that “any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me.” Message: if you don’t pray, you’re not my friend.
Romney, along with many others, apparently thinks religion and politics do mix, as long as we don’t examine too closely the basis for anybody’s beliefs. Sorry, but that doesn’t work. To the extent that religious beliefs are interjected into the political arena, they should be subject to examination and criticism the same as any other beliefs. We should ask those politicians who assert that belief in God is the basis for our values: 1. the evidence they rely upon for their belief; 2. the reasons they maintain there is a necessary connection between religion and morality. Any lesser scrutiny would not do justice to principles they have characterized as important.
Of course, that’s not likely to happen. Nor would it be desirable to turn policy discussions into theological debates. But it is also not desirable to allow religious beliefs to be immune from critical examination if they are influencing our politics and policies. We need to adhere to a thoroughgoing secularism in politics.
We are a secular republic in theory. To make ourselves a secular republic in practice it’s not sufficient to ensure no religious faith has preferential status. We also have to ensure that the nonreligious are not considered un-American. Moreover, our policy discussions should be framed in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based on secular considerations. Whether it’s abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, or stem cell research, we should keep matters of faith out of the discussion.
Our politicians deflect questions about their faith by stating they are not running for “Theologian-in Chief.” Then they should stop their preaching.
See more essays from local faith leaders.