Salt Lake Debate

By Michael Novak on December 17, 2007 in Published Articles
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Jonathan Last was happy with most of my post on Mormonism the other day, but he did object to one point. Before holding that a person’s religion is fair game for public comment during an election, I had written, it would be necessary to make a number of distinctions and to make explicit a number of assumptions. Last then asked whether these criteria had been met by the words from Father Richard Neuhaus that he had cited before, which appeared in First Things last April:

I believe that many Mormons are Christians as broadly defined by historic markers of Christian faith. That does not mean that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christian. It is indisputably derived from Christianity and variations on Christianity, but its distinctive and constituting doctrines are irreconcilable with even a very liberal construal of biblical Christianity. It is, as Rodney Stark and many others have argued, a new religion and, by the lights of historic Christianity, a false religion. It is true that there are Mormon scholars who are working mightily to reconcile the LDS with Christianity, and one wishes them well, but they have their work cut out for them.
It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who, unlike Alan Wolfe et al., care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney. The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.

Last found this quite satisfactory even according to my criteria, and asked if I agree with it. Actually, I do not agree with it. I did not want to get into all that in replying briefly to Last’s first post. I would just as soon not argue publicly against a dear friend like Richard, but challenged on it twice in the pages (so to speak) of his own online blog, I think I must.

To begin with a little historical background. Often, the Founders of the United States used to distinguish between true religion and false. The question of truth was important to them. When it came, though, to explaining how religious liberty in America would actually work, the Virginia Assembly voted against adding to the phrase “the Holy Founder of our religion” the clearly identifying name, “Jesus Christ.” They did so exactly because they had gone far enough in identifying the source of their own reasoning about conscience, they thought, a clearly Christian way, not found in other world religions. They did not want to go so far as to limit the reach of this reasoning only to Christians, but wished to make Muslims, Buddhists, and even nonbelievers feel at home here, too.

When General Washington asked Charles Carroll of the Continental Congress what Catholics would want from a new independent state, Carroll replied without hesitation “No religious test for public office.” The whole Carroll family had been barred from public office in Maryland where there was just such a religious test, intended to bar Catholics like the Carrolls.

To this tradition Fr. Neuhaus is adding a new test: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? Of course, any private citizen is free to invent any new religious test that he desires, in deciding whom to support in an election — but one would hope that he would be restrained by canons of good judgment, prudence, and concern for the public good. If Mitt Romney would make a great president, why deprive the nation of his services? And if he does become a great president, he would give a lot more credibility and prestige to the United States, and to religious believers in general, than simply to his own church. In any case, why should any of us begrudge the Mormon church the satisfaction of basking in the glory earned by one of its sons? In fact, as one of my Jewish friends puts it, contemplating the strong families and good citizens that Mormon families tend to produce: “Hell, I’m voting for Romney because he is a Mormon.”

Would the prestige of the Mormon Church rise with a good performance by Mitt Romney? This is true of the close associations of any and every president of the United States, of whichever faith, or of none. This new test is not constitutional, and if it has been employed at any time in our presidential history I am, except for one possible instance, unaware of it. During the election of 1800 some parties, asserting that Jefferson was an atheist, on that (false) ground urged that he be rejected by the electorate. He was not. He became president, and not at all a bad one. (It is probably true that Jefferson was the second or third least religious of the top one hundred Founders, but he nonetheless supplied the Marine band at public expense for the largest Sunday religious service in the United States at that time, held for some years in the U.S. Capitol building.)

The example Father Neuhaus gives as a reason to oppose a candidate because of his religion is this: Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? I feel fairly certain here that Neuhaus does not object to voting for presidential candidates whose faith he does not consider “true” in the full sense that he considers the Catholic faith “true.” The distinction that I suspect he wishes to make is between theological views concerning the nature of God, the human community’s relation to God, and the conscience and dignity of the human person, on the one hand — on which matters he is less comfortable with Mormons — and, on the other hand, those theological views that include God’s relation to political and social matters, and perhaps even to those moral matters that are of necessity regulated by public law, such as abortion and euthanasia.

Much more would have to be said here. The short version of it is this: I agree that questions may well be raised in good faith about a person’s religion in respect to some doctrines of that religion that bear upon social and political matters and public law. For instance, it once seemed to me permissible to inquire whether the Quakerism of Richard Nixon would, on pacifist grounds, prevent him from leading the country during a just war; except that, in that case, Nixon’s prior record rendered such a question moot. A presidential candidate’s religious views on capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, the taking of peyote, and other such public issues would seem to be legitimate grounds for raising questions or clarifications. It seems legitimate, too, to question a Muslim about his take on jihadism, suicide bombers, threats against cartoonists, shar’ia law—and about a new conception of Islam showing its compatibility with this republic’s own laws and institutions. I construe all such tests as tests of political and social policy, and perhaps legal and public moral policy.

I think it is not right to ask a candidate to defend each and every ruling of his church in the past. The Kennedys pressed matters of past history during Romney’s race for the Senate, and even more recently. And then called it “off limits.”

Thus, although I have agreed with Father Neuhaus on most matters for a great many years, I do not, alas, agree with the views he stated in the two paragraphs (above) which Last asked me to evaluate. But I can imagine Father Neuhaus coming at some point to endorse Governor Romney for president, if the race goes in certain ways. I do not take the questions he raised eight months ago as his final word.

In another vein, a writer in The Weekly Standard, a former Mormon, urged publicly testing candidates even about purely theological matters — transubstantiation, baptism by immersion, circumcision, and other particular practices or beliefs of various faiths — just to see how, by the criteria of Enlightenment and liberal correct reasoning, the candidate “reasoned” about such matters. This, I think, makes Enlightenment and liberal political philosophy a new orthodoxy. And that test would provide a very narrow gate into republican self-government. By that test, only a small part of the population of the United States might pass. Most Americans have a much larger definition of “reason” and the “reasonable” than that.

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