On one side, some conservative Christians are calling the Mormon religion a dangerous “cult” and a “false religion." On the other, we’re in the midst of a Mormon charm offensive. It includes the new “I'm a Mormon” ad campaign on television, billboards, and buses.
If that's not enough to keep the religion in the public eye, there’s even a Tony Award winning musical on Broadway, The Book of Mormon, bringing audiences to their feet in enthusiastic standing ovations. (The musical is anything but an official Mormon production: South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were two of the main collaborators on the play.)
The reason we care, of course, is that two major Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, are Mormons.
The starting place, from my point of view, is that a person’s religion, or lack of it, should not be either the qualifier or the disqualifier for public office, including the presidency. Policy positions, views on political and economic issues, track record, experience in leadership and management, good judgment, and ability to communicate are the right focus.
Still, a candidate’s religion gets a lot of attention these days and with reason. We’re trying to get to know these people, and their faith is part of the picture. Four years ago, it was Sarah Palin’s evangelical faith and Barack Obama’s fiery pastor, Jeremiah Wright. These days, it is Michele Bachman and Rick Perry’s conservative Christianity and Romney and Huntsman’s Mormonism.
The problem the Mormon candidates have, ironically, is pretty much the same thing that has made Mormonism strong: that is, its relatively insularity and high level of expectation. Mormonism is vigorous, at least in part, because it is a disciplined operation with a high level of expectation. This makes a lot of sense when you are subject to persecution, as Mormons have historically been in the U.S.
It has also made Mormonism successful. Mormanism asks something, a good deal, in fact of its adherents. Mormons are expected to tithe, that is give 10 percent to support their church. They are asked to volunteer time in service and mission. They are expected to participate in Mormon practices, including the Word of Wisdom, the Mormon dietary code that eschews coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco. Moreover, Mormons are known for their support and care for one another.
I find this high level of expectation, the way Mormons take their faith seriously, to be admirable. But it is also, at least a part of the problem facing candidates who are Mormon. People wonder if, in office, their faith might actually mean something. It’s a sort of odd American ambivalence. By and large, we want candidates to be religious, but not too religious.
Personally, I would rather have a candidate whose faith is sincere and means something genuine than one who only uses religion to burnish their image or as a source of high-sounding but empty platitudes.
But I also want a candidate who is able to differentiate his or her role and responsibilities as a public official, with a primary responsibility to the Constitution and to an entire diverse nation of citizens, from his or her role as a church member or official (Romney has been a bishop in the Mormon church). I want a candidate who is able to distinguish between nation and church, between political responsibilities and religious ones.
While such a distinction isn’t always easy to make, it’s not an impossible one either. Moreover, all of us make similar distinctions daily, differentiating between different roles and sectors of life. What’s appropriate to one setting isn’t right in another.
So I find myself embracing a both/and position on candidates and their religion. On one hand, it is not and should not be the deal maker or breaker. Whether someone is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or Mormon or none of the above is not what it's all about when selecting a president or governor or any other public office holder.
On the other hand, I would prefer a person who, if religious, is sincere and real in his or her faith, and not just using it for political purposes, as window-dressing for their image or as a way of garnering votes and funds. Using religion in these ways is really an insult to religious faith.
I’ll be looking for a candidate whose faith, if they have one, is genuine and meaningful and not something they deploy for political gain. And I’ll be looking for a candidate who is able to distinguish between his or her political role and responsibilities and their religious ones, and manage the tension between the two.