Romney’s Christian Nation Conundrum

In the CNN presidential debate last night, moderator Anderson Cooper asked the candidates about Pastor Robert Jeffress’ diatribe against Mormonism. “Should voters pay attention to a candidate’s religion?” Cooper asked.

That question should be easy for Republicans, right?

Here’s a summary (full quotes below the fold):

Santorum (Catholic): Examining the tenets of someone’s religion tells you how they will govern. But don’t judge their road to salvation. 1

Gingrich (Catholic-come-lately): Don’t judge how someone believes in God, just judge them based on whether they believe in God, because if they don’t, you shouldn’t trust them. 2

Perry (evangelical): I can’t help it if Jeffress went off on his anti-Mormon rant. There’s freedom of religion in this country, and Jeffress is therefore free to go off against Mormonism if that’s what he believes! 3

Romney (Mormon): Jeffress, meh. I’ve heard worse. There are no religious tests for the presidency, that’s in the Constitution. 4

I think we knew this before, but Perry’s no constitutional scholar — he might not even graduate from Schoolhouse Rock. Romney’s answer was probably the best, focusing not just on freedom to practice religion, but on how that is connected to the Constitutional prohibition on imposing a religious test for public office. (Article VI, section 3: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”)

But there is another piece of the Constitution that none of them brought up: that there is a separation of church and state, and therefore demanding that public officials be Christian, that they pray to a certain God, or that they venerate the Christian nation mythology is inconsistent with that. Indeed the Republican Party’s official position is that the balance between promoting free exercise of religion and prohibiting religious tests for office “has been distorted by judicial rulings which attempt to drive faith out of the public arena.” What would be an appropriate public expression of faith in the public square? In the Republican Party platform, public display of the Ten Commandments and student-led prayer in public schools, because in the Republican view, those don’t violate the separation of church and state, because there isn’t one.

For at least three decades, Republican candidates, spurred by the Christian right, have been promoting the idea that our nation’s leaders should be Christian — and only a certain kind of Christian. When it comes to his own candidacy, Romney is willing to confront this quasi-official religious test by defending the free exercise clause and the prohibition on religious tests for office. But he was silent on the establishment clause. Last night he said nothing about the citizenry’s religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and where the line between public expression of religion by elected officials and state endorsement of religion should be drawn. That’s because to win the Christian right vote, a candidate must hew to the “separation of church and state is a myth” line. To do that, Romney would have to pay homage to the Christian founding of the nation mythology—a mythology that excludes his faith. 

Romney was out front defending his own candidacy from the imposition of a religious test. But he appears unwilling to confront his party’s mythologizing of a Christian nation and degradation of the separation of church and state.


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Here are the candidates, in their own words, in response to Cooper’s question:

1 Santorum:

it’s a legitimate thing to look at as to what the tenets and teachings of that faith are with respect to how you live your life and — and how you would govern this country.  . . .With respect to what is the road to salvation, that’s a whole different story. That’s not applicable to what — what the role is of being the president or a senator or any other job.

2 Gingrich:

Now, I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God. And I think that all of us up here I believe would agree. (APPLAUSE)

But I think all of us would also agree that there’s a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I’d wonder, where’s your judgment — how can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?

3 Perry:

Well, our faith — I can no more remove my faith than I can that I’m the son of a tenant farmer. I mean, the issue, are we going to be individuals who stand by our faith? I have said I didn’t agree with that individual’s statement. And our founding fathers truly understood and had an understanding of — of freedom of religion.

And this country is based on, as — as Newt talked about, these values that are so important as we go forward. And the idea that we should not have our freedom of — of religion to be taken away by any means, but we also are a country that is free to express our opinions. That individual expressed an opinion. I didn’t agree with it, Mitt, and I said so. But the fact is, Americans understand faith. And what they’ve lost faith in is the current resident of the White House.

4 Romney:

That — that idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office is what I find to be most troubling, because the founders of this country went to great length to make sure — and even put it in the Constitution — that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion, that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there’s a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths. That’s bedrock principle.

And it was that principle, Governor, that I wanted you to be able to, no, no, that’s wrong, Reverend Jeffress. Instead of saying as you did, “Boy, that introduction knocked the ball out of the park,” I’d have said, “Reverend Jeffress, you got that wrong. We should select people not based upon their faith.” Even though — and I don’t suggest you distance yourself from your faith any more than I would. But the concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to, I think, is a very dangerous and — and enormous departure from the principles of our — of our Constitution.

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