If you believe that a set of religious beliefs is fundamentally mistaken, even detrimental to the eternal fate of its adherents, does this make you a bigot? Are you a bigot if you believe that people who hold to this set of religious beliefs are less desirable as potential Presidents?
Romney, Evangelicals and Bigotry
I ask these questions because of the avalanche of controversy that fell upon Warren Cole Smith for his article, “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church.” I am not disinterested. I consider Warren a friend, and I edited and published the piece (and a new followup interview). But I am also friends with the folks at Evangelicals for Mitt, including David French, one of my columnists, who publishes a piece critical of Warren’s argument in yesterday’s Daily Caller. Friends who know Mitt speak in the highest terms of his character, integrity, and competence. I’m a fan of Mitt’s and would gladly support him for the presidency.
I will publish three pieces on this blog: First (1): Is it bigoted or unreasonable to reject a candidate on the basis of his or her religious beliefs? Second (2): Should (non-Mormon) Christians reject a Mormon candidate for fear that a Mormon presidency would help Mormons evangelize? Third (3): Should Christians reject a Mormon candidate on the basis of his or her beliefs?
I will answer NO to all three questions. Opposing Romney on the basis of his faith is not necessarily bigoted or even unreasonable, but it is mistaken. I also believe that the storyline that evangelicals will sink Mitt’s candidacy is dramatically overblown. It’s a convenient narrative, since it allows the media to smear evangelicals as bigoted (even though this is unfair in most cases) and to keep Romney (the GOP candidate with the best chance of success in the general election) from becoming the nominee. They played this game in 2008, and Republicans ended up with (the man who was at the time) every Democrat’s favorite Republican.
First, a couple provisos. Mormons have been mocked, caricatured, ostracized and outright persecuted for most of their history in the United States, often at the hands of conservative Christians. So of course Mormons are sensitive to slights from these quarters. Caricatures of Mormonism have spread through the evangelical subculture in books like The Kingdom of the Cults. Most religious systems seem strange when you understand them partially or poorly from the outside. For more responsible accounts, see How Wide the Divide?, Claiming Christ, or The New Mormon Challenge. Since Mormons have often suffered bigotry and misrepresentation at the hands of conservative Christians, perhaps some are too quick to infer bigotry when someone criticizes their beliefs. It is also, of course, an effective way of silencing criticism.
Faith in the Voting Booth
Now: Is it wrong to reject a candidate on the basis of his or her religious beliefs? For the moment, let’s forget about Mitt Romney and Warren Cole Smith. The second and third installments in this series (please subscribe to the RSS feed, or connect on Facebook or Twitter if you want to follow along) will address Smith’s arguments. But this question is preliminary and fundamental.
We would rightly condemn anyone who votes against a candidate on the basis of color. Color is an inherited trait; the individual is not responsible for it, and the color of his skin tells us nothing significant about the talents, the character, and the worldview of the man. Yet we do not condemn a person who votes against a candidate on the basis of a criminal record. In fact we find this eminently reasonable. Criminal actions (excepting the exceptional) are chosen, so a criminal record is a voluntary and not an inherited trait. A criminal record, we think, tells us something about this person’s character and worldview.
So actions, but not inherited traits, are legitimate bases for votes. What about beliefs? Of course, along with abilities, character and experience, beliefs are precisely what we base our vote on. We ask our candidates whether they believe in free market solutions, in a strong defense, in the promotion of American interests around the globe, in the sacredness of life, in the traditional definition of marriage, and so on. We use terms like “conservative,” “liberal,” “communist,” “environmentalist,” and the like as labels for sets of beliefs (among other things, like inclinations) in regards to moral, social and political matters. We see these beliefs as guides to what candidates would do once in office.
Beliefs are at least partly voluntary. We hold people accountable for their beliefs, and we believe their beliefs tell us something significant about them. Even in unrelated fields. What a President believes with regards to astrophysics, for instance, does not really matter for the performance of his duties. But if he believes that the cosmos is filled with Flying Spaghetti Monsters, then we infer that he is irrational (his mechanism of forming beliefs is faulty) and we suppose this irrationality will interfere with the performance of his duties. So it’s not merely a question of whether we agree with a person’s beliefs, but also of how those beliefs reflect upon a person’s character and rationality.
Perhaps you think I’m just muddying the waters, so let me give some examples. I’d suggest that Americans actually take religious beliefs into account all the time when they’re deciding for whom to vote. A 1999 Gallup poll showed that 48% of Americans would refuse to support a well-qualified Atheist for the White House. By 2007, that number climbed to 53%. Or consider how many Americans would not be willing to vote for a Fundamentalist Pentecostal. One Gallup poll showed that Americans have a more negative view of Fundamentalist Christians, and only a slightly less negative view of evangelicals, than they do of Latter Day Saints. 33 percent reported negative attitudes toward Fundamentalists, 30 percent for Mormons, 29 percent for Muslims, and 25 percent for evangelicals (compared with 10% for Catholics and 4% for Jews). The same poll also showed that Democrats have much more negative views of the religious in general.
Would you vote for a Scientologist? A Satanist? Or a Christian, Muslim or Jew of a particularly apocalyptic variety, whose religious beliefs told him that he should arrange a nuclear war in the Holy Land? Most people will reach some boundary where they will say, “Okay, I am willing to accept religious beliefs of many kinds, but beyond this point I cannot go.” So most people are not opposed on principle to taking a candidate’s religious beliefs into account.
There’s certainly nothing unconstitutional about this. The founders forbade a “religious test,” but this means that persons of all faiths, or no faith at all, have a right to run for the presidency, not that the American electorate cannot take the faith of a candidate into account in the voting booth. A person’s faith tells us something about that person, something significant and profound. It shapes the way he perceives the world, reacts to events, makes decisions, takes actions. Faith is one of the most important and influential forces in a person’s life, and the notion that we should not take a person’s faith into account is the extreme end of the privatization of religion.
So it’s not necessarily bigoted or even unreasonable to take faith into account. I emphasize necessarily, because rejecting a candidate because “She’s an X and I hate X’s” is obviously bigoted and unreasonable. Yet it’s not necessarily bigoted or unreasonable to say that “This candidate has certain beliefs and values, emanating from his faith X, that lead me to worry he will not make the decisions I would want him to make as President.” Or “I’m concerned that a person who believes faith X is lacking certain qualities (rationality, empathy, humility, open-mindedness, etc.) I would want in a President.” Or even “I’m concerned that electing a person of faith X will have detrimental consequences for the spiritual health of our nation.”
The best approach, I think, is not to label the arguments bigotry but to engage them. Even though I do not consider it bigoted or even unreasonable to be concerned about the Mormonism of Mitt Romney, I want to show in the next two installments of this series why I believe it’s mistaken. Some of the arguments I’ve heard from evangelicals over the years have been unreasonable. Some have been reasonable, but wrong.
So the next question I’ll address is: Should Christians reject a Mormon candidate for fear that a Mormon presidency would help Mormons evangelize?