FrontPage | 8.16.11
Real Clear Religion | 8.17.11
By Alan W. Dowd

Presidential candidate Herman Cain has publicly declared that Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith will prevent him from winning the nomination. “I know the South,” Cain recently observed. “The reason he will have a difficult time winning the South this time is because when he ran the first time, he did not do a good job of communicating his religion. It doesn’t bother me, but I know it is an issue with a lot of Southerners.” Cain repeated this not-so-delicate line of attack during last Thursday’s debate, reporting that people in his hometown “are not clear on how” the Mormon religion relates “to the majority of people’s Protestant, Christian religion in the South.”

Regrettably, we’ve been here before.

In the 2008 election cycle, after similar “it doesn’t bother me but” questions about his Mormon faith, Romney was sadly forced to defend his faith and make the case that a Mormon was no more or less qualified to be president than a Desist or Baptist, Methodist or Catholic, Evangelical or Jew.

Back then, it was the not-so-delicate rumblings of Mike Huckabee—grasping, like Cain today, for some sort of attention—that put Romney’s faith on the ballot. “I really don’t know much about it,” Huckabee said of Romney’s religion, before cynically asking, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

The reason it was cynical for Huckabee to ask his rhetorical question—and for Cain to say Southerners won’t vote for a Mormon—is that both men were playing innocent but were clearly sending a message.

“I think attacking someone's religion is really going too far,” Romney said in response to Huckabee’s attack. “It’s just not the American way.”

Of course, this sad case of déjà vu stretches back far further than the 2008 election cycle.   

In 1960, responding to similar whispers and signals from his opponents, then-Senator John F. Kennedy delivered a speech and held a Q&A with Southern Baptist leaders. It’s amazing that more than 50 years later, Kennedy’s defense of his right to run and capacity to govern could be quoted virtually verbatim by Romney.

“I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 election,” Kennedy began, citing the spread of communism, childhood hunger and the forgotten poor. He reminded his hosts that he fought—and his brother died—for an America without religious tests of any kind. “No one suggested then that we might have a ‘divided loyalty,’” he intoned, no doubt shaming some of his hosts. 

Then, intentionally and wryly imitating the pattern of a creed, he delivered his confession of non-faith: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute…I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish…I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end…where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.” 

Kennedy won over enough voters to settle the sad controversy triggered by his Catholicism. Yet today, according to polling conducted by Pew, a sizeable swath of this great, multi-religious republic has qualms about Romney’s religion. According to the Pew survey, 25 percent of Americans say “they would be less likely to support a Mormon.”

In addition, “About a third of white evangelical Protestants (34 percent) say they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate.”

That underscores Cain’s point. But that doesn’t let him off the hook. Just because something may be accurate, doesn’t mean it needs to be said (repeatedly). In fact, there are many things that are true that we should seek to change. Disqualifying someone because of his or her faith—or sending signals that it’s OK to do so—is probably one of those things.

Interestingly, the Pew poll indicates that “more Democrats than Republicans say they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate. Liberal Democrats stand out, with 41 percent saying they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate.” So much for the enlightened open-mindedness the Left claims it has a corner on.

After the first dustup over his faith, back in the 2008 cycle, Romney re-remindedAmerica that we are a country of many faiths.

But first, following Kennedy’s script, Romney pointed out that there are far more pressing matters to address: “Radical violent Islam seeks to destroy us. An emerging China endeavors to surpass our economic leadership. And we are troubled at home by government overspending, overuse of foreign oil, and the breakdown of the family.” (That was four years ago, by the way—before the mortgage meltdown, before Obama’s spending frenzy and consequent budget showdown, before the S&P downgrade, before $4-a-gallon gas—which means Romney may know a thing or two about governing.)

Romney then turned to faith. Freedom and religion go hand in hand, he declared, adding “religion requires freedom.” 

This has always been true. Moses, it pays to recall, argued that God’s people had a right to assemble and to worship. Acting as heaven’s ambassador, Moses outlined God’s reasonable demands: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.” 

Closer to our own time, the ancestors of our Founders were people of intense faith, who came to this continent to practice that faith and build a society shaped by that faith. Since then, faith and people of faith have played an indispensable role in America.   

Twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, Gen. George Washington had a minister detached to his regiment. Later, he warned that “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” 

Jefferson’s masterpiece document announcing the nation’s birth invokes “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and claims that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Echoing Washington and Jefferson, Romney argued that “Reason and religion are friends.” Americans, he continued, “share a common creed of moral convictions.”

Alexis de Tocqueville came to a similar conclusion in the 1830s, when he described religion as “the first of America’s political institutions.” Tocqueville recognized that America, for better or worse, was infused with faith. “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions,” he concluded.

Yet in spite of this rich religious heritage, Romney warned, rightly, there are some in our country who want to establish “a religion of secularism.”   

Romney promised to be a bulwark against that. “Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me,” he concluded, applauding what he called “our nation’s symphony of faith.”  

Like Kennedy before him, Romney also sought to reassure his critics. “I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest,” he vowed. “A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.” 

Romney took care to detail the dangers that follow when a religion hijacks the state, pointing to our jihadist enemies. And he reminded his audience that the Founders were also against the opposite extreme—“the elimination of religion from the public square.”

Romney’s religion—a religion which didn’t exist when the country was founded—does not disqualify him from serving as president, just as Jefferson’s Deism, Kennedy’s Catholicism, Carter’s born-again conversion, Bush’s evangelicalism or Lieberman’s Judaism didn’t disqualify them from—or qualify them for—high office. 

Romney’s supporters have plenty of reasons to back him—his proven record as an innovative chief executive, commitment to lower taxes, hard line on jihadism. And his opponents have plenty of things to criticize—his evolving position on abortion, the healthcare behemoth he helped spawn in Massachusetts. But his religion falls into neither category.