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Religion in Politics

Now that Mitt Romney has felt the need to address the nation on the matter of his faith I’m posting this, which I wrote a month ago and submitted to The Boston Globe in response to a column on the issue by one of their regular columnists.

They declined the opportunity to publish it at the time.

21 October 2007

Joan Vennochi (“Hung Up On Faith”, 21 Oct 2007) criticizes the religious double-standard that makes Mitt Romney’s personal faith a contentious and negative campaign issue while the personal faiths of others are either taken for granted or exalted. Buttressed by a quote from a single, presumedly fundamentalist, minister she implies that Romney, like John F. Kennedy over forty years ago, is a victim of religious bigotry, that concerns over his faith are fundamentally concerns over differences in doctrine; and she laments that such bigotry injects the the issue of religion into the political process in a way that overshadows more important — more “real” — campaign issues.

But, nothwithstanding the fact that there are some religious bigots who oppose Romney on that basis alone, there remains a rational basis for questioning whether the faith of a Mormon like Romney — or of a Catholic like JFK — presents a problem with respect to a presidential candidacy.

For, unlike mainstream Protestantism, founded in protest against the centralized and regulated dogma of the Catholic church, Catholicism and Mormonism remain hierarchical religions. Whereas mainstream protestant theology emphasizes the personal responsibility of each individual for interpretation of scripture — and for acting upon that interpretation — the Catholic and Mormon churches emphasize the integrity and infallibility of the canon as it has been revealed to and communicated by the church elders. Whereas the role of the mainstream protestant clergy is understood generally to be that of teacher and counsellor, the role of the Mormon and Catholic hierarchies are understood to be that of commandants and enforcers of the faith. And, whereas in mainstream protestantism devotion is understood as a fidelity to the ancient teachings of Christ himself through his recorded words, in Mormonism and Catholicism devotion is understood as fidelity to the current demands of the church and its hierarchy as defined by its leaders.

As one who is areligious and concerned about the integrity of secular government in a religious culture, I am not always comfortable with the degree to which candidates parade their piety and devotion. But, for most of them, I at least understand that such piety and devotion implies that their religion — and more importantly the religious leaders to whom they turn for spiritual guidance — will inform their judgements but not dictate them; that their religion and its doctrines tells them how to think about issues but also leaves the ultimate judgement about actions to their own consciences. And, if their consciences call them to different conclusions than their religious counsels advise, there is, within their religion, no real mechanism for holding them to account and, therefore, no real mechanism for coercing them into ignoring that call.

But a Catholic who is truly devout is obedient to the Pope; that is the nature of his devotion. A Mormon who is truly devout is obedient to the Elders; that is the nature of his devotion. The doctrines of both faiths demand such obedience and include mechanisms for coercing it and for punishing its absence. And the concerns and priorities of the Pope or of the Elders do not necessarily align with the concerns and priorities of the United States government or of the American nation.

What I want to know about any candidate who espouses religious devotion while running for the Presidency is which duty, to his religion or to his office, prevails when the two are in conflict? The question is important for any candidate but it is of particular urgency when a fundamental demand of that devotion is obedience to specific human enforcers of religious doctrine.

I would be comfortable with a President who serves a philosophical ideal. I would not be comfortable with a President who serves a Master.

(C) Copyright 2007, Augustus P. Lowell

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