In any presidential election there are many values, beliefs, commitments, relationships, emotions, reactions, prejudices, fears, hopes, questions and understandings at play. We all like to believe that we do a thorough and objective analysis of the state of the country and the abilities of the candidates and then make a rational decision about who to vote for. To some great extent this is likely to be true. Yet, our subconscious, sub-rational minds are also involved as we prepare to cast our ballots. At these levels factors such as race, religion, gender, age, appearance, class, dress, and personality figure in our decision-making.
With this in mind, please allow me to reflect on the role religion plays in all elections, and specifically the 2012 presidential election. The United States Constitution speaks directly of religion on two occasions:
The last paragraph of Article VI reads, The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
The First Amendment reads, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The framers of the Constitution respected religion and were well aware of its power to inspire both goodness and evil. They wanted to insure that the citizens of the United States were free to practice their religion and that no person or group received preferential treatment because of their religion.
In complex ways their concerns continue to play a role in the nature of politics, elections and public life in these United States. Questions such as, “When does the free exercise of religion become forcing religion on others?” and “When do efforts to refrain from establishing religion undermine its free exercise?” are never far from the surface in many debates about law, policy, and the pursuit of public office.
In the 2008 the faith of then Democratic Candidate Barack Obama, specifically his relationship to, and the beliefs of, his former pastor, The Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, were a major topic of discussion. For good or for ill it is likely that some voters based their decision on their understanding (or misunderstanding) of Pastor Wright and Candidate Obama’s relationship to him. Now, in 2012, the faith of Republican Candidate Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and the ways that faith may impact his conduct of office, is in question. In this consideration great caution is in order. Being an adherent of a particular faith does not qualify, or disqualify a person for office. In the language of the Baptist tradition, simply being a Christian, even a good Christian, does not mean that a person will be a good president. Further, we are engaged in electing a president of a country not a pastor of the populace.
That said, what a person believes and the ways those beliefs shape them is likely to figure in our decision-making. For example, would we want someone who believes that God created one race superior to another race to be the leader of our country? Thus, we walk a fine line between judging solely on the basis of religion and recognizing that religion shapes a person and gives us some insight into their values and priorities.
As one who was born in, and graduated from high school in, Salt Lake City and one who spent my formative years in the heavily Mormon Intermountain West, I must admit that somewhere in my soul Candidate Romney’s faith impacts me. I respect Mormonism, particularly its emphasis on family and its ability to utilize the talents and energies of its young people. Yet, I am not a Mormon though I was invited and encouraged by childhood and teenage friends to become one. There are tenants of Mormonism that I reject. The most notable of these are the historicity of the Book of Mormon, their refusal to allow women into their priesthood, their doctrine of eternal life, and their practice of baptism for the dead (including the dead of other religious faiths) and thus their identification of my faith as a faith inferior to theirs. I also am troubled by the fact it is only rather recently, in the years after I graduated from college, that the LDS church received official revelation that African-American males could be admitted to the priesthood.
Do these beliefs impact my vote? Should they impact my vote? On one level the answer is clear. No they should not! There should be no religious test for holding office. People of the Mormon faith have been and will be competent public leaders. On another level I find myself wondering if I want someone who supports sending out missionaries to convert my family, with the implied conviction that he believes his baptism to be superior to mine, to be in the position to make decisions that impact me directly? At the very least I want candidates for office to represent the generous, rather than the narrow, perspectives of their traditions.
As in most decisions, complexity is the order of the day. We have principles and values. There are times when those principles and values conflict. Thus, we pray for clarity. Thus, we act and vote both humbly and hopefully. Thus, we act and vote both confessing our shortcomings and endeavoring to claim the best of our national and religious heritage.