LDS Faith and Politics: Their Intersection in the Public Square
By Maurine Proctor

Noah Feldman, Harvard law professor and close observer of the Mormon bias associated with Governor Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid, told BYU students at a forum Tuesday, that if we hope to create a society where all people, regardless of their religious faith, are able to participate fully in American life, we will have to be willing to engage in discussions about the deep commonality and strands that unite people of all religious faiths.   

This is a prospect, he said, with both benefits and dangers to the religious believer.

He began, “I would like to draw your attention to one of the great states in our federal union.  The state I have in mind was founded by deeply committed religious believers, considered radicals in their day, who faced, bloody and unremitting religious persecution in the place where they lived, who tried briefly exile and reformation of their religious community, but trouble found them, and they were forced, once again, to uproot themselves and their families, and to travel thousands of miles under very difficult conditions, in shaky conveyances, to found for themselves what they hoped and believed would be for them a new Zion.  

“They went to the far western reaches of the world that they knew and there, they did, in fact, succeed in founding a new kind of republic for themselves.”

He noted that once there, they formed a great university-and then gave, what for some, was this surprising conclusion.  “I speak, of course, of my home state Massachusetts and my home institution Harvard University.If for a moment you thought of a different group of people, already you are engaged in the study of comparative religion.” 

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

He said that Massachusetts has had several presidential candidates who faced challenges in the public square because of their religion.  The election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was the first campaign in which religion became an issue.

John Adams was a Congregationalist, and a strict believer, whereas Jefferson, was not as religious, and many detractors even falsely claimed he was an atheist and unworthy to be president.  Jefferson was very bloodied in this fight, and it altered his thinking in some consequential ways.  Before this election he believed in religious liberty for the traditional reason-that religion ought to be protected from incursions upon it by government. After, he championed religious freedom to protect government from the baleful influence of religion.  

John F. Kennedy

In 1960, according to Feldman, John F. Kennedy, another presidential candidate, faced tremendous criticism and struggle over the question of his Catholicism, with the suggestion being that he would be constrained by church discipline to listen to the church hierarchy when it came to making important decisions about government.

He took it on directly, and a little under two months before the election, he went to Houston to address a group of Protestant ministers and gave his now-famous lines:

I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

Whatever issue may come before me as president – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject – I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

These were the most decisive issues of the day, and in saying he would address them, according to his conscience,  Feldman said, he was very self-consciously using language which was associated not with Catholicism, but Protestantism. 

One of the foundational moments of Protestant history, Feldman noted, was when Martin Luther faced down Catholic authorities who told him that he must retract his conscience and he said he would not because it would not be safe or right to do so.

Thus, he placed his conscience above the responsibility of church authority-and this issue remained at the heart of the deep battle for centuries between Protestantism and Catholicism.

When Kennedy spoke the language of conscience to refute their concern, Feldman said, he adopted a Protestant version of what it meant to be a politician.

He was following a tradition associated with Thomas Jefferson who famously said that the opinions of a man on the question of religion had no more bearing on politics than his view on geometry.

Enter Mitt Romney

Professor Feldman made two observations on the part religion played in Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. 

First, he said, he had the bad luck of running against Governor Mike Huckabee, who was an ordained Baptist minister and a good politician “which is to say he was a mean politician.  All good politicians have to be mean, which means he was prepared to say things which he could apologize for (which he did apologize for), which enabled the relevant target audience of evangelical voters to be reminded of Governor Romney’s LDS faith.”  He framed things in such a way that the damage was done, despite his apology.

Second, Feldman noted, when Governor Romney gave his own speech on religion, it was much more difficult than for Kennedy. “Governor Romney couldn’t say that religion was irrelevant, because he believes that religion is actually a very important component of public life, that one has an obligation to engage with religion, to make sense of ones own beliefs and values, and indeed, he was trying to appeal to values voters who felt the same way.

“To make matters more complicated for Governor Romney, he was prepared to say something about his religious faith, and he said that he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of Mankind, but he said essentially that he would go no farther.  

“Romney said, ‘There are some who would have a presidential candidate who would describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines.  To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the constitution.’

“So he was saying in, essence, religion is not irrelevant, and I will tell you a little bit about my religion, but I do not wish you to ask me anything further about my religion, and indeed, if you do you are violating the constitution. 

“That is a very tricky position to maintain and it was not successful ultimately in the public sphere.”

So the question, Noah Feldman asked, is “what alternatives are there either for Gov. Romney, himself,  or other politicians in the future who find themselves in a similar position, of believing–not with John Kennedy, not with Thomas Jefferson– that religion does matter in the public sphere, that we should be free to ask about our own religious convictions when we make our voting decisions, and therefore others should be free to think about religion, too, when they vote for us, but who simultaneously recognize that long, continuing bias against them and against their religious tradition remains a factor against them in reaching positions of leadership for which they are eminently qualified?”

Feldman said the answer to that question is engaging in discussions of comparative religion-which has both an appealing and a frightening side.

The attractive side of comparative religion, he said, is that it enables people of all religious backgrounds to see the common bonds that unite us, as human beings connected to faith traditions.  It allows us to see that there are tendencies and streams and trends within all religious traditions that can simultaneously offer some of the richest forms of religious experience.

According to Feldman, the frightening part for a believer is this.  Discussions of comparative religion require you, for a moment, to suspend belief, meaning that you put aside the belief, that you have the rest of the time, that your religion is the only true and correct one, so you can appreciate what someone else values.

He noted that all religions believe some version of the idea that they are the correct one, even if they say it only when other religious believers are in the room.

This moment of suspension of belief, he says, has always been deeply threatening to religious organizers, whose concern is for maintaining the belief of their community. “If I can suspend my belief for the moment of comparison, perhaps when I go back to being an ordinary religious believer, a tiny spark of that disbelief will stay with me and it might infect the whole.”

Though comparative religion has risks as well as benefits, says Feldman,  “what I want to suggest to you is that, when we wish to think about entering into the public sphere and speaking about our religious beliefs, we all have an obligation on behalf of our selves and our broader communities to speak and think in terms of comparison. 

“It doesn’t have to be academic comparison.  It can be full-throated, engaged discussion, in which we are prepared to have conversations where we do for the moment suspend belief and where we do focus on those unifying strands and themes across religions that unite us.”

I assume what he means by this “suspension of belief” is the ability to enter into discussion with others, seeking to understand and appreciate their context, rather than assume an air of defensiveness or superiority. 

Feldman said that it made things very difficult for Governor Romney that he was being asked to defend his religion as a presidential candidate.  “He should not have had to do that.  A good political consultant will tell you that the moment he had to do that, he was in real trouble.

“What he needs, and what he has, is a broad and diverse community of other believers, of scholars, of lay people, of people involved in religious practice, people for whom this university is an important hub of influence and of learning to speak openly, to speak freely, to speak regularly, to speak unabashedly, and to speak in an engaged way with others in the public sphere about religion, about comparative
religion and about the ideas thereof and to do so, first of all without fear, second of all without presumption and, third, with the understanding that it is only through this public debate and discussion that this complex process of recognizing that all people regardless of their religious faith ought to be able to participate fully in American public life can come to pass.