This primary season has changed cocktail party chatter. Surely to the horror of Emily Post, talk at social events these days is drifting more often into the forbidden territory of politics and religion. For many, this first topic has always inspired as much fervor as the second. For others, the second defines one’s appropriate response to the first.
Regardless of which type of person you are on a Saturday night—political junkie or evangelical Christian--with a man like Mitt Romney making his way onto the top of the Republican ticket, you’re bound to eventually engage in a conversation about what it might mean to have a Mormon as a president.
After all, if people get a bit ideological about the big D or R on their voter registration cards, they get downright narrow when it comes to questions of salvation. So in a country with a strong Judeo-Christian foundation, they find comfort in knowing the guy in charge is at least in their same book, if not on the same page.
Of course, President Obama still isn’t a member of a church. He has derided people for “clinging” to religion. Before it hurt him in the polls, he followed the preaching of that Jeremiah Wright fellow who was certainly a radical something. But Mormonism feels a bit stranger than even a leftist intellectual who at least knows how to look the proper part in the pew he occupies on Easter Sunday.
You see, everyone knows an Obama type: that run-of-the-mill American man whose acknowledgement of God makes him acceptable to others, even while others understand that same guy will skip a sermon to take in a round of golf whenever he’s landed a good tee time. He still puts up Christmas lights in December, occasionally takes communion, and can produce photographs of himself standing with his head solemnly bowed at his children’s baptisms.
So this begs the following questions.
Can journalists even take a picture of Mitt Romney at a Mormon service? Don’t Mormons stop the rest of us from going inside parts of their churches? Isn’t there a “veil” of some sort hiding how they worship?
It’s probably not politically correct to say it, but that sort of secrecy about what is supposed to be a Christian religion feels downright weird to other Christians. It makes one wonder what Mormons are doing in Temple Square. The inability to find out gives new meaning to the phrase “lack of transparency.”
But I propose now that, while interesting, those questions are mere diversions. The one that matters is, can we as a nation believe in the leadership of a Mormon?
Seeking an answer, I look to see how people have historically addressed uncertainty about the faiths of political candidates. After all, despite the American tradition that separates church and state—that throws out a religious “litmus test” for leaders—I know questioning a prospective president’s religion is nothing new.
For instance, Thomas Jefferson was maligned as being an atheist. It’s a matter of record that our third president traveled down various roads of belief, including those signposted with deism, which eventually led him to a rather unorthodox Christianity. (For one thing, he didn’t believe fully in the concept of the trinity.)
Then there was Abraham Lincoln who was called an “infidel” when running for Congress in 1846. Our sixteenth president had a complex spiritual existence, which makes the details of his belief difficult to discern, but it is certainly true that the adult Lincoln was never affiliated with a particular faith.
And then let us not forget JFK because he draws the clearest parallels to Romney. As a Catholic, Kennedy was accused of being part of a cult. Enemies said he would become a papal puppet. At the least, his faith was widely viewed with suspicion.
Yet religion did not interfere with the administrations of Jefferson, Lincoln or Kennedy. In actuality, all of these men have almost hagiographic legacies written in American history, and they are widely respected by both political junkies and the religious who take the time to study them.
Therefore, when waxing philosophical on the question of Romney and religion, I understand I need to look to the man’s policy proposals when deciding whether or not to vote for him. For my part, I will advise friends at cocktail parties to look to John Locke’s famous axiom: “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself.”
As long as any future president honors the same for me, I can lift my glass to him.