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The Religious Test, Again

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A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney

Yeah, I have been around this block before.

This is a long post and delayed by a day, so I apologize in advance for that. Yesterday was an interesting and long day, and it included the somewhat unique conversation with Martin Sheen, who apologized to George W. Bush on my radio show, as well as a valiant attempt by Senator Jon Kyl to explain the Senate train wreck the day before, not to mention an 18 hour round trip to Colorado. I thought it best to sleep before writing on an issue of incredible importance.

I spoke to two groups on Friday, beginning the day in Colorado Springs before the Products Liability Advisory Council and concluding the evening back in California before the J. Reuben Clark Law Society of Orange County.

Both are groups of lawyers, and there were some elements of my remarks which were common to both groups, including an assessment of the centrality of regulatory and legal issues in the election of 2012 and the importance of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, Sackett v. EPA. The dinner meeting also included spouses which meant I dialed back the lawyer-talk and hopefully made the topics of Obamacare’s individual mandate, the NLRB’s assault on Boeing, the prosecution of Gibson Guitar, etc accessible to laymen. (Not possible, sadly, for the discussion of review of pre-enforcement administrative orders under the APA and the 14th Amendment. No one was injured.)

Extraordinary lawyers populate both groups, and at the latter there were a considerable number of law students just beginning their careers. All of these lawyers except the young students have gone through roughly the same sort of legal education, passed a rigorous Bar Exam and practice their profession under the same rules.

The only significant difference is that the members of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, like those who almost everyone who attend BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. (Here’s some bio on J. Reuben Clark.)

At the beginning of the day, I did not expect to be addressing the latter group about anti-Mormon bigotry in America. I went intending to compare and contrast two interviews I had conducted in the past year, one with Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Stephen Breyer and the other with Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle of the LDS faith, a former Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, and President of BYU. The two justices, one current and one former, are extraordinary intellects. Elder Oaks clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1957-1958 term of the Court, and Justice Breyer clerked for Justice Arthur Goldberg in the 1964-1965 term. Both men went on to distinguished teaching careers, Elder Oaks at the University of Chicago Law School and Justice Breyer at Harvard Law School.

The most striking difference between these two interviews –the Oaks transcript from February 4 of this year is here and the Breyer transcript from September 15 of this year is here— is what they came to the radio studio to emphasize.

Justice Breyer came to discuss his book Making Our Democracy Work, and to outline and emphasize for a broad audience the important role of the Supreme Court and the necessity of government’s smooth operation which depends in part on the maintenance of judicial legitimacy.

Elder Oaks came to address the current and future state of religious liberty in the country.

Justice Breyer came to defend the public space; Elder Oaks the private sphere.

Does it matter that Elder Oaks is a Mormon and Justice Breyer is Jewish? These are both extraordinary intellects, accomplished scholars, and life long public servants who have devoted their lives to the public interest as they understood it. Again, does the force of their arguments about the rule of law in the country depend on their theology?

Certainly the history of persecution of the LDS Church matters to Elder Oaks’ understanding of the necessity of religious liberty, but the force of their arguments depends not a bit on appeals to revelation or sacred texts. Both men came to talk about the Constitution and its enduring greatness.

Part of that Constitution is Article VI, which provides in relevant part:

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 part of Article VI I have emphasized has been vital to the growth and strength of the American Republic. Because of it and the provisions of the First Amendment the country has largely been spared the religious tension, violence and even war that has rent Europe for centuries and which continues to plague many countries across the globe. Mormons would be right to point out that their church was indeed persecuted, and the argument over the long-ago repudiated practice of polygamy as a justification for that persecution shouldn’t obscure that on Oct. 27, 1838, Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an official order to the state militia declaring: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace-their outrages are beyond all description.” This is known as the “Extermination Order,” and it marks the worst moment in our nation’s history of religious bigotry.

At the conclusion of last night’s speech I added remarks about the day’s events as they related to the the faith of most of the audience. Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, Texas had introduced Texas Governor Rick Perry at a major event bringing together voters who care passionately about values. After the event the gaggle of reporters engaged Pastor Jeffress in an extended Q&A.

“Mormonism is not Christianity,” he declared. “It’s not politically correct to say, but Mormonism is a cult.”

The Washington Post account includes some othe details:

A spokesman for the Perry campaign released a statement saying that Perry did not agree with Jeffress about Romney’s religion. “The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult,” wrote Robert Black in an e-mail. “He is not in the business of judging people. That’s God’s job.”

Black was quick to add that it was the conference organizers, not the Perry campaign, who chose Jeffress to introduce Perry on Friday.

And Jeffress made clear that he was not speaking for Perry. “I did not talk about my Mormon views” with the governor, he told the press, “and I’m not insinuating that the governor shares those at all – he may not share them at all.”

I leave it to the specialists in this particular sort of controversy at Article VI Blog –a Mormon, an Evangelical and an Orthodox– to review the particulars of this event, even as the national news media uses it for another round of stories of Governor Romney’s church.

What I –an evangelical Roman Catholic Presbyterian– told my Mormons friends last night is that I deeply regret that they may be obliged to explain to their younger children what is going on if and when they hear themselves referred to as members of a cult. I wrote extensively about this term in my 2007 book A Mormon In The White House? and about the then-looming discussion of Mitt Romney’s LDS faith. The governor gave me extensive interviews on the subject of his faith, as he has many others. I and many others have written extensively on the tradition of religious tolerance in America and on how the political system had evolved to banish at least overt religious bigotry from it. I noted in the 2007 book that leading bigots of the left had launched at least as many attacks on Romney’s faith as had critics of the LDS from the right side of the political spectrum. The most egregious example of religious bigotry came from Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg. “Objecting to someone because of his religious beliefs is not the same thing as prejudice based on religious heritage, race, or gender,” in a futile attempt to distinguish himself from Bull Connor on other than grounds he doesn’t advocate violence against those he hates.

What I told the audience last night is that the immense amount of money available to the president, combined with his Chigo-bred political ruthlessness and that of his cadre of political advisors guarantees that if Mitt Romney is the nominee –an increasingly likely possibility– yesterday’s unpleasantness is just the beginning of an avalanche of attacks on their church, and not for theological reasons, but in order to marginalize, isolate and defeat a candidate via appeals to prejudice and fear.

The inadvertent contribution that Pastor Jeffress may have made yesterday was to launch the cycle of attack and choosing early in the campaign season. Every time an attack in made on Mormons, non-Mormons who value religious liberty will be obliged to say that despite deep theological differences, it is wrong and anti-American to wage political campaigns on appeals to religious bigotry.

By this morning’s press accounts, Pastor Jeffress was referring to “theological cult,” which seems to me to be an attempt to walk back the incendiary nature of his comments yesterday, and perhaps the public debate will advance to where the word is no longer thrown at Mormons as it is at the Branch Davidians or other isolated fringe groups who depend on fear of physical and emotional violence and coercion to enslave their members. Governor Perry answered with a flat “no” when pressed in Iowa on the question of whether the Mormon Church is a “cult.” Pastor Jeffress also noted that Governor Romney is a “good, moral person” whom he would support over President Obama.

Lines are being established which will matter a great deal if in fact Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee and, crucially, if Governor Perry is the nominee as well. The defense of private belief against political opportunists is a shared obligation of everyone with religious beliefs that the majority would not accept, and especially those religious beliefs which the Manhattan-Beltway media elite –which is nearly 100% composed of secular absolutists or embarrassed believers– find endlessly amusing and worthy of disparaging treatment.

If you have time left, read the transcript of my interviews with Martin Sheen and Rick Santorum from yesterday’s program. Both men are devout Catholics, and I doubt they have much if anything in common on politics except their belief in defending the lives of the unborn and the significance of human life at every stage. Both share religious beliefs which the media elite will find simply incomprehensible, and Sheen’s devotion to Mary –including pilgrimages to key shrines– must leave lefty elites dumbfounded.

What a great country, to produce a religious liberty so robust and enduring that our public life is populated by strong and able personalities from left to right who both share religious beliefs and quarrel deeply over political matters as well as those who will never agree on theological issues but who regularly make common cause on political goals and candidates.

That great legacy is threatened by the continuing assault on Mormon theology in the context of a political campaign, and I hope respected pundits on the left who write about faith and politics at least as often as I do –like E.J. Dionne and Nicholas Kristoff– take up the challenge to keep the public square free of unrebuked religious bigotry.


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