Religion and American politics have always had a tortured relationship. Thomas Jefferson's great contribution was to recognize the corrosive impact that partisan religious beliefs can play in government, and he tried his best to separate out civil governance from religious activities. He largely failed.
Religion and government is currently in the news because the Republican candidate is a Mormon. This in itself is not and should not be an issue, the religion of a candidate is irrelevant in his qualifications for office and if an office holder is true to the Constitution it will not be an issue. The generosity and ethics of Mormons is to be greatly admired. But many people do not believe this, and because the Republican nominee is a Mormon the issue of his religious beliefs continue to be a factor in the Presidential race.
It is of course possible to be a Mormon and not have one’s religious beliefs intrude in government. Sen. Harry Reid, (D, Nv) has been the Senate Majority leader and while he is a Mormon that fact is unknown to most voters because he keeps his beliefs separate from his role as a major government official. With Mr. Romney, no one is sure. While as Governor of
Massachusetts Mr. Romney
did lead a non-sectarian policy, the Presidential race has
brought his beliefs and practices into question. Specifically, does Mr. Romney practice of his
religion provide insight into the type of President he would be.
In what is clearly another one of those planted stories designed to use the press to boost a candidate, the New York Times discusses Mr. Romney’s actions with respect to his religion.
But dozens of the candidate’s friends, fellow church members and relatives describe a man whose faith is his design for living. The church is by no means his only influence, and its impact cannot be fully untangled from that of his family, which is also steeped in Mormonism.
But being a Latter-day Saint is “at the center of who he really is, if you scrape everything else off,” said Randy Sorensen, who worshiped with Mr. Romney in church.
A key element in the story is Mr. Romney’s adherence to strict rules.
Mr. Romney’s penchant for rules mirrors that of his church, where he once excommunicated adulterers and sometimes discouraged mothers from working outside the home. He may have many reasons for abhorring debt, wanting to limit federal power, promoting self-reliance and stressing the unique destiny of the United States, but those are all traditionally Mormon traits as well.
And the most disturbing part of the story is this passage.
He often urged adherence even to rules that could seem overly harsh. One fellow worshiper, Justin Brown, recalled in an interview that when he was a young man leaving for his mission abroad, Mr. Romney warned him that some parameters would make no sense, but to follow them anyway and trust that they had unseen value.
Such a position may be entirely appropriate for a religious environment, but the attitude is abhorrent in a governing environment in a democracy. To blindly follow rules with no regard for their rationale, their impact or their ability to meet the goals of a society is to follow a path to totalitarianism Flexibility in the rule of law is the hallmark of a successful government, changing daily to meet the changing conditions and needs of the populace. Mr. Romney could well be the instrument of European style austerity imposed upon the United States. If he does. millions will suffer for no reason other than ideological bias on the part of government.
Given his well documented shifts in positions over the decades one may be tempted to conclude that Mr. Romney has the flexibility to adapt. One would be wrong, the shifts by Mr. Romney have been in part calculated to advance his political career and in part towards a more rigid, a more dogmatic and a more authoritarian stance. That his attitude towards religious dogma supports rather than opposes those more intolerant positions is disturbing.
The hope here is that in the coming campaign Mr. Romney demonstrates that he would govern as President of all of the people, not just those that either support his view or those upon whom he can impose his views. That is a hope, not a prediction.