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December 31, 2007

Presidents, Priesthood, and Politics

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Should a candidate for president have to explain their faith to the American voter? Do people who aspire to hold the highest elected office in our nation have an obligation to make each of us feel comfortable with their personal view of theology and how that faith influences their life and politics?

Recently, former Massachusetts governor, and Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney gave a much-publicized speech to the American people entitled “Faith in America.” Employing lofty rhetoric and a healthy dose of history, Governor Romney tried to walk a careful line between convincing us that faith should matter while arguing that his particular brand of faith should not.

Mr. Romney had carefully avoided giving this speech, hoping to follow President John F. Kennedy's example and make this an issue during the General Election cycle, when voters are more focused on fewer candidates. President Kennedy understood the importance of defining his Catholic faith to the American voter, hoping to avoid having his opponent, Richard Nixon, do so.

Unfortunately for Governor Romney, one of his GOP primary opponents, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, had already made faith an issue in the campaign. Mr. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, seized on this chance to claim the title as the “true” Christian conservative in the 2008 primary season.

Having Governor Huckabee out there touting his credentials as the true Christian placed Mr. Romney in the position of having to assuage the fears of early primary state voters that he isn’t part of a cult, and that the leadership of his faith would not influence his decisions as president.

Mike Huckabee is a genial, funny, engaging politician whose skills in the pulpit are evident on the Iowa stump. Below the surface, he’s a hard-nosed, fist and elbows politician who understands that he can use false Mormon mythology and fear tactics to raise questions about Governor Romney’s electability.

So, Mr. Romney gave his speech, walked his fine line, and did his best to create his own religious and political identity. Each of us gets to decide how he did, and Iowa voters get the first chance to “score” the results.

My issue isn’t so much with his speech; it’s the basic question as to whether it was even necessary to give it.

I hope I’m not alone in the level of discomfort over national political figures being put in the position of having to defend and define their personal religious identity. Often, when faced with similar situations, I retreat to the comforting words of the Founders, the framers of the Constitution of the United States.

Amendment 1 to the Constitution, that first and most precious section forever known as the Bill of Rights, states in part:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

Good enough for them ought to be good enough for us. I find this “calling out” of Mitt Romney a troubling development for the process and for our nation. How dare anyone, of any persuasion, presume to possess such a theological high ground to pretend to challenge, question, or otherwise demand a personal religious accounting of another.

The national conservative Christian movement might be targeting Mitt Romney for his faith. I’ve heard at least one national religious figure state that he would never vote for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the true name of the Mormon faith.

Great! Another intolerant, blindly faithful leader setting a tone of hatred and suspicion for his flock to follow. If you’re reminded of lambs led to the slaughter, so be it. We’ve seen and heard these guys before.

The last one I recall questioning the faith of politicians was the Rev. Ted Haggard. He spoke about his concerns over candidates during the 2004 presidential cycle, especially those with multiple marriages. He wanted to hear the explicit faith declarations of these candidates, so he and his congregants could make their political judgments wisely.

In the glass house-dwelling, rock-thrower category, Ted Haggard was “outed” by his drug-dealing homosexual lover, leading to a fall from grace not rivaled since Rev. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the PTL Network.

How did we get to this place? Most GOP candidates, Mr. Huckabee included, are quick to invoke the memory of former President Ronald Reagan, the gold standard in rock-solid and principled conservative leadership.

That same beloved Great Communicator might fail this most recent religiosity test. President Reagan was not a regular churchgoer, and wasn’t actively affiliated with a particular faith organization. To suggest that lack of a specific congregation connection, or an inability to define his personal theology diminished Ronald Reagan’s passionate faith in God, and his adherence to the same Judeo-Christian traditions that dominated our nation’s history would be foolish.

I don’t want a preacher president. I want a people president, and certainly a strong faith is a character-building element that helps someone bridge differences and build a stronger national community. That person could be a Methodist, Mormon, or Muslim. He or she could be Pentecostal, Catholic, or Orthodox Jew. The what, who, and how of their beliefs are nowhere near as important as their comprehension of economic, education, environmental, health, and international policies.

My president doesn’t need to quote scripture to get my vote, but a love of the outdoors might help. It’s okay if my president doesn’t go to church every Sunday, as long he or she is humble enough to admit what they don’t know, and aren’t afraid to ask God, in their own personal way, for the guidance to do the right thing.

Frankly, I’d much rather have a candidate that is a decent person with a pure heart and intellectual curiosity about the things they don’t know, than a committed churchgoer with a closed mind and a suspicious or hate-filled view of other people, other faiths and the unfamiliar.

We already have that on the world stage; we call it radical Islamic terrorism. As I recall, we’re not too happy about that, either!

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