January 27th, 2007 by Rightsideup

Ralph Kostant had an interesting take this week on Mitt Romney and whether his religion matters (and indeed whether it is an asset or a liability). As a Jew, he has a somewhat different perspective from the evangelicals who are presumed to be most likely to object to Romney’s Mormonism. From his piece:

let me… explain why it would surprise me if any American hesitates to vote for a Presidential candidate solely because that candidate is Mormon. The answer is “St. David.” St. David is a town of about 1750 residents, in Cochise County, Arizona. I first discovered St. David on a drive to Tombstone, Arizona, some 10 years ago. It was a beautiful, almost impossibly picturesque small town, and the most prominent building was the ward of the Mormon community, to which I suspect the entire population of St. David belongs…

St. David is about 16 miles north of Tombstone…

What does all this have to do with American presidential elections? Well, while Tombstone was founded in 1879, St. David was settled 1877. Mormon farmers started a town in the middle of Apache territory before Ed Schiefflien ever ventured out of Camp Huachuca. While Tombstone flourished as a Western mining boom town, filling our frontier lore with the tales of Wyatt Earp, the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Bird Cage Theater and Boot Hill, some 16 miles away Mormon farming families went about their quiet lives, without the bars and brothels of their notorious neighboring community.

Just as Tombstone is part of American history, so is St. David. St. David itself is just one page from the rich history of the contribution of Mormon pioneers to the development of the American West. The Mormons have been part of the American scene for over 175 years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints began in America. Love the Church or hate it, one cannot deny its essential Americanness. Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution requires that the President be a natural born citizen of the United States. The Mormon Church is a natural born religion of the United States. It would be indeed be ironic if American voters were to conclude that an adherent of this most American of religions should not hold the nation’s highest office.

The upshot of all this is: the Mormon Church is about as American as they come – as some have said, Mormons (who originally were separate from the United States before Utah achieved statehood) have become more American than the Americans since that time. The Church is not some new-age cult cooked up in the latter part of the 20th century, but rather is a long-standing religion with a rich history rooted in America (and just 54 years younger than the country itself). Perhaps this might suggest positive rather than negative associations for those who are its members.

January 3rd, 2007 by Rightsideup

I know the thought that Republicans will probably win the presidency for the 6th time in 8 elections has got the Democrats worried, but they are beginning to take their response a little far.

Jacob Weisberg has a piece in Slate and in the Financial Times about Mitt Romney in which he posits that his religion disqualifies him for office. It seems that Romney has the Democrats particularly worried, and even though he’s still officially unannounced as a presidential candidate, we’ve already seen him attacked for his change of stance on abortion, a perceived change of stance on gay rights, his hiring of a lawn care company that hires illegal immigrants and his underwear.

Weisberg’s column takes this a step further and is arguably more honest about what really gives the Democrats the heebie-jeebies about Romney – his faith and his religiosity. Democrats are always uncomfortable about religious people holding office, because they feel that religiosity is inherently irrational. However, they’re willing to suspend this distaste for faith when it comes to their own candidates (Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Ted Kennedy…) or when the religion in question is Islam rather than Christianity.

Weisberg’s central argument appears to be that the central tenets of Mormonism are particularly unbelievable and that anyone who subscribes to them must be inherently off their rocker. He does his level best to make these beliefs sound as ridiculous as possible – case in point: “Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it.” While this clearly has some basis in Smith’s actual claims, it uses language intended to mock and degrade rather than to enlighten. He concludes with the rather strong statement, “He [Smith] was an obvious conman.” Weisberg dismisses all who hold such religious beliefs with the assertion: “By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.”

However, he appears to have realised that most major religions have beliefs which those of a strictly scientific bent would find hard to swallow – Catholicism has transubstantiation and the infallibility of the Pope, Judaism has the parting of the Red Sea and the predicted return of Elijah, Islam believes that conversion through force is acceptable, Hindus believe in reincarnation etc. etc. He dismisses this strongest of counter-arguments with a lame comment about the fact that Mormonism’s “fraud” is more “transparent” and “recent”. Apparently, one is only tainted by holding beliefs in the supernatural if the events in question occurred less than 200 years ago… His assertion that the “greater religions” have had time to “splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor” – i.e. that they have been victims of in-fighting and disagreement over doctrine, have changed some of those doctrines over time and have distanced themselves from some core precepts by describing them as metaphors rather than reality. If these conditions are supposed to recommend these religions to us, Weisberg’s views are strange indeed.

Let’s return though to Weisberg’s assertion that someone who holds such beliefs will fail to “think for himself or see the world as it is”. Where is the evidence of this in Mitt Romney’s career to date. Where, when he ran Bain & Company or later Bain Capital, when he turned around the Salt Lake Olympics, or during his time as governor of Massachusetts, were the signs that this man could not think for himself or see the world as it is? Where is such evidence in the career of Harry Reid (now Senate Majority Leader and also a Mormon), Orrin Hatch, Michael Leavitt or other members of the LDS Church currently prominent in politics?

The fact remains that the best possible measure of someone’s fitness for presidential office is his or her past performance and achievements, not proxies for their state of mind, whether religious, sexual or racial. Weisberg again pays lip service to the fact that religious tests are constitutionally prohibited but then uses his whole article to propose such a test. Religious tests are banned precisely because they attempt to replace a judgment about an individual’s fitness for office with a judgment about their religion – exactly the mistake Weisberg makes in this piece. There is no analysis of his record or of how his religious views will shape his policy stances – which is a legitimate subject for discussion.

Still, this is all just another sign that Mitt Romney along with the raft of other strong candidates for president from the Republican side, are scaring the living daylights out of Democrats staring the stark choice between Hillary Clinton (all the baggage of the Clintons without the charisma) and Barack Obama (untested junior Senator with left-wing views) in the face.

January 1st, 2007 by Rightsideup

From an article in the Sacramento Bee this past week comes this quote from George Washington’s farewell address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.

This makes the important but subtle point that religious motives should certainly inform and guide political behaviour, even if no particular religion may be officially endorsed by the state. In the context of Mitt Romney’s campaign, this suggests that he should make clear the ways in which his faith will inform and guide his policies while at the same time making clear that he will “render unto God that which is God’s, and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”.