Romney, Santorum, and God
In February 1849, Brigham Young, the man who unified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, declared that the black man’s color is the mark of Cain—the manifestation of the first capital crime, Cain’s murder of his brother. These days Mormon revisionism doesn’t so much contest as ignore Young’s decree, implying that it’s urban legend. What the Church can’t dispute is that until three decades ago, African Americans were prohibited from playing any role in the Church, and the extent to which they’ve done so since is minimal. Governor Mitt Romney, a lifelong practicing Mormon, never has been keen to discuss this, and one of the ironies of the last few weeks is that he might not have to, if his candidacy continues to deteriorate courtesy of former senator and Catholic firebrand Rick Santorum.
In this campaign so far, commentators have been waiting with some dread for Romney’s Mormonism to become an issue. Codified by the First Amendment, our politics hold that as the government neither sanctions nor judges people’s faith, nor do we as individuals; and liberals in particular—no fans of Romney’s presidential aspirations—argue that his Mormonism is off limits in assessing his candidacy. They have raised in whispers and warnings the prospect of religion entering the campaign in the same way that race does, or gender—as another source of, or excuse for, prejudice at its ugliest. Reverend Franklin Graham’s observations last week about who is sufficiently and incontestably Christian have only confirmed for many what happens when religion becomes part of the electoral conversation, and in recent American political history the election of John Kennedy, who famously addressed Protestant ministers in Houston during the fall campaign of 1960 on the matter of his Catholicism, is deemed a landmark moment when religious bigotry finally was faced head-on and overcome.
As Santorum made clear yesterday on ABC’s This Week, he considers Kennedy’s comments half a century ago less admirable than nauseating. If his statement proved anything—especially given Santorum’s previously expressed preoccupation with the role of Satan in the life of the country—it’s that we ought to be talking more about candidates’ religious beliefs, not less. The logic by which the press feels compelled to discourage such an exchange is flawed. At its most base, certainly religious prejudice is no different from any other; in the repellent and unthinking way it expresses itself, and in the ravages of such prejudice as felt by both American Mormons and Catholics in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, it’s as ignorant, mean-spirited and destructive. That aside, the correlation of religion with race or gender is senseless. One is born into a race or gender. One may be born into a sexual orientation. One is not born into a religion, any more than into a political party; religion and politics aren’t part of one’s genetics. One is raised in a religion and, as with political views, at some point one chooses to accept or leave behind the faith of childhood, in order to assume the beliefs of a thinking adult and the responsibility for them.
The social compact on which a democracy depends is shredded by the notion that it’s preempted by religious conviction. Now and then the compact obligates all of us to support things that we despise on moral, philosophical and even religious grounds. If parents allow a child to die because their religion prohibits medical care, that choice—which the child was never allowed to make for himself—doesn’t rewrite legal statutes as they apply to manslaughter or child endangerment. In a democracy, political candidates should be accountable for convictions that have an impact on the country they hope to serve, whether those convictions be secular or spiritual. The views of Romney’s church as they have to do with black people isn’t a matter of private conscience any more than were Kennedy’s beliefs (or Santorum’s), bearing in mind the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its regard of the Pope as a human portal to God. Folklore to the contrary, it wasn’t unreasonable to ask a president who takes his Catholicism seriously whether he might find himself torn between a directive from the Vatican and his oath to uphold the Constitution. In his Houston speech Kennedy acknowledged as much, promising that if he found himself in such a conflict, he would resign. In retrospect it’s a wonder this didn’t stir more controversy, since in a practical sense Kennedy implied a willingness to ignite a constitutional crisis, but the speech’s eloquence and Kennedy’s forthrightness provided a watershed moment for both modern Catholicism and modern America.
Twenty years ago, the same U.S. government that so despises religion that it has bequeathed upon Catholicism, Mormonism and other faiths tens of millions of dollars in tax exemptions extended this deference to another religion, begun in 1952 by a former pulp writer and con man variously accused over the course of his life of abduction, bigamy and beating his wife. The tactics of this new church have ranged from litigious harassment to aggressive thuggishness to, in the words of Time, “Mafia-like” criminality, yet in terms of its weird belief system and occasionally violent zealotry, the legitimacy of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard’s gospel is only a century removed from that of Brigham Young’s, which is only several centuries removed from the legitimacy of Martin Luther’s revolt against the Church of Rome, which grew from what was a strange Judaic cult for nearly two centuries after Jesus’ execution and before the concept of a divine Christ took hold. In the eyes of the United States government, Hubbard’s religion is no less religious than any other. But does anyone actually suppose that, given the demonstrably sociopathic nature of this church, the related ideas of a Scientologist running for president would be beyond the bounds of debate, simply because they’ve safely slithered off into the sanctuary of IRS-approved religious freedom?
As Romney’s religion has been the elephant in the room that few people talk about, least of all Romney, Santorum has positioned himself as the theocrat in the race, never more baldly than on This Week. This follows nearly a month of stoking the flames of his own creed to enhance the odds of his nomination—thanks first to the Obama Administration’s clumsy handling of women’s birth control, as financially supported by Catholic-subsidized health-care providers, and second (once the president finessed the issue a couple of weeks ago) to the hard line subsequently taken against the Obama compromise by American bishops, even as other Catholic groups offered support. What was initially framed by Republicans and some Democrats as a matter of religious freedom became an issue of women’s reproductive rights as overseen by tribunals of middle-aged male members of Congress, none of whom, at last report, is pregnant.
The religious component of the issue, however, hasn’t gone away. In an interview last October, Santorum stated in clearly pious terms his hostility to contraception as a license for “libertine” behavior not fully procreative in intent, and his resolve to press this opposition if he’s elected. If Santorum has the integrity to make clear such positions, the body politic should have the integrity to engage them rather than merely decry the intrusion of “theology,” a word that Santorum chose instinctively but not casually and which he now uses interchangeably with “ideology.” By the lights of Santorum’s values, ideology—whether it has to do with global warming, prenatal care, public schools, or the Right’s favorite perennial comparison of the president with Adolf Hitler—is inescapably theological, and any philosophical viewpoint that pretends otherwise is “phony.” Likewise the Republican Party’s theocratic wing, of which Santorum now is preeminent spokesman, regards anything that doesn’t conform to its religious values as an affront to all values.
At the heart of this debate is a reimagining of American history. The assertion over the past 30 years that the United States was created as a Christian nation, out of a Christian consensus, is factually and flatly false. No mention of God let alone Jesus—either explicit or euphemistic—appears in the Constitution, from the opening preamble to the final words of the 27th amendment, and in the Declaration of Independence, wherein it’s stated that people are endowed with unalienable rights, the word “Creator” wasn’t Thomas Jefferson just being lyrical. It was a semantic compromise arrived at among Jefferson, who believed in a God but had little use for organized religion, and who admired Jesus as a moral visionary but not as God’s Son; John Adams, who dismissed Judeo-Christianity’s contention of a Holy Trinity; and Benjamin Franklin, who publicly averred that the more arguments for God he heard, the greater his doubt grew. Thomas Paine, whose words rallied American revolutionists more than anyone’s except Jefferson’s, openly mocked Christianity: “What is it the New Testament teaches us? To believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married. The belief of this debauchery is called faith.” Abraham Lincoln, who defined the American idea more profoundly than anyone since Jefferson, had to explain his lack of faith in his 1846 campaign for Congress, allowing in his wry fashion that if other people wanted to be Christians, it was OK with him. Lincoln’s speech is a matter of record as are Adams’ letters and Paine’s writings, and Jefferson authored a book about Jesus that can be ordered from Amazon. In the face of such widespread and accessible documentation, the insistence on a national Christian identity is Orwellian.
Our new millennium had barely begun before, in a clash of skyscrapers and airplanes, the 20th century that was fought over ideology gave way to a 21st century that will be fought over religion, which is to say it will be fought over modernism, which every religion at its most fundamental rejects. When America’s savviest political sage, Jon Stewart, advised the cultural right a couple weeks ago that “you’ve confused the war on religion with not always getting everything you want,” he only proved to the Right his philistine incomprehension. Religion is totalitarian by definition—uncompromising because it sees itself as legislating God’s laws, which are not negotiable. To a Republican Party that sees itself as God’s party, to a Rick Santorum who sees himself as God’s president, distinctions between God’s law and man’s are fraudulent. If Santorum is the Republican nominee, his Catholic faith, to which no one doubts he’s entitled, will inform his stances on public policy, and before then it might be well if both the press and public decide to what extent it’s both fair and imperative that his religious opinions are part of the public discourse, even as Santorum himself, having infused his political rhetoric with the language of apocalypse, will then profess he’s being persecuted for it.
As for Mitt Romney, though his righteousness may be less fervent—because everything about Romney except his expediency is less fervent—the press and public must determine upon his nomination, should it come to pass, whether to consider his religion’s traditional estimation of African Americans as a damned race. They will have to decide whether to accept Romney’s claim that he doesn’t speak for his church and the church doesn’t speak for him. Separation of church and state is one thing. Separation of church and one’s self, as Santorum would be the first to tell him and as the rest of us might acknowledge, is another.
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