by Senator Scott McCoy
Recently Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney took the stage to discuss Faith in America. It was a risky move for him unfortunately precipitated by the ironclad grip that the conservative evangelical rightwing has on the Republican Party. The fallout from the speech and the heightened attention to Governor Romney’s Mormon faith has begun. I was shocked and deeply saddened to listen to the anti-Mormon tirade that spewed forth from political pundit Lawrence O’Donnell on this past Sunday’s episode of The McLaughlin Group. The panel was discussing Governor Romney’s Faith in America speech and the ongoing controversy surrounding his Mormon faith. O’Donnell accused the Mormon faith of being “racist” and “ridiculous” and said the faith is “based on the work of a lying, fradulent, criminal named Joseph Smith.” I was gravely disappointed by this episode and the constant attention to faith and religion in the presidential race.
An individual’s faith (or lack thereof) is a personal affair, not a public issue open to debate in a political campaign. When faith is made a public issue, it becomes open to the very public debate (and prejudice) that we saw on The McLaughlin Group and that we see in the Republican presidential primary. Making faith a public political issue pits different faith groups against each other and drags belief into the oftentimes dirty and low arena of politics. It potentially demeans and degrades religious belief and subjects it to majoritarian rule. Making faith a public and political issue de facto creates religious tests. This was exactly what the Founding Fathers attempted to avoid in outlawing explicit religious tests and seeking to maintain a wall of separation between public affairs and religious institutions. It is as much for the protection of religion as it is for the protection of the people and government. In politics, there are winners and losers. In faith, there should be no winners or losers.
In America, we need religious pluralism and a separation of Church and State and religion and politics. The troubles that Governor Romney now faces based on his religious beliefs stem from the fact that Republican primary voters (mostly evangelicals) demand that Republican presidential candidates publicly and loudly confess their religious beliefs so that those beliefs can be measured against the approved brand of Christian doctrine. A candidate’s failure to wear his religious beliefs on his sleeve risks political isolation and rejection. Unfortunately, the Republican “big tent” has become a revival tent. Governor Romney decided to play this game by making his Faith in America speech. By doing so, he has handed the evangelical extremists and his fellow presidential candidates a can of worms and a can opener. Governor Romney can hardly make faith and religion a public issue and then play the victim and refuse to answer the questions that are begged and engage in the very public debate that he started. If (or when) Governor Romney is rejected by Republican primary voters because of his Mormon faith, then religious pluralism will be truly and openly dead in the Republican Party, and anyone from an unacceptable faith should beware.
If Mitt Romney were running as a Democrat, I don’t think his Mormon faith would be an issue. Democratic voters believe in religious pluralism and impose no religious tests on their candidates. Our track record proves as much. The highest elected Democrat in the country at the moment is a Mormon named Harry Reid. We had a Jewish vice-presidential candidate in Joe Lieberman (He didn’t have to make a “Faith in America” speech). We have the first-ever Muslim member of Congress. In the Utah House, we have a Buddhist. Democrats likely want their candidates to have faith, but past that, which faith is not important. For Democrats, in the world of politics, good positions on issues and public policy trump piety.
So, to my Mormon friends, neighbors and countrymen, I say “You have seen the ugly side of faith in America yet again and you deserve better. In the Democratic Party, you would receive better.”