Monday, October 8, 2012

Romney's faith and the public square

Politicians, as a rule, do not like to talk about their faith and how it relates to politics. They prefer to relegate faith to the private part of their existence. And they do not want to discuss its relevance in the public square.

Yet most voters continue to say it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. But they have only a limited awareness of the faiths of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And there is little evidence to suggest that concerns about the candidates’ respective faiths will have a meaningful impact in the upcoming elections.

In the previous post I introduced a speech President Obama delivered in 2006 in which he openly discussed his faith and its role in politics. This time I want to do the same for Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the presidency.

I will focus on an interview which appeared originally in the Washington National Cathedral’s magazine, Cathedral Age, that asked President Obama and Governor Romney the same set of questions about the presence of faith in their lives. A version of this interview was published in The Huffington Post.

Since I dealt with Obama last time, in the interest of fairness I will limit my remarks this time to Romney, except to note that Obama's answers are appreciably longer and, in some cases, more profound.

In response to the question how faith plays a role in his life, Romney answers openly:

"Faith is integral to my life. I have served as a lay pastor in my church. I faithfully follow its precepts. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. My father was committed to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cause of equality, and I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby and in leading national volunteer movements. My faith is grounded in the conviction that a consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another -- to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God."

Romney is a Mormon. He has never hidden his faith, as his answer reveals. He served as a missionary  in France for thirty months before he began his career in business and politics. 

His faith, however, is an issue for some Christians, who regard the Mormon Church as a cult. The proper name for the largest Mormon denomination is: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." The Mormon Church is certainly Christian to the extent that Christ is at the center of its beliefs and individual Mormons try to live following the teaching and example of Christ. However, they do deny the Trinity and several other cardinal Christian beliefs. Thus some Christians reject Romney because of his Mormon faith.

Now is not the time to debate the issue of whether Mormons are Christians. What is more crucial during the election period is whether or not Romney's Mormonism will hurt him at the polls. Will people perceive the Mormon Church as a threat, the same way that the Roman Catholic Church was regarded shortly before the election in 1960? Yet after John F. Kennedy's election this issue became moot. The same thing will probably happen if Romney is elected as president.

In his answer to the first question, Romney revealed his concern for social justice and his belief that people everywhere must serve each other. This attitude is confirmed in his answer to the second question about his favorite scriptural passage. Here Romney quotes Matthew 25: 35–36, in the King James Version:

"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me."

We should not question the sincerity of his faith or his concern for people. A concern for social justice is not absent even in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.

The third question is perhaps the most pertinent for our topic: "How do you view the role of faith in public life?" Obama's answer is longer, but Romney's is relevant to many issues that are very controversial today:

"We should acknowledge the Creator, as did the Founders -- in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests."

Yet I wish that Romney had said more in his response. This is inadequate in describing how all people, but especially politicians, should try to make their faith relevant in the public square. I would like Romney to address this question at greater length. As in the campaign thus far, he has refrained from being specific on many issues, including this. That has led to charges of hypocrisy and a lack of integrity.

The final question dealt with the role of faith in unifying America. Romney's answer is rather brief:

"I believe that while we are a country with so many differences in creed and theology, we can all meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."

Whether all Americans share a common worldview is highly debatable, but the divided nature of American society has never been clearer than in this election. Americans are divided not only in creed and theology but in every way. We can only pray that the service model that Romney presents will be able to unite everyone.

This interview is hardly an adequate source for Romney's views on the topic of faith and the public square. No doubt they are richer than is evident here, but it is a start. I make no pretense of being exhaustive with regard to Romney, just as I was not with Obama. 

Obama's speech and this interview suggest to me that faith has not yet been eliminated entirely from public discourse in the US. In Canada, which is more secular than the US, the faith of politicians is not discussed publicly. 

Thus Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is an evangelical Christian, does not feel called upon to explain how his faith influences the legislation that his government proposes. It does, but he looses either way if he discusses it. However, that is a story for another time.

Thankfully, in the US it is quite different. Let me give another example of this openness. Last month, The New York Times quoted Michele Obama on her interpretation of Christianity. She said:

"Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day."

I do not hear such language very often in Canada. In the US it is still possible for politicians to speak openly about their faith and its role in politics. One might wish that they would say more or say it differently, but at least they are able to say something in public. For that I am thankful on this Canadian Thanksgiving Day.

Regardless of who wins in November, in the US politicians of every stripe can still talk openly about their faith. But will their faith be a positive influence for the entire nation? That is the question that Americans must ask as they march to the polls in a few weeks.

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