Religion In Politics: Why The Attacks On Mitt Romney And His Faith Matter

Posted on October 12, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , |

by Caren Z. Turner

If people think religion – or, perhaps more accurately, the discussion of religion – has no place in American politics, think again.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It’s no mistake that the very first sentence of the Constitution’s first amendment– which directly speaks to how we employ the political process in a free republic – pertains to religion. It has been a constant thread in the fabric of our history as a nation, and continues to embody an ever-present friction which, albeit uncomfortable, has the necessary effect of keeping us grounded to core constitutional principles.

This is why the recent controversy sparked by Texas mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress’ divisive remarks about Mitt Romney’s
Mormon religion
matters: it sparked a national conversation on common constitutional philosophy and how it informs us on matters of freedom, equality, tolerance, and the limitation of government power.

But in terms of policy, does a potential president’s religion actually matter? Well, that depends on what voter you ask. Constitutionally, it doesn’t matter (see Article 6, last sentence). However – and this is critical – a candidate’s values and personal philosophy, inasmuch as they influence her or his approach to policy and governing, is vitally important to voters. And as our history bears out, we can expect that an individual’s values are more than likely rooted in the religion – or non-religion – of which they are adherents. As such, voters want to be informed.

But, although candidates like Republican Jon Huntsman – a Mormon himself – believe the controversy over Romney’s religion is “the most ridiculous sideshow in recent politics,” the discussion of religion in the political arena also reveals candidates’ attitudes toward constitutional principles. There is perhaps no better example than John F. Kennedy, whose Catholic religion was controversial in his candidacy in 1960. In a major speech he gave that same year at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, he boldly said the following:

[B]ecause I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

In light of bringing a candidate’s principles to the fore over the subject of religion, it is worth noting Mitt Romney’s response to criticism about his religion when he spoke at this weekend’s Values Voters Summit:

[Romney responded to remarks made by] Bryan Fischer, a director at the American Family Association, who was slated to speak directly after the candidate took the stage Saturday.

Fischer has claimed that Mormons and Muslims have “a completely different definition of who Christ is” than the founding fathers did, and do not deserve First Amendment protections as a consequence.

Without naming Fischer, Romney said those comments are out of bounds.

“One of the speakers who will follow me today, has crossed that line,” Romney said. “Poisonous language does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate.”

He added, “The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us – let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart.”

Romney – regardless of whether you support or don’t support him – as the candidate being directly targeted because of his religion, has an opportunity to learn from Kennedy’s speech in 1960, and even from then-candidate Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008, and deliver a major address on religion and politics which expands upon the brief statement he made this weekend.

It is ignorance to dismiss religion as unimportant in the political arena, considering it is a subject of immense relevance and significance in our society. And when candidates shy away from responding substantively and competently on the matter – such as Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and others in the GOP lineup– they do a tremendous injustice, not only to their own candidacies, but also to the abiding value of such discourse and the healthy tension it creates.

Turner GPA is one of the premier, highly respected government and public affairs firms in the nation. Turner’s state-of-the-art advocacy has earned them respect and acclaim from the media, clients, policymakers and even their competitors! Turner advocates on behalf of cutting edge businesses, municipalities, and non-profits that wish to ensure their perspectives and needs are taken into account in Washington, in state capitols and in City Hall, as well as in the media. The firm creates and implements intensely focused and targeted advocacy campaigns designed to meet and exceed its client’s expectations and goals. For more information on Turner GPA, visit www.turnergpa.com or call 202-466-2511.

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