Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008 | It’s been a long while since religion played as heady a role in politics as it’s playing in this year’s Republican primary. One has to go back to 1960 and the controversy over John Kennedy’s Catholicism for anything comparable, and Kennedy quickly put the issue behind him. This year’s Republicans have not.

Recently I re-watched Kennedy’s pre-election address on religion in which he bluntly told a group of Houston ministers that the separation of church and state is “absolute.” It was not a receptive audience, the chairman warning the ministers to “be polite,” show “good Christian behavior” and prove that the South was not a hotbed of religious intolerance. The applause for Kennedy was infrequent and tepid.

Not for Mitt Romney. A Mormon elder, he last month visited the more congenial Bush Library near Houston, was introduced by the first President Bush and was frequently interrupted by applause, especially when saying things like “my religious convictions will inform my presidency,” “the oath of office becomes my highest promise to God” and “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.”

He came nowhere close to repeating Kennedy’s clear language: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” and it is costing him.

Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister by profession, and Romney finished one-two in the Iowa caucuses last week, and three-two in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary — a second consecutive one-two finish by the elder and the minister interrupted only by the resurrection of John McCain. Huckabee, an also-ran when campaigning began last year, has risen on the strength of his faith-based views. He is one of three GOP candidates (the others, Tom Tancredo and Sam Brownback have since dropped out), on the record as not believing in evolution. He would be our first post-Darwin “creationist” president — though I have doubts about George W. Bush.

The rise of religion in presidential politics is relatively new and would astound the Founding Fathers, who thought they were putting all that behind them. Through most of our history, candidates have striven to leave religion out of politics, and it was not until the latter part of the past century that the “born again” political phenomenon came along with Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, both southerners. Bush has even proclaimed Jesus Christ as his favorite “philosopher,” raising the question of whether he knows the difference between religion and philosophy, two very separate disciplines.

Like Kennedy, Romney would be the first of his faith to become president. His religion, even more than Kennedy’s, is an issue in his politics because it is obscure, secret and not always highly esteemed. Polling on religion done by the Pew Research Center last month showed that Mormonism trails only atheism and Islam in unfavorable views of Americans. Interestingly, Mormonism was viewed most unfavorably by the cohort that normally esteems faith-based values most — white evangelical Protestants — 36 percent of which said they could not vote for a Mormon.

Romney needs those people to become the nominee, and he actively solicited them in his Houston speech, referring to appointment of judges “who do not separate us from God” and attacking those intent “on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism.” Many on the religious right make the weird argument that secularism is a religion, and by embracing it the state violates the First Amendment. For them, separation of church and state is forbidden by the First Amendment.

The Pew poll shows why Mormonism poses a political problem for Romney, and why he made his Houston speech. According to Pew:

“Even though a majority of the public views Mormonism as a Christian religion, most Americans say it is very different from their own religion. Among non-Mormons who express a religious preference, more than six-in-ten (62 percent) say that Mormonism and their own religion are very different; just a quarter says that Mormonism and their own religion have a lot in common.”

Consider these two statements from Romney’s Houston speech: “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom;” “freedom and religion endure together or perish alone.” Both point to the centrality of religion in Mormon political life.

And both are demonstrably wrong:

  • Modern Europe demonstrates that freedom does not require religion.
  • Islam demonstrates nearly everywhere that religion does not require freedom.

The idea that freedom and religion are inseparable — that the caliph and sultan are one and the same — is strictly a religious idea, not a political one. In “On Liberty,” his great essay on political freedom, John Stuart Mill states that religion is most often the enemy of freedom, and had “almost always been governed either by the ambition of a hierarchy, seeking control over every department of human conduct, or by the spirit of Puritanism. Some of those modern reformers who have placed themselves in strongest opposition to the religions of the past, have been noway (sic) behind either churches or sects in their assertion of the right of spiritual domination.”

QED. Historically, there are simply too many cases of religion imposed at the cost of freedom to give any credence to Romney’s statements. In Mormonism itself, according to such Mormon authors such as Terry Givens and Wallace Stegner, a tradition of constraint exists which is not always compatible with freedom.

Stegner, one of our finest Western writers, credits the Mutual Improvement Associations, the so-called “Mormon Mutuals,” whose job is to instill religious fervor in the young, with the result that there is “little apostasy” among Mormons, so “little inclination to break with the parental system.” Givens speaks of the “uniquely cohesive bond that characterizes Mormon wards” which grows out of the “sheer amount of time that Mormons spend together,” always away from non-Mormons.

Unlike Kennedy, Romney’s Houston speech did not dispel doubts about his fidelity to the Constitution and to the presidential oath of office rather than to the tenants of his faith. Iowans saw the problem, so did voters in New Hampshire and so do the rest of us.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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