The Elephant in the Room | Mitt Romney and religion; politics and faith

Posted: December 20, 2007

What role should religion play in the public square? How did my own Roman Catholicism shape my work as a senator? Such questions were never far from my mind while I served in Congress. So, when Mitt Romney gave his "religion speech," I listened not as a political analyst, but as someone who wrestled with this subject for more than a decade.

Romney's speech was thoughtful and courageous. Unlike John F. Kennedy in 1960, he didn't cop out and say his faith does not matter. Romney gave an impressive defense of the believer's right to be engaged in politics. He also exposed the danger in secularist attempts to drive religion from our public life.

At one point, though, he opted for prose over accuracy by saying "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." Sociologist Os Guinness said it better, that "freedom requires virtue, virtue requires religion, and religion requires freedom."

Virtue - a person's ability to control his desires and order his actions according to the Golden Rule - makes freedom and democracy possible. For most, virtue is derived from religion, but that hardly means a man without religion cannot reason his way to virtue. Witness the ancient Greeks.

Our Constitution granted unprecedented liberty to the individual. But liberty without virtue devolves into license; and license, into chaos. This truth can be seen in the violent lawlessness that plagues our city today. Would we have less violence if our city's young were regular churchgoers and religion formed their consciences? The basic choice is this: Do we want to be governed more by well-formed consciences and social norms or by intrusive police states and detailed legal codes?

That said, the Romney speech came in the context of two concerns that some voters have raised about his religion: How would his Mormon faith affect his presidency? Would a Mormon president enhance the stature of Mormonism and lead more Americans to convert to that faith?

Romney tried to settle the first question by saying that "no authorities of my church . . . will ever exert influence over my decisions." Fine, though few thought this would happen in the first place. He also said that "a person should not be rejected . . . because of his faith." His supporters say it is akin to rejecting a Barack Obama because he is black. But Obama was born black; Romney is a Mormon because he accepts the beliefs of the Mormon faith. This permits us, therefore, to make inferences about his judgment and character, good or bad.

He tried to address the questions by discussing Jesus, suggesting that the specific theological tenets of Mormonism are not in any important respect different from those of traditional Christianity. I disagree. However, voters should use extreme caution in factoring theological tenets into their assessment of a candidate's qualifications, because theological tenets, as opposed to moral tenets of a religion, transcend reason - consider, for example, the virgin birth.

But, it is fair to look at a candidate's faith from the standpoint of its moral teachings or, as Catholics say, its "social teaching."

Romney hit on the correct voter question: "Does [the candidate] share these American values: the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?" He said "yes," and provided some examples to bolster his answer. It was Romney's best argument to Christian conservatives - we may not see God the same way, but we see our obligation to God's people the same way.

It could have been even better had he acknowledged a fact that can't help be true for a person of real faith - that the moral teachings of an individual's faith will do more than shape his character, they will influence his decisions.

The social teachings of my faith were a factor in my work as a senator. The horror of AIDS and the tragedy of the millions of orphans it has left in Africa prompted my support for greater U.S. funding. But it was Christ's mandate to care for the poor that inspired my efforts to take a leadership role.

Romney missed an opportunity to connect with Christian conservatives by citing specific moral teachings that Mormonism has in common with their faith.

Would the potential attraction to Mormonism by simply having a Mormon in the White House threaten traditional Christianity by leading more Americans to a church that some Christians believe misleadingly calls itself Christian, is an active missionary church, and a dangerous cult?

How does a candidate possibly address such concerns?

Assume for the sake of argument that there are valid considerations. Shouldn't we look at everything about the candidate, including positions on the issues that could have even a more dramatic impact on Christianity than his personal faith? What about the candidate's willingness to confront the threat of radical Islam's war against Christianity, or the current efforts to undermine our Judeo-Christian culture and even our religious freedom? Like most voters, my faith matters more than politics, but we are electing someone to the most important political position in the world. I'm more concerned about losing our children to jihadis or a materialistic culture than losing them to Mormonism.

I admire President Bush's religious commitment, but I've never been tempted to become a Methodist. Kennedy's election didn't produce a surge of converts to Catholicism in the 1960s. A Mormon in the White House? Christianity has survived far tougher tests over the last 2,000 years.

Faith still matters in America. Mitt Romney showed it matters to him, too. He should be a viable choice for voters whose faith matters to them.


E-mail Rick Santorum at rsantorum@phillynews.com.

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