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Someone who refuses to consider voting for a woman as president is rightly deemed a sexist. Someone who would never vote for a black person is a racist. But are you a religious bigot if you would not cast a ballot for a believing Mormon?
The issue arises with the bid by Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, for the Republican nomination in 2008. Mr Romney would not be the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to run for the highest office in the US. He follows Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (2000), Utah Senator Mo Udall (1976), his father George Romney (1968) and, not least of all, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who ran in 1844 on a platform of “theodemocracy”, abolition of slavery and cutting congressional pay. Smith did not do much better than Mr Hatch and had to settle for the Mormon-elected post of King of the Kingdom of Heaven.
According to a recent poll, only 38 per cent of Americans say they would definitely consider voting for a Mormon for president. But many analysts seem to think LDS church membership is no longer an insuperable obstacle.
A number of conservative evangelicals continue to view Mormonism as heretical, non-Christian or even Satanic. But because of their shared faith in social conservatism, many evangelical leaders seem open to supporting Mr Romney. As far apart as they are, Mormons and evangelical Christians may have more in common with each other than they do with secular America. The remaining scepticism of evangelical leaders seems to have more to do with Mr Romney’s previously expressed moderate views on abortion and gay rights than with his creed.
But if he gets anywhere in the primaries, Mr Romney’s religion will become an issue with non-religious voters – and rightly so. Objecting to someone because of what they believe is not the same thing as prejudice based on religious heritage, let alone race or gender. Not applying a religious test for public office means that people of all faiths are allowed to run – not that their views about God, creation and the moral order cannot be considered. In President George W. Bush’s case, the public clearly paid to little attention to religion. In 2000 and 2004, the country failed to appreciate that while Mr Bush’s religious beliefs may be moderate, he relies on them immoderately, as an alternative to rational understanding of complex issues.
Nor is it chauvinist to declare that certain religious views are disqualifying in and of themselves. There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others would, quite reasonably, not vote for a religious fanatic or fundamentalist – a Christian who thinks that the earth is less than 6,000 years old or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord, Xenu.
Such views are disqualifying because they are dogmatic, irrational and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself and see the world as it is.
By the same token, many secular Americans would reject anyone who believes the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS Church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics – a non-existent version of a language that had yet to be decoded with the help of the Rosetta stone. Smith was able to dictate his translation of The Book of Mormon by looking through diamond-encrusted decoding glasses and burying his face in a hat.
He was an obvious conman. Mr Romney has every right to believe in conmen but he should not be running the country if he does.
One might object that all religious beliefs are irrational – what is the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. The world’s greater religions have had thousands of years to splinter, moderate and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, on the other hand, remains monolithic, literalistic and cultish.
It may be that Mr Romney does not take Mormon theology at face value. He has reversed his views on gay rights and abortion to suit the differing demands of a Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign and a Republican presidential primary. This suggests that he is a man of flexible principles, which is encouraging in this context.
But Mr Romney has never indicated that there is any distance between himself and Mormon doctrine. He is a church “elder” who performed missionary service in France as a young man and did not protest against his church’s overt racism and policy of discrimination, in which black men were denied admission to the priesthood before the policy was abolished in 1978. He usually tries to defuse the issue of his religion with the tired jokes about polygamy or cries foul and insists that his religious views are “private”.
They may be that, but if Mr Romney is running for president, they are the country’s concern as well.
The writer is editor of Slate.com