Friday, December 7, 2007

Memo to Mitt: Religion can be a legitimate issue. Get over it.

Mitt Romney is confused these days.

His attempt to one-up John F. Kennedy's pledge to put his country first falls flat because it fails to recognize the difference between the American right to freedom of religion and whether one's religious beliefs could or should be assessed in determining fitness for public office.

How dare he confuse the two.

The First Amendment (brought home to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment and individual state constitutions) prohibits enactment of laws that would infringe on religious freedom. You cannot outlaw, say, a Muslim from running for public office or require that any candidate vow to support Christianity. You can't compel an atheist (or anyone else) to swear under oath "so help me God" nor can there be a state religion.

The First Amendment is a restraint on government interference with religious freedom and a wise one at that.

However, just as having the freedom of speech does not absolve someone of the consequences of his or her words, freedom of religion does not wipe one's religious beliefs and practices off the slate.

In The Prophet Khalil Gibran wrote: "Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations? Who can spread his hours before him, saying, 'This for God and this for myself; This for my soul, and this other for my body?'"

So, while a candidate may pledge to separate religion from occupation, it may not always be so easy to do that and, in any event, that pledge does not necessarily take the issue from the table.

There are many fine tenets in Mormonism which square with what most folks would consider American values. In fact, some aspects are indeed admirable, such as the focus on family.

On the flip side, if I was black I might be nervous about a religion that not all that long ago considered me not as worthy as a white person. The same could be said by a woman who would speculate whether, for example, a Catholic candidate would share her position on abortion.

While Mitt Romney's pledge was noteworthy, it doesn't end the issue. That may not always be fair but life isn't always fair and politics rarely is.

And, you really can't have it both ways. How many candidates suck up to religious groups seeking their support? (In 2000 Wisconsin Right to Life did a mailing endorsing George W, Bush even though his primary opponent, John McCain, had a strong pro-life voting record.) Can you really get away with saying to one audience, "I can separate my religion from my official actions?" and then on another day court voters based in whole or part on those beliefs?

This is not to single Mitt Romney out by any means although he did open the door by talking about the issue earlier this week. Other candidates may face similar scrutiny and it's not necessarily inappropriate.

While JFK 45 years ago vowed not to take marching orders from the Vatican, today right-wing Catholic bishops are suggesting that Catholic politicians who don't toe the church's line might be penalized by the church. Most Catholic politicians have blown off that threat but it's still out there.

So, Mitt, whether you like it or not, your religious beliefs and practices, for better or worse, can be a legitimate issue. I agree it shouldn't be the only one but it is something that voters can give as much weight as they want when deciding which candidate has earned their votes.

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