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TEXAS FAITH: How much of a candidate's religion is fair game?


The following ran on the March 13, 2012, edition the Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith blog. Theology Professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.

March 22, 2012

By Wayne Slater

A spate of stories in the media in recent days about the Mormon practice of posthumous or proxy baptism prompted religion writer Sarah Posner to ask: How much of Mitt Romney's Mormonism is fair game?

 The reality is that voters make judgments about a candidate's religious faith. Barack Obama  found himself in the middle of media storm four years about some controversial views of his long-time pastor. Rick Santorum  has linked the tenants of his Catholic faith and matters of public policy. And Posner, senior editor at Religion Dispatches, notes that many Americans might view some aspects of Mormonism (planets, proxy baptisms, sacred underwear, tribes of Israel roaming America) as exotic, even weird. Romney is running for president and, as such, has come under close scrutiny from every angle. He's tried to avoid the subject of his religion in the current GOP primary, telling reporters with theological questions to ask the church.

 Clearly, there is a difference between unfair questions about certain religious practices and legitimate lines of inquiry aimed at giving voters an idea how institutional teachings or practices shape a candidate's politics. So where's the line? Asking about temple undergarments is probably out of bounds. But what about how he views his church's role funding and opposing same-sex marriage in California? Or his church's past history of racial intolerance? Is it fair to ask Romney, and to expect an answer, whether he as a church leader ever actively pushed back against his church's policy (lifted in 1978) against blacks?

What's the difference between probing a candidate's religious beliefs and probing a candidate's involvement in promoting or even acquiescing in the activities of a religious institution?

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

What has to be acknowledged is the selective and idiosyncratic way that candidates are questioned about their religious beliefs. Let's be honest. When Barack Obama was facing a barrage of critical comments and questions in 2008, they were actually about his views on what his pastor said on certain topics from his own pulpit. They had no direct bearing on Obama's religious beliefs but on whether he should be forced to distance himself from his pastor's comments. Rick Santorum is a Roman Catholic who has never been asked to comment on what his ultimate pastor, Pope Benedict, says about capital punishment. Does Mr. Santorum agree with the Pope that capital punishment is wrong? Mitt Romney is a Mormon whose church believes that the Kingdom of God will be established in North America, but to my knowledge he has never been asked to comment on what his religious authorities proclaim as doctrine that could certainly interfere with his ability--as President--to conduct international diplomacy with the Iranians, the Israelis, the British (remembering that the UK is officially Christian), and other nations whose formal policies involve adherence to particular religions.

All of the candidates are utterly, completely, and constitutionally free to exercise their own religious beliefs, to engage in religious assemblies, to pray, and to participate in rituals that they find spiritually fulfilling. The only way their religious affiliations should matter to us is if they imposed their religions views on the American people who are also utterly, completely, constitutionally free to exercise their own religious beliefs. So we have a right to ask if Santorum plans to impose Roman Catholic teachings about birth control, abortion, and capital punishment upon Americans as national policy. And we have a right to ask if Romney plans to impose Mormon teachings on the North American continent as a device for bringing God's kingdom to reality on earth. And we have a right to ask if Obama plans to impose basic Protestant teachings about congregational freedom to assemble for worship.

Of course, by these standards, Obama's religious views are apparently closest to the principles expressed in the Constitution. By golly, how have we managed to miss that?