"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, December 29, 2006

Theology or Character?

Richard John Neuhaus responds a bit to this piece by Slate's Jacob Weisberg over at FT basically suggesting that Mitt Romney should be disqualified by voters from serious consideration for the presidency unless he denounces some central Mormon tenets. Neuhaus suggests, in response:

Mr. Weisberg is less than civil, but one may well share much of his evaluation of the LDS belief system without excluding the possibility of supporting Mitt Romney. (For my misgivings about the LDS, see “Is Mormonism Christian?” in the March 2000 issue of First Things.) First, what would people think of someone who abandoned the religion of his forebears in order to advance his political career? (Mr. Romney is apparently having difficulties enough in explaining some of his political changes.) Second, do we really want to exclude from high office millions of citizens born into a religion whose tenets strike most Americans as bizarre, especially when there is no evidence that those peculiar tenets would have a bearing on their public actions? Third, candidates should be judged on the basis of their character, competence, and public positions. That one was born a Mormon is not evidence of a character flaw. That one remains a Mormon may be evidence of theological naiveté or indifference. But we are not electing the nation’s theologian. And, it should be noted, there are very intelligent Mormons who are doing serious intellectual work to move their tradition toward a closer approximation of Christian orthodoxy, which is a welcome development.

In any event, Romney’s being a Mormon may be a factor but it should not be the decisive factor in supporting or opposing his candidacy. Once again, in politics the question frequently comes down to, Compared to what? Depending upon the character, competence, and positions of the other candidate or candidates, it is conceivable that one might support Mitt Romney.

Please note that this is not an endorsement. It is a response to Jacob Weisberg and others who would use religion to oppose a candidate for the presidency in a manner not substantively different from their use of religion in opposing the present incumbent of the White House. One need only recall the innumerable rants against a president who is born again, prays daily, thinks he has a hotline to God, and is bent upon replacing our constitutional order with a theocracy. In the game book of unbridled partisanship, any stick will do for beating up on the opposition.

This seems to me a bit tougher of a call than RJN seems to make it out to be, mostly because I don't think you can distinguish quite so distinctly between a candidate's "theology" and his (or her) "character" and while theology might or might not matter politically (does the Spirit come from just the Father or the Father and the Son?) surely character does. Most presidents get defined by quite unexpected events and they are judged by how they handle them, at least part of which depends on their judgment, their capacity for moral and practical reflection, their character. Now, as I said, some theological questions don't show us much of anything about character, but surely others do. If you're committed to believing things that are flatly untrue what might this suggest about your judgment in other things? Suppose a candidate is such a biblical literalist that he thinks the sun actually revolves around the earth? Would you vote for such a man or woman? I would be very loathe to do so, thinking that such commitments reveal something unsatisfactory about his (or her) judgment. (On the flip side, just to be fair here, I would be equally suspect of someone who embraced the mushy-minded view that all religions are just different paths to God, as if the very real and very serious distinctions were just so much fluff above the "real" stuff "we all" believe.)

So what does this say about Romney? Well, it's unclear - he hasn't really addressed this yet. Does he really believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet who translated a new Revelation? Does he really think there was an enormous civilization in North America that vanished without so much a trace? If so, that seems reason enough to at least wonder about his judgment. That doesn't mean, though, that it's a smack-down case for thinking his judgment thereby necessarily bad. I'm not quite sure how to draw those lines, but I don't think RJN gives the question enough credence.

1 comment:

Hunter Baker said...

I think as long as we take this precedent and just examine every candidate's religious preferences with equal thoroughness then I'll go along for the ride. Until then, count me out.