So What Can We Ask Mitt? Agreeing On Some Boundaries

Jake Tapper responds to my initial piece on his suggestion that Mitt Romney should be expected to explain his faith to voters. He questions why, if Romney can say he is religious, voters should be expected not to ask what that claim means to Romney. Others in the blogosphere have similar questions. It’s clear that despite some well-defined standards for respectful discourse, we as a nation simply haven’t come to an agreement about what is and is not fair game in discussing the religion of a candidate for national office.

I would like to submit a few suggestions from a Mormon perspective. First, it is important to note that the Tapper position (in which questions about any of a candidate’s beliefs appear to be fair game — he posits that he should be able to ask Romney about where he thinks he’ll end up in the eternities), while appearing even-handed, would raise a de facto bar from office to any person belonging to an ill-understood religious minority. Imagine the scenarios under this model. Catholic X runs for president and has to answer a few questions about abortion and maybe an odd question about transubstantiation (maybe). Mormon X runs and the door is wide open for direct questioning to the candidate on everything from polygamy to church history to the most obscure statements of past church leaders.

Why the difference? Is it because Catholicism contains fewer topics that appear strange to outsiders? Of course not. It’s because people have become used to Catholicism to the point where they understand that the Spanish Inquisition has little impact on a modern Catholic’s ability to run a country. If Giuliani were expected to give explanations about his views on the Saints, birth control, Papal infallibility and the mystery of the Host, on a national stage, he’d look like he was nuts and no one would vote for him. Trouble is, he’d never be expected to answer such questions. But similar questions would be directed at a Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist or Adventist candidate, not because their beliefs are weirder, but because they’re a bit more novel to the American public.

Thus, conclusion number one regarding the “no holds barred” view of things is that it is functionally prejudicial to all religious minorities. For that reason alone it is suspect. Related to that problem, and similarly objectionable, is the double standard that arises, in which members of large denominations are asked nothing at all about their religion, whereas members of smaller religious communities are labeled as “the Mormon” or “the Jehovah’s Witness,” making it far more difficult for a candidate to author his own public identity.

But there is another reason to object to the no-holds barred position: relevance. Given that religious beliefs are by definition sacred and personal to adherents, there ought to be a reason for intruding upon them (and no, Mitt Romney has not made an issue of his personal beliefs. He has been asked about them, but has not volunteered them). Thus, the questioner carries the burden of showing the relevance of the inquiry.

Tapper gives three good examples that illustrate my point. First, he says that people are legitimately curious about the separation of the sexes at Joe Lieberman’s synagogue. Second, it is a point of proper concern whether President Bush sees Biblical doctrine as a guiding force in Middle East policy. Third, does Mitt Romney really think he’s going to own a planet in the afterlife? (short answer: no.). Anyone see the difference between these inquiries?

The question about the segretation of sexes bears on a candidate’s principal values. That is, it raises a question of what this candidate believes about the equality of the sexes. The connection is not strong, but it is at least there. The question about Bush’s Middle East policy bears directly on . . . his Middle East policy, something well within the purview of presidential politics. On the other hand, the question about Romney’s views on his eternal state are apropos of absolutely nothing. They have no bearing on policy, government, or values. Given that disconnect, the third question is far different from the first two, and is simply not relevant to public discourse.

And this leads to the RomneyExperience Relevancy Test.* At present, I believe there are two narrow areas on which the public has a legitimate interest in being informed as to a candidate’s religion. First, the public is justifiably interested in religious beliefs that will likely inform a candidate’s present or future policy positions or political behavior. In this category, I think one could fairly ask Mitt Romney what his religion tells him about the use of nuclear weapons, or how his faith informs his view on the legitimacy of democratic government. Attenuated and contrived links between religions beliefs and policy positions should not be entertained (George Stephanopoulos’s fatuous attempt to link Romney’s eschatology with Muslim popular opinion is a good example of this sneaky approach).

The second category of legitimate questions on religious beliefs are those that aid in revealing a candidate’s core values. Does the candidate’s faith inform his approach to humanity in general? How does the candidate’s commitment to his religion bode for his character in other spheres? What is the religion’s emphasis on forgiveness, family, personal responsibility, community, and hard work? I believe that respectful iterations of such question are very much on the table. Inquiries about how a candidate imagines heaven, or his response to obscure and peripheral religious teachings tell us very little about the person, and therefore do nothing but sensationalize a faith that some take very seriously.

Finally, everyone ought to remember that there are much better ways of discerning all of the above than to ask questions about a candidate’s faith. To find out how a candidate will act in office, check his stated platform and his past record. To understand his values, scrutinize his life, his family, and his personal demeanor. Attempting to divine such things through the subjective and inscrutable lens of religion is an empirically suspect practice, entertaining though it may be.
*Subject to revision, of course.