Separating politics, scripture: Take caution when electing religious candidates

I was born a pragmatist. I fired questions at my Sunday school teacher at age five — “Who invented God, anyway?” — and was entirely unsatisfied with the ambiguous answers I received. It’s only natural, then, that I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of electing politicians that explicitly ascribe an entire belief system to some religious text, whether it’s the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or the one that has been the most hotly discussed in the past few weeks, the Book of Mormon.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has teetered on and off the frontrunner position in the 2012 race, received a big “Mormon” stamp on his head in recent weeks. Dallas preacher and Rick Perry supporter Robert Jeffress went so far as to call Romney’s religion a “cult” this month, a word that has reverberated through the nation.

Romney, once the highest-ranking Mormon leader in Boston, has what New York Times writer Sheryl Gay Stolberg called “an impeccable Mormon pedigree,” leading all the way back from his great-great-grandfather Miles Romney, who began following the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith.

In the running so far, we have a slew of religious folk — Michele Bachmann, an Evangelical Christian. Baptists Ron Paul and Herman Cain. Roman Catholic Newt Gingrich. And another Mormon, Jon Huntsman, though not nearly as widely publicized as such.

So why does Romney’s Mormonism seem so hard for America to stomach?

I was confused about a lot of the misconceptions I had about Mormons. The president of the University’s Latter-day Saints Student Association, Kara Moss, was kind (and patient) enough to help me sort them out.

The thing I quickly learned from Moss was to make sure to distinguish between “Mormonism” and the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” which is not to be mistaken as the Warren Jeffs-led “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” The “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” which Moss and Romney are members of, do not observe polygamy and, as she says, “are indeed Christians.” Members of the LDS church are not of the “Sister Wives” or “Big Love” variety.

There is confusion, which is why she says members of the LDS church prefer to be called “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” instead of “Mormons.”

Then we got to the issue — did she believe Romney would be able to separate his religious priorities from political ones? I borrowed a question asked by Jonathan Imbody of the Christian Medical Association in a Washington Times letter to the editor: “The real key in the public arena, however, is to understand whether a Mormon politician marries or divorces his theological beliefs from public policy.”

Moss said that there was no reason Romney’s religion would get in the way of being a “good” president; “It might even help that cause,” she said. In terms of social issues, she says he’d be unlikely to concede his LDS-led beliefs.

“Mitt obviously believes in this church. He’s been a member of it for a long time. Those ideologies are ingrained in his lifestyle and the way he thinks,” she said.

But she says that doesn’t mean he’d try to force others to feel the same way.

“I don’t think he’s going to impose our religion’s beliefs on everybody. A big part of our church is agency; that people have their right to choose,” she said.

Harry Reid, senate majority leader and fellow member of the LDS church, has been criticized by some members of the church for his policies, such as voting against a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage. He’s obviously devout in his religion, but he has been able to separate his religious and political lives. The Awl’s Natasha Vargas-Cooper said in a piece last year that, “Reid has proven that he may pray like a Mormon, but he does not vote like one.”

Would Romney, or any unwaveringly religious person — Mormon, Catholic, Baptist or otherwise — be able to do the same?

Religious groups modernize their stances on issues surely but much more slowly than they should. Fifty years ago, some Christian groups still used Biblical references to support racial segregation. In another 50 years, I can only imagine how interpretation of the Bible and other texts will progress.

This certainly doesn’t mean I wouldn’t vote for a Mormon. It does mean, though, that I think Americans should take extreme caution when electing anyone that sees the world only through the lens of a religious book. Whether Romney is like that, we don’t know for sure. I just fear that Romney’s America — where “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” — could never be an America of my own.