The elixir of Republican politics

By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / October 18, 2011

An elixir is a substance taken to cure one’s ills, or it’s a substance used to carry an ingredient to do its intended purpose. Both definitions seem to fit the role religion has played in this year’s Republican politics (though Democrats are not averse to using it, as well).

Most reporters and commentators on the political scene seem to have missed that religion has no constitutional role in U.S. politics, but that hasn’t kept it from being an unnecessary diversion at times, and from being ignored when it should be examined.

The latest unnecessary diversion about religion is the persistent inquiry into Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. CNN host Candy Crowley insisted recently in an interview that two candidates for the Republican nomination for president state whether Mitt Romney’s Mormonism made him a Christian.

What nonsense. Whatever Romney’s religion, it is irrelevant (as those candidates said) to the political position he seeks, because he’s not running for president as a Mormon. He is running as a Republican. And he is a candidate with experience as a governor and as a businessman. Those are relevant qualifications, not his religious views.

As most readers know, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This is what makes Romney’s religion — whether Christian or not — irrelevant politically. Yet Candy Crowley, in a recent interview, insisted that both Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann give us their opinion on the question.

Cain responded, “I’m not running for theologian in chief. I’m a lifelong Christian. And what that means is that one of my guiding principles for decisions I make is I start with ‘do the right thing.’ I’m not getting into that controversy.”

But after more prodding, Cain finally satisfied Crowley to some extent by declaring that a candidate’s religion was a “valid concern.” It’s not, unless the candidate makes it part of the reason that candidate is running for public office. Romney has not done so.

If Cain had just stuck to his decision not to get involved with the “Mormons as Christians” debate, I would have new-found respect for him. But when he decided that it was important to point out that he is a Christian, he revealed that his earlier statement was just a convenient ruse for letting his Republican base know that he is one of the good guys.

And a few days ago, Cain went even further. In an Associated Press interview, Cain pointed out that he has been a Christian since age 10. While he claims falsely not to mention religion often in public settings, he said, “But people can see it on my website, and when they read my credentials they can see that I’m a staunch Christian conservative.” I guess the Constitution doesn’t really mean much to Cain.

To her credit, Bachmann refused to take the bait in her interview with Crowley, even after Crowley suggested that refusing to answer the question would be perceived as dodging a direct question. Bachmann stuck by her answer: “We have religious tolerance. We understand that people have different views on their faith, and I have a very sincerely held view on faith and I think we just leave it at that.”

Crowley should have taken the hint that being Christian is not required to hold public office. Constitutionally, any religion or no religion is fine. She could have asked whether the candidates agree with that statement, which is a relevant matter under the Constitution.

Crowley typifies the mainstream media’s propensity to focus on the irrelevant but titillating. If one’s religion is not a prerequisite for political office, there is no reason to deal with it unless the candidate has made it integral to his or her campaign.

Both Bachmann and Rick Perry have done so. The mainstream media should be asking these two, along with Herman Cain, their views on the separation of church and state. If there were ever candidates who used religion as a political elixir, it is these three candidates.

But it would be fitting to ask all of the Republican crowd whether they agree with then-candidate John F. Kennedy’s statement about religion and politics: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

That last point is interesting. In fact, it is illegal for a pastor to tell his congregation how to vote. This ban from such politics is the price churches, along with all other tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations, pay for their tax-exempt status. While the IRS is not terribly diligent in enforcing the politics ban against churches, it does occasionally take legal action against a few churches for overstepping the non-political rules.

My knowledge of Mormonism is limited. I know a few Mormons. I’ve talked with Mormons and listened to their critics and detractors. Nothing I have learned has convinced me that whether one is a Mormon has any relevance to holding political office.

Perhaps the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would be asked to sing at the inauguration of a new president who is Mormon. If so, I would probably enjoy the music, just as I enjoyed hearing Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen perform at one of President Obama’s inaugural events. Beyond that, I can’t see that presidential governance would be any different with a Mormon as president, any more than it was affected by Richard Nixon’s Quaker upbringing or John Kennedy’s Catholicism.

Nothing that Romney did as Governor of Massachusetts seemed related specifically to his Mormonism.

Religion is relevant only if the officeholder tries to fulfill the responsibilities of office by following his or her religious precepts and dogma by applying them to the public’s business. Based on their previous positions, this possibility does concern me with the candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachman, who tend toward a theocratic view of governance.

Perry’s official sponsorship as governor of the prayer rally held in Houston in August is one example. Some have even called Perry and Bachmann Dominionists — conservative Christians who want to influence or control secular civil government by imposing their biblical beliefs on the country.

While there isn’t enough evidence for me to call them Dominionists, we do know that both Perry and Bachmann say that God has called them to be president, or at least run for that office. Now, Anita Perry, Rick Perry’s wife has gone further, explaining in a campaign speech in South Carolina why her husband should be president: “God was already speaking to me, but he (Rick Perry) felt like he needed to see the burning bush. I said, ‘Let me tell you something: You might not see the burning bush but other people are seeing it for you.’”

The Perrys, along with some of their friends, want the rest of us to believe that Rick Perry is the chosen one — chosen by God for the US presidency. Michele Bachmann must feel betrayed since God previously chose her, or so she said. It is wiser probably to ignore all such self-aggrandizing proclamations of politicians and their supporters and pay attention to their actions, their positions on the issues, and the work and views of those close to them.

At the recent Faith and Values Conference, Perry chose the Rev. Robert Jeffress to give his formal introduction before he spoke. Jeffress said that Perry was a true Christian. Jeffress also told the press that he believes Mormonism is a “cult,” and that Mormons aren’t true Christians, views that were well known to Perry and everyone else who has paid attention to Jeffress. Perry refused to repudiate the injection of such irrelevant and offensive views into his presidential campaign.

What appears to be happening in this political season is that Perry and some others are using religion to send messages to their evangelical supporters and curry favor with the religious right.

Perry may be sincere in his religious beliefs. I can’t judge that. What I can judge is the ways in which he uses religion for political benefit. In this, Perry has no peer. When it comes to using religion for political benefit, Romney is a no-show. For that, Romney should be commended.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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