Religion is neither a qualifier nor a disqualifier for public office, unless you are a Mormon, one of your opponents is a Southern Baptist and you are both running for the presidential nomination of your party.
When former governor Jimmy Carter was in tight race with Congressman Morris “Mo” Udall for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1976, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a Carter backer, said to a large audience of black Baptist ministers: “I’m asking you to make a choice between a man from Georgia who fights to let you in his church, and a man from Arizona whose church won’t even let you in the back door.”
Udall, who had left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over its policies toward blacks, called on Carter, a Southern Baptist layman, to repudiate Coleman’s comments. Carter refused and won the Michigan primary.
Playing the Mormon card is occurring again. This time the state is Iowa and the party is Republican.
Republican presidential candidate and Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee says Christian faith defines him and Christian conservative leaders are central to his campaign.
In a TV ad in Iowa, Huckabee says: “Faith doesn’t just influence me; it really defines me. I don’t have to wake up every day wondering, ‘What do I need to believe?'”
“Christian Leader” emerges in large, boldface white letters on the screen.
“Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody’s politics. Not now, not ever,” he says with applause in the background. Then he repeats his commitment to faith: “We believe in some things. We stand by those things. We live or die by those things.”
What Huckabee appears to say is that he is a principled Christian leader who deserves the support of other Christians who refuse to sacrifice their beliefs for pragmatism, including the pragmatic argument that he isn’t electable.
As long as Huckabee appeared unelectable, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a practicing Mormon, could sidestep the issue of his religion. With Huckabee now pulling ahead in Iowa, Romney must do what he should not have to do: Pass a religion test.
Udall did not have to do pass a religious test in the Democratic Party, although his ancestors’ religion was used against him.
On the other hand, John Kennedy found it necessary to address his religion on Sept. 12, 1960, at a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministers Association, when three Southern Baptist preachers were among those who pressed him on his Catholic faith and autonomy from papal control.
The difference between Kennedy’s conundrum and Romney’s riddle is that Kennedy could affirm what many Baptists and conservative Protestants then claimed to affirm: the separation of church and state.
“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,” said Kennedy. “I believe in an America where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.”
Such an appeal by Romney holds little sway over the Christian Right, whose leaders reject the separation of church and state. One even said it was “the figment of some infidel’s imagination.”
The additional problem for Romney is that the Republican Party is dominated by Christian fundamentalists who have preached for over 25 years that GOP stands for God’s Only Party. Their reference to God is not to a generic civil deity but to the Christian God. If the Republican Party belongs to God, then the Republican Party can’t be lead by one who does not believe in that God, no matter how hard Romney tries to say that Mormonism and Christianity share the same God.
Yet Romney must try and he will in a Thursday speech titled “Faith in America” at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, where he will be introduced by former president George H.W. Bush.
Romney must thread the theological eye of an impossible political needle. Only providence can ensure such success–success that would result in a remake of conservative Christianity and the nation’s political landscape.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.