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David A. Bell: “It is hardly prejudice to ask the candidate just where his belief gets suspended”

January 5, 2007

As I have written elsewhere, a big question people should be asking of any religious candidate is just how integrated their worldview is. David A. Bell does a great job touching on this topic:

Most major religions were born long before the idea of religion as “private” was even conceivable, and their major texts are full of pronouncements that cross any imaginable public/private line (e.g. when Jesus says in a parable: “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me”–Luke 19:27 [Note: Good grief, David took this passage way out of context!]). The modern notion of religion as a purely private matter demands a literal suspension of belief: the burden is on the believer to reject, or at least ignore, those elements of her faith that might lead her to violate the laws and norms of modern secular society.

In modern society, it is not at all “prejudice” to demand that politicians shoulder this burden. If a Jewish politician, for instance, insisted on treating the literal word of the Torah as superior to American law ( e.g. the commandment to stone to death women found to have lost their virginity before marriage—Deuteronomy 22:21), he would be unfit to hold public office. Furthermore, there are many many areas where the tenets of a faith do not directly conflict with secular law, but might well influence a candidate’s actions in office. In this case, again, as Linker points out, it is hardly prejudice to ask the candidate just where his belief gets suspended. These questions become all the more pressing in the case of those religions which possess an organized Church whose leaders routinely make canonical pronouncements on matters of concern to the American public, such as Catholicism and Mormonism. Arguably, it is especially important in the case of a religion such as Mormonism that was founded after, and in reaction to the birth of modern secularism, and whose founding prophets scorned the secular laws of the American republic.

On the question of “prejudice,” the operative distinction, ignored by Gergen et al., is very simple. It is prejudice to assume that John Kennedy would blindly follow the directives of the Pope, or that Mitt Romney would blindly follow the directives of the Prophet in Salt Lake City. It is not in the least prejudice to ask of Kennedy or Romney just where their obedience to their faith stops–where their belief gets suspended. In fact, these questions are vital ones. In American life, politicians routinely attribute their sense of morality entirely to “God,” or “religion,” without even noticing the ferocious difficulties that boil away beneath these bland platitudes. They should be asked: Just what, in your sense of right and wrong, stems from the literal teachings of your faith? On what basis do you defend those elements of American society, culture, and law that conflict with the teachings of your faith? In what ways–what specific ways–does your faith guide you, and in what ways does it not? To ask these questions of Governor Romney–and all other candidates for public office–is not prejudice. It is good citizenship.

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