No Mormon has ever won the White House. Nor has a Muslim, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witness or Jew. John Kennedy was the first Catholic to win the White House when he was elected in 1960, but no one of that faith has been president since then. All of which suggests there is an acceptable faith for would-be presidents.
Religion and moral values may again play key roles in the 2012 presidential election; to what degree these beliefs matter in our politics is the subject of this week’s The Maine Debate.
People who call themselves “values voters” are having a hard time embracing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in part because of his fluid views on abortion and gay rights, and in part because of his Mormon faith. While all voters value something, what the values voters have in common are what would be described as traditional moral beliefs. Most are fundamentalist Christians.
As dogmatic as people of faith are about their core beliefs — certainly a laudable quality — many let those tenets bend when they choose a candidate for office to support. “Close enough” doesn’t cut it in matters of religion, but when it comes to politics, it does. Candidates invoking Judeo-Christian morality with a degree of sincerity can count on a base of support from the values voters.
That fuzzy affinity between those espousing traditional values and candidates who reflect that back began to fracture at the Values Voters Summit in Washington D.C. on Saturday. Robert Jeffress, a Baptist pastor from Texas, introduced candidate Rick Perry as “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ,” adding that “it is only faith in Jesus Christ — in Jesus Christ alone — that qualifies you as a Christian.” Outside the hall Mr. Jeffress told reporters Mormonism was a “cult” and Mr Romney, while a good, moral, family person, was “not a Christian.”
There are, indeed, some stark differences between the beliefs a Baptist holds and those a Mormon holds, though Mormons describe themselves as Christians. Mormons believe Jesus appeared to their prophet Joseph Smith in western New York state in 1820. Mr. Smith claimed to have been led by an angel to buried gold plates on which God-inspired scripture was written by Native Americans. Mr. Smith translated the plates into the Book of Mormon.
In addition to Mr. Romney, politically prominent Mormons include GOP presidential candidate and former Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr., Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and conservative radio commentator Glenn Beck.
The arguments for giving candidates’ moral and spiritual values as much or more weight than their visions for fixing the problems that ail the economy, budget and foreign policy are weak. The better assessment for candidates is to consider their intelligence, how well-versed they are in the issues, and how able to learn, adapt and compromise. Experience that demonstrates effective leadership also is key.
The bottom line, then, is that a twice-divorced, avowed atheist could be a better president than a devout Christian. Voters who believe abortion should be made illegal and who oppose gay rights certainly should evaluate candidates by their stands on these issues. But there is no evidence that a person whose faith is acceptable to these voters will be a better president than one who has no faith.
Join us here from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesday for The Maine Debate.