I am guessing many readers have already stumbled across a controversial opinion piece posted at Patheos last week, Warren Cole Smith’s “A Vote for Romney Is a Vote for the LDS Church.” Smith is the author of the book A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church, so it is clear where he is coming from. In fairness to Patheos, it should be noted that the article was part of an online symposium on faith and social conservatism offering a variety of viewpoints, including “Yes, Christians Can Vote for Mormons,” “In Defense of Mormons,” and Nate Oman’s “The LDS Church Walks a Tightrope on Public Policy.” Still, the Smith article rankles. Why?
It is not simply because of disagreement with the author’s opinion. I read a lot of articles that I disagree with but that don’t spur the sense that there is something deeply wrong with the article. After some reflection I have decided that is not the author’s opinion that is the problem (it seems fairly common among rank-and-file Evangelicals) but rather that the author thinks it is perfectly acceptable to publicly express that particular opinion. The problem isn’t Evangelical “political bigotry” — Evangelicals and any other group of voters can take their private opinions and biases to the voting booth. The problem is Evangelical incivility, the habit of openly broadcasting an unwillingness to vote for a Mormon candidate regardless of party or platform. [And I know it is only some, not all, Evangelicals who have that bias or who state it publicly.] To focus my objections, I will summarize my points under three simple assertions.
1. Some permissible private political opinions are not considered acceptable in public political discourse. The fact is that a lot of very strange opinions and ideas motivate individuals to vote for a particular candidate or issue in the voting booth. Welcome to democracy. There is no law against opinionated, uninformed, or even bigoted voting. Some voters may not vote for Mitt Romney because he is LDS, just as some may not have voted for President Obama in 2008 because he is African-American or for the Gore-Lieberman ticket because Joe Lieberman is Jewish. In the 21st century, however, most people realize how offensive it is to publicly justify their negative votes on the basis of a candidate’s race or religion. That holds with even more force for journalists, authors, and other media types who publish their opinions. But what exactly is it that is so wrong with publicly stating it is wrong to vote for a Mormon (or an African-American or a Jew)?
2. E pluribus unum: from many, one. That Latin phrase dates to the era of the Founders, being included on the Seal of the United States. Pull a dollar bill out of your wallet and you’ll see it displayed above the eagle’s wings. Originally, the phrase captured the hope that a unified nation would emerge from the union of diverse colonies and states. In modern times, the diversity or pluralism is largely racial, cultural, and religious, but the imperative for civil unity is still with us. That unity is most visible in times of crisis or war. Think of the wounded President Reagan being wheeled into surgery after being shot in an assassination attempt in 1981 and gamely quipping to the assembled doctors, “I hope you are all Republicans.” A doctor replied, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.” That echoes Thomas Jefferson’s words from his 1801 inaugural address following the bitterly waged presidential campaign of 1800: “We are all republicans — we are all federalists.” We can have political differences, but we must retain a dedication to civil unity. While that sense of a need for civil unity is especially visible in times of crisis, it is always present.
This helps us identify what sort of public discourse crosses the line: it is public discourse that goes beyond the discussion of political differences and policy choices that ideally motivate voters and instead plays on racial, ethnic, and religious differences that potentially undermine civil unity. Even with our present polarized political system, anyone can be a Democrat or a Republican. That is in line with the concept that political diversity is not inconsistent with civic unity. But rhetoric and discourse that *is* inconsistent with civic unity — such as “You should never vote for a Mormon/Catholic/Jew/Muslim/Quaker” — goes too far. It provokes animosity that does not dissipate after an election. That’s what’s wrong with Warren Cole Smith’s article. It poisons the well we all drink from.
3. Romney can’t win in 2012. I think Mitt Romney would be a fine president. So would many other potential candidates who are, for one reason or another, unelectable. I simply take it as a political fact that, largely because of his LDS affiliation, Romney can’t win the Republican nomination and likely couldn’t win an election. [This probably holds for Jon Huntsman as well.] The presidential election is the only national election that we hold. The rules are different: many candidates who perform well in state elections for governor or senator and who have national name recognition find, often to their surprise, that they have no appeal to the rest of the country as a presidential candidate. There is no point in complaining if your favorite candidate doesn’t resonate with the fickle national electorate, that’s just presidential politics.
Some Mormons feel that this is deeply unfair, that Mormons have paid their civil dues over the years and now should be as acceptable as Methodists or Catholics or atheists when it comes to holding public office. My response is that Mormons are as acceptable for public office as any other ethnic or religious group … for every office except the Presidency, at least in 2012. But history is on our side. In 1928, Catholic Al Smith faced strong opposition from some Protestant voters who feared his allegiance would be split between the Pope and the Constitution. But John F. Kennedy’s Catholic ties were not a political problem for him in the 1960 election. Here’s what Kennedy said in a campaign speech addressing the religion question.
I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.
Voters did not accept that proposition in 1928, but they did 32 years later in 1960. Romney’s Faith in America speech did not do the trick in 2008, but a similar plea might carry the day in 2040. A lot can change in 32 years.