Robert P. George yesterday wrote about the phone calls allegedly made by the group Catholics for Obama to ask voters questions like “How can you vote for a Mormon who does not believe in Jesus Christ?” The Obama campaign denies the charges, according to an editor’s note in the U.S. News article to which Dr. George had linked.
If the calls were in fact made, they would disgust me because they misrepresented Mormon teaching, and because the callers would likely have been motivated less by concern for the spread of the Gospel than by concern for President Obama’s re-election. Nevertheless I am not sure they would constitute an appalling example of anti-Mormon bigotry.
It is true, and it is a very good thing, that the Constitution forbids the government to impose a religious test. But the sovereign people may support or oppose a candidate for all kinds of reasons they consider germane. . . .
It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who . . . care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney. The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.
I would agree that voters can reasonably take such questions (applied to Mormonism, atheism, Catholicism, or any other variety of religious belief) into account. Yet I have no qualms about voting for a candidate with a faith other than my own, since I’d answer the first two questions differently than Fr. Neuhaus did. That is, I don’t think having a Mormon as president would increase the credibility and advance the spread of Mormonism.
Think about the religious affiliations of our last couple presidents. President Obama was an active member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ (part of the United Church of Christ) for two decades, but I can find no evidence that his presidency has lent greater credibility to the United Church of Christ or theologically liberal Protestantism.
Same with his predecessor George W. Bush, whose United Methodist Church had fewer members as a proportion of the U.S. population in 2008 than it did in 2001 (see page 5 of this PDF). While Evangelicals increased their share of the U.S. population during his presidency, there was no tide of conversions to Evangelicalism because of Bush’s tenure.
Indeed, if anything, his presidency made some people less likely to become Evangelical because of the strong association of Evangelicalism with conservative political views. In an era of both religious and political polarization, a president’s religious beliefs are at least as likely to drive away possible converts as they are to attract them.
Moreover, as David Campbell and Robert Putnam have discovered, this trend could be especially bad for Christianity, as the association of Christian faith with Republican politics makes non-Republican Americans less receptive to Christianity. That doesn’t mean believers should stop talking about their faith publicly or debating its political implications. It just means that any given president’s religious beliefs are unlikely to draw significant swathes of the American public into his religion.