There are many good reasons to write off the specific anti-Mormon critiques of Jacob Weisberg and Damon Linker: they both appear motivated by an undue hostility to religion in political life, they seem to view strong religious conviction itself as inherently threatening to liberal democracy, they either ignore or skate over the Mormons’ historical record in their arguments and they frame their arguments in such a way that it is inescapable that anyone who genuinely believes in any kind of revelation or miracle should be viewed with scorn and suspicion, as it is only to the degree that religious people have tempered, watered down or abandoned their older religious commitments that they have become capable of receiving the full respect of these secular liberals in the political arena.  However, not a one of these good reasons appears in the less-judgemental-than-thou article by one Timothy Rutten, who takes offense at the very idea that Weisberg and Linker would put Romney’s religion under scrutiny for any reason.  It is all so very private and personal!  He writes:

Religious belief is a matter of conscience and if there is no privacy of conscience there is no separation of church and state, a principle both Slate and the New Republic claim to defend. Do the editors of those journals really want to take us back to the 1960s, when as many as one American in four said they never would vote for a Catholic or a Jew for president?

Not likely.

What both journals are doing is playing with social fire for the sake of narrow partisan advantage, hoping to knock a potentially attractive conservative candidate out of the running in much the same way that some Republican commentators desperately attempted to prod some Catholic bishop somewhere into denying Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry communion because he’s pro-choice.

That effort didn’t succeed and this one probably won’t either because an instinctively tolerant American people understands the difference between legitimate journalistic inquiry and an inquisition.

As near as I can tell, this means that in Mr. Rutten’s world we cannot refer back to any kind of religion for its tradition of philosophical and ethical reflection, cannot speak about our religion in any public forum and certainly cannot inform our political views with truths our received religious teachings tell us are of ultimate and eternal significance.  To do any of these things is to violate a “separation of church and state” imagined here not simply as a lack of a federal institutional support in favour of or against any particular creed, but as a hermetically sealed bubble affecting our entire public and political life.  If religion does not remain strictly private, the mythical “separation” will have been overthrown.  Rutten’s suggestion would not simply push religion out of the public square entirely, but would insist that it stay indoors and go pray in its closet.  The broad-minded, accommodating rule of an “instinctively tolerant” people can endure nothing more burdensome that each person tending to his own garden of conscience!  For Mr. Rutten, anything more ambitious than that probably must set us on a path to sectarian massacre.

Mr. Rutten asks rather foolishly whether Slate and TNR want to return us to the 1960s when a quarter of the population said they would never vote for a Catholic or Jew for President.  I think it is probably fair to say that they obviously don’t want any such thing, and neither does anyone else.  (Query: Is this prejudice actually a thing of the past?  Has this percentage actually declined in the last forty years, or do we simply think that it has because very few are willing to admit to anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish prejudices today?)  Linker and Weisberg might not point this out, since they both claim is their purpose not to engage in any real religious prejudice, but instead of that one quarter of the American people being against a Mormon candidate for President there is something closer to one-half at 43%.  We don’t need to “go back” to the 1960s to find broad opposition to a candidate because of his religion.  This opposition exists here and now, and it isn’t going anywhere just because the Tim Ruttens of the world don’t want to hear about it.  The 43% of Americans are the people who have already decided, as of late last year, that they would never consider voting for a Mormon presidential candidate.  Perhaps Mr. Rutten would say that it is precisely this kind of attitude that Slate and TNR shouldn’t be encouraging, and that the greater breadth of anti-Mormonism makes talking about it all the more explosive.  Would Mr. Rutten say that we should avoid talking about something because it is potentially controversial and likely to promote social conflict?  Is that really the best liberals (such as I assume Mr. Rutten is) can manage? 

When such a large percentage of the population takes such a strong stand against Mormon presidential candidates as such, it seems to me fairly plain that it is the legitimate business of journalists and pundits to discuss and debate the merits of opposition to Mormon candidates.  The specific arguments Linker and Weisberg advanced were unfortunate and largely misguided in the way they made their criticisms.  No doubt they would find my theological objections to what I consider the falsehoods and absurdities of Mormonism to be equally misguided or beside the point, but that is part of the ongoing debate.  To their credit, Mormon scholars and intellectuals have been only too happy to engage in the debate, and they are doing their religion a world of good by facing up to the challenge rather than running and hiding or crying, “Bigot!” each time someone simply starts asking questions.  It is Mormons’ squeamish would-be defenders on the center-left who cannot stand the sight of an inquiry into anyone’s religion who are hurting Mormons’ chances for being understood more than anyone else. 

Most everyone participating so far assumes that it is legitimate to debate and discuss these things.  Among those who find this discussion distasteful are such luminaries as David Gergen and now Mr. Rutten.  Christian conservatives who believe that Christianity has an important and necessary role to play in the life of the nation have a great stake in ensuring that a combination of liberals and Romney supporters do not succeed in taking Romney’s religion off the table of legitimate discussion.  It cheapens our discourse and weakens our political process to declare such things off limits.  If Americans are, in fact, “instinctively tolerant” (which may be true within reason, but is not absolutely the case), there really is no reason for anyone to run away from this debate in disgust.  

For their part, Mormons have nothing to fear from the arguments of Linker and Weisberg: these are either so far-fetched or militantly hostile to revealed religion in general that they immediately turn off a huge swath of the public.  I am sharply critical of Mormonism’s theological claims and Mormon pretensions to being Christian, but I find their critiques to be poor and unconvincing in the extreme.  Indeed, in terms of content, the reaction to both pieces has been almost uniformly negative.  The only reason anyone has spoken in defense of either of them is when a few, such as Mr. Rutten, insist that even talking about Mormonism in this way is taboo and wrong. 

Similarly, Americans have nothing to fear from Mormons if their concern has been over Linkeresque suspicions of Salt Lake City issuing decrees for the entire country through the White House.  It is precisely this kind of fear and fundamental misunderstanding of the role of religious authority in the modern world that is absurd and laughable.  The things that aren’t absurd are the legitimate questions raised about what a candidate believes.  To my mind, the real argument about Mormonism and Romney’s candidacy is really over whether Christian voters are willing to accept someone whose religion they do not accept and with which they cannot really identify.  This has virtually nothing to do with Gov. Romney’s “fitness” for office, which his much more conventional flaws as an opportunistic politician already throw into doubt, or whether Mormons are “fit” to serve in public office (they are and they do serve all over the country) and almost everything to do with whether the majority of Americans that believes that this is a Christian country (however they mean that) is prepared to elect as President someone whose religion a great many Christians regard as non-Christian. 

Whether we like it or not (I am not a big fan of the idea), the President effectively represents all of the United States and, as the conventional view would have it, personally serves as a symbol of the country and the American people.  Those whom we elect to this office must be someone with whom we can identify to some significant degree.  Viewed this way, a member of an even smaller religious minority in America, such as an Orthodox Christian or an Armenian Christian, might meet with the same opposition and suspicion because of the unfamiliarity or perceived strangeness of the customs and culture of that minority.   This anxiety about someone’s background be less important at the level of statewide office, where what the office represents is possibly less meaningful to many people.  This is why I suspect that rejoinders about the Mormonism of Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch being irrelevant to voters (in states with sizeable Mormon populations) will fall on deaf ears–these are just individual Senators, will be the reply, not the President.  More than anything else, it is the cult of the Presidency that creates such high barriers to entry for members from marginal or minority groups: the nationalist obsession with the executive as the symbol of the nation makes it that much harder to imagine having someone from a perceived strange or unfamiliar group hold this office.  The imperial cult-like mythology woven around the Presidency–which is, in its way, kookier than any religious group’s beliefs–requires that the President to some extent embody the nation.      

There is a deeper problem with Mr. Rutten’s objections to Linker and Weisberg, and it is this: there is a weird, creeping assumption that many Westerners share that strong religious belief, up to and including strong opposition to another person’s creed, precludes the possibility of social peace and a well-ordered polity.  If men believe something strongly, they must ultimately want to oppress or kill someone.  But if a huge number of Americans expresses a strong preference against ever voting for a Mormon presidential candidate, their refusal and their preference do not imply that they lack toleration for Mormons.  What it means is that they cannot, in good conscience, lend their support to people who believe things that are radically different from their own beliefs.  That is not oppression, nor is it even a harmful kind of prejudice.  It is representation, and it is how candidates elected through mass elections are chosen. 

People who believe in the virtues of pluralism and multiculturalism (I am not one of them) should be among the first to jump into the fray about this basic question that their own commitments require them to address.  In an increasingly religiously diverse country, in which several of the minority religions are growing fairly quickly and where there is a larger number of atheists and agnostics, those who think that a candidate’s religion (or lack of it) should never be held against him by voters have to come up with an argument far more powerful than, “It’s a private affair!”  In democratic politics, for good and ill, people vote for the candidates with whom they identify, and religion has been and probably always will be a factor in national politics so long as Americans remain a predominantly religious people.  Whether most of the Christian majority will ever be willing to accept as President someone from a non-Christian religion remains an open question (at present, signs point to no as far as Islam and Mormonism are concerned), but it is one that cannot be wished away or shoved back into the closet.  Mr. Rutten’s horror at the idea of discussing these things shows that he does not really believe that Americans are “instinctively tolerant,” but must be kept from discussing at any length questions about this or that religion so that “social fire” is not unleashed upon the country.  This does a disservice to the very minority religions whose interests (and rights!) liberals claim to want to protect, since it is precisely by shouting down questions and discussion that negative preconceptions about a religion are reinforced.  It will be by hiding behind the (non-existent) wall of separation that Mormons will do more harm to the reputation of their religion than anyone else, because any refusal to defend their religion with public argument–a refusal that Mr. Rutten is trying to encourage with his attempt to shame liberals into being quiet about the entire thing–will confirm the worst impressions of Mormonism as something strange, unfamiliar and cultish.