My view: Should a candidate's faith be an issue?

By L. John Van Til

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 29 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Mitt Romney's Mormon faith remains a frequent news item as the 2012 election cycle grinds on. Not long ago, a Texas evangelist called Mormonism a cult and has since been sharply criticized. On Halloween, CNN Today ran a segment that scrutinized Romney's time as a Mormon missionary in France at the age of 20. Polls show, however, that 80 percent of those questioned would not object to voting for Romney because he is a Mormon. Thus, the question remains: "Should a candidate's faith be an issue when you vote?"

There is a two-part answer to this question — one simple, the other a bit more complex. As to the first part, the U.S. Constitution speaks to this question, though no major figure or news outlet (to my knowledge) has spoken about it recently.

The last clause of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution states: "No religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States." This means at a minimum that any law or custom requiring an office-holder to be of a specific religious affiliation would be unconstitutional. The Article 6 prohibition extends to governmental appointments as well.

Thus, obviously, it would be unconstitutional to require that an office-holder, by any means, be a Christian. Of course, as a private citizen, one can choose to not vote for someone who is or is not a Christian — or likewise for a Mormon. Some conservative Christian leaders are urging their followers to abstain from voting for Romney or for any other Mormon public officials, such as Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch and Jon Huntsman.

Religious freedom provided for in the First Amendment's religion clause — "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion (that means a state-sponsored church), or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" — is enhanced by a serious honoring of the "no-test-for-office" clause in Article VI. Citizens who value religious freedom should be sobered by this consideration.

While a candidate's personal religious beliefs cannot be a test for holding office, I suggest another test as a qualification for office holding — personal ethics.

It's true that we live in what many now call a "postmodern age," which results in many issues being a matter of personal taste or opinion. Everything is judged relative to situations and circumstances. This contravenes a great American tradition of devotion to the Ten Commandments with their moral absolutes.

The point here is that voters should demand a return to the high moral standards of the Ten Commandments not only for themselves but especially for holders of public office. Of course, public officials should not be expected to lead flawless moral lives. No one does. Covering up mistakes — called "sins" in times past — has always made human failures a cause for stronger criticism than the sin itself.

Most agree that Mormons in general possess high levels of moral character. Many Mormon public office-holders, with a senatorial exception or two over the years, have performed at a higher level of honesty and integrity than many claiming to be Christians, Jews, Muslims or other faiths.

In sum, it would be wise for conservative Christians to lay aside the Mormon issue as the principal test at election time — given Article VI of the Constitution. It would be wiser to inquire about Romney's ethical practices. Romney undoubtedly would be the first to say that he is not perfect.

It seems that he strives to meet the requirements of the Ten Commandments, which Mormons inherit from the Christian scriptures. Because there can be no religious test for office, the preferred office-holder must be a person of good character and integrity. Good character, which includes high ethical standards, probably can be derived only from one thing — a sturdy religious faith.

Romney may not be my personal choice for president in 2012, but his moral integrity surely commends him for high office.

My final thought: Romney has held high office in his church. His church publishes a list of Articles of Faith. One of the articles states: "We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous and in doing good to all men." These are standards Romney has promised to uphold. The nation would be well served if all candidates held themselves to such standards.

Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for law and humanities with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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