Does Mitt Romney's Mormonism matter in the current U.S. presidential campaign? Two recent columns in the Washington Post suggest that it does.
"Religious worldviews do inform decisions and shape understanding," wrote David Mason in the Washington Post, "and failing to understand the impetus that religion gives to candidates makes us less competent voters and may, in fact, be unfair to candidates."
Mason, who is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis and is the author of "My Mormonism: A primer for Non-Mormons and Mormons Alike," said he believes that Romney's recent publicized assessment of Middle East relationships "shows why religion is and ought to be part of our campaign discourse — not the pointless question of who is more Christian than whom, but the investigation of how the worldviews that religious communities conserve inspire the way that candidates read circumstances."
"Romney grew up internalizing a theology that formed in and around the Mormon pioneer struggle, and, consequently, saw its doctrine that work and thrift produce prosperity — even in the most oppressive of circumstances — validated by the success of its community," Mason wrote. "It is a religious ideal — an article of faith — that moves Romney to see the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian prosperity as an indication of cultural difference (and, perhaps, cultural quality)."
And that, Mason believes, is why a presidential candidate's religious beliefs deserve consideration — not as some sort of religious litmus test but as a realistic look at the candidate's philosophical underpinnings.
"The assertion that religion has no place in a campaign is merely denial, and almost as pernicious as the useless concern only with the Christian quality of a candidate's religion," Mason concludes. "Knowing Romney's religion, knowing it well and in its own terms as well as in responsibly critical terms, will contribute to the understanding of this man who would be the first of all of us equals."
Washington Post opinion writer Michael Gerson says that not only is consideration of Romney's faith appropriate, it would be the right thing for the Romney campaign to do politically.
"Romney's pressing need to inject some authenticity — or at least some personality — into his campaign is the primary reason he should talk more about his faith," Gerson writes. "Take away Romney's religion and you are left with Harvard, Bain and various corporate boardrooms. Mormonism has been one of the main stages for his leadership, as well as the main setting where he has displayed humanity. He has been a missionary, a lay minister, a spiritual guide. He has delivered sermons, counseled couples and worked with leaders of other faiths.
"Mormonism is the reason for Romney's rectitude," Gerson continues, "the explanation for his wholesomeness, the key to understanding his persona. Without it, he would merely be a stiff, able management consultant. Romney's reticence on religion leaves a large personal and biographical gap."
Gerson suggests that Romney tell his whole story — which, he says, "is uninteresting without his faith."
"Romney needs to tether his character and values to an immovable stake," he continues. "In the process, Romney would accomplish for Mormonism what others achieved for Catholicism and Judaism — the incorporation of a new tradition into American civil religion.
"This does not involve theological acceptance, just a recognition of common values and common citizenship," Gerson concludes. "And it may come easier for Mormonism than many imagine, because no faith is more distinctly American."