« The Day After: Feeling a Little Bloggy | Main | AALS withdrawal »

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Taking Religion Seriously

Damon Linker has an article about Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney’s religion (“The Big Test: Taking Religion Seriously”) and why voters might want to worry about it in the Jan. 1-15, 2007 issue of The New Republic.

I am not, I admit, impressed with Linker's overheated take-down of his one-time mentor, in The Theocons.  In “The Big Test,” though, I think he makes an important point (though not, maybe, the one he intended to make).

Linker’s argument, in a nutshell – it is fleshed out a bit, here, in an online debate with Richard Lyman Bushman – is that treating Mormonism and Gov. Romney's embrace of that faith with the seriousness they deserve requires us to take seriously the possibility that Mormonism does not have the doctrinal and traditional resources capable of supporting and sustaining what Linker regards as the necessary wall between a Mormon political leader’s own “conscience,” on the one hand, and “church policy,” on the other.

Now, let's put aside, for now, the question whether Linker is right -- since I think he tends to miss the ball about things Catholic, there is no reason to think he's on target here -- about Mormonism and its resources.  (I note that Richard Lyman Bushman contends, in his contribution to the online debate with Linker, that, in fact, “Mitt Romney's insistence that he will follow his own conscience rather than church dictates is not only a personal view; it is church policy.”)  Whatever else he might be wrong about, he is right, it seems to me, to resist the suggestion -- offered by David Gergen, for example -- that Romney’s (or any other political leader’s professed religious commitments) are entirely “private” and therefore are or should be irrelevant to voters.  Religion does and should matter, and according religious freedom and individual conscience appropriate respect does not require us to act as if religious commitments lack content -- as if they are, in Stephen Carter's words, mere "hobbies" -- and have no implications for believers’ actions and policies.  They do, and they should.  And what exactly these implications are is something that, it seems to me, believers and non-believers alike should think hard -- and fairly and honestly -- about.

Posted by Rick Garnett on January 4, 2007 at 08:35 PM in Religion | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Taking Religion Seriously:


I've never seen nor heard of a Mormon politician pushing some type of a Mormon agenda. The LDS Church's policy is that you "vote for that which you see as good government." That varies from Orrin Hatch to Mitt Romney to Harry Reid. Furthurmore, Utah Gov. Huntsman supports Mccain and not Romney proving again that Mormon politicians aren't jointly mandated from their church. A Mormon agenda just doesn't exist.

Sooner or later people will finally realize that Mormons are just people from a broad spectrum trying to do what they think is right. My only hope for this campaign is that they classify Romney as "the great leader who happens to be Mormon" rather than "the Mormon who happens to be a great leader."

Posted by: David | Jan 6, 2007 6:54:46 AM

Micah, I guess I thought that (1) was, in fact, a bit controversial (see Gergen's "below the belt" reaction to the Linker piece). But, like you, I think it should not be.

I'd want to add (1)(a): It's not just that religious believers' actions as and in the public arena *are* shaped by religious commitments; it's also that, in my view, they *should* be. That is, religious believers themselves should "take religion seriously." They should not say, in response to an article like Linker's, "hey, religion is private, and has nothing to do with action in the public arena, so it is bigoted for you to talk about the connection between my religion and my political life." Instead, they should ask themselves, and be willing to talk publicly about, questions like, "what do the religious commitments I profess require of me, or mean for how I live out my vocation, whatever it is?" and, specifically, "what do my religious beliefs and traditions have to say about my obligations to my fellow citizens, who might not share my beliefs, in conditions of pluralism, under constitutionally limited government?" I do not think it is wrong to ask religious believers in public life to think about, and think publicly about, this second question.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 5, 2007 10:53:30 AM

“Mitt Romney's insistence that he will follow his own conscience rather than church dictates is not only a personal view; it is church policy.”

This sentence is intriguing to me. Presumably, if one is a committed member of a religion, one's conscience should accord pretty closely with the dictates of that religion.

Posted by: Patrick | Jan 5, 2007 9:57:19 AM

There seem to be two claims here:

(1) We should take religion seriously because politicians, including presidents and presidential candidates, make policy decisions based on their religious views. Voters should therefore be aware of those views, so that they can properly evaulate the decisions made on their behalf.

(2) We should take religion seriously because the value of religious freedom does not prohibit politicians from making decisions on the basis of their religious views. Since it is permissible (and perhaps desirable) for politicians to rely (solely?) on religious reasons in making political decisions, voters should be concerned with the religious views of political officials.

The argument for (1) seems fairly uncontroversial. If politicians in fact make decisions based on religious reasons, those reasons should be made publicly available so that voters can evaluate them and act accordingly. (Although I know at least one commentator sympathetic with claim (2) who has argued that officials, including judges, may sometimes be justified in not disclosing the religious grounds for their decisions.) But are you also asserting (2)? I wasn't entirely sure. If so, what is the argument for it? Is it Carter's argument that it trivializes religion to criticize political officials for basing decisions solely on religious reasons?

Posted by: Micah Schwartzman | Jan 5, 2007 1:44:14 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.