Carol Platt Liebau: A "Religious Test"

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A "Religious Test"

Steve Chapman is steaming mad at Mitt Romney for not including unbelievers in his speech about Mormonism last week.

That's his prerogative, of course, but Peggy Noonan was able to make the same point in a considerably less overheated way -- without, for example, accusing Romney of believing that "any American who doesn't worship at least one god is eating away at our democratic structure like a hungry termite."

What's remarkable is that Mr. Chapman accuses Romney of trying to impose a "religious test" on those running for President. He goes on to argue that

If the founders thought religion was indispensable to a free republic, why does the national charter say "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office"? Wouldn't it have made more sense to include a religious test?

No doubt the founding fathers thought that a "moral and religious people" were indispensable to a free republic, and rightly so. Without the informal social constraints that religion imposes on selfish and anti-social behavior, an ever-stronger government is necessary just to keep order (as I argue in a different context in my book, Prude). But that's not the same as believing that every political leader should have to swear to certain sectarian dogma -- the kind of religious test in vogue in England at the time.

Let's be clear here. Surely Chapman knows the difference between state action and private decisionmaking. And although I'd disagree with them, people have the right to decide not to vote for Romney because of his faith, as he himself noted. But that's not the same thing as the government passing a law that no Mormons may ever hold political office.

Certainly, Americans have the right to believe -- as Romney apparently does -- that it's best to have a person of faith (whatever the faith) at the head of the US government. Holding that belief is not the imposition of a religious test. And what's more, as I've said before, as a matter of policy it makes sense to me. The president is the most powerful man in the world, and it's important for him to believe that he nonetheless is accountable to a power infinitely greater than he is. After all, as Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov once observed, "without God, everything is permitted."


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