As the furor over Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has ramped up, I’ve tried to give some thoughts to what extent religion could or should matter in a race for president of the United States. To some extent, my answer at this point has been a diplomatic one, asserting that “no it shouldn’t.” However, the more I thought about this position, the more I’ve drifted to the position of most economists: “it depends.”
Personally, I’ve voted for tons of Mormons here in Utah. Usually, my choice has been between a Mormon Democrat and a Mormon Republican. I generally have voted for the Democrat, but I’ve also crossed party lines, particularly in local races, where ideology often is and should be trumped by managerial competence.
So, under what circumstances would religion matter? I’ll start with some extreme examples. Say an American Islamic Mullah decides to run for President with his platform of abolishing the constitution, instituting Islamic law and forcefully converting all non-believers to Islam. I can honestly say that I would not support this person for President, nor any other office in government. It isn’t his religion that I am opposed to, it is his application of his religion to his political world view.
Would I vote for a Christian for President? Probably. However, if a candidate is such a strong believer in his interpretation of Christianity that he/she wants to impose his views on the rest of the country, then I have issues with this candidate. There are certainly Bible thumping Christians out there to vote for, but not all of them are willing to amend our laws to comply with the dictates of the Book of Leviticus where the stoning of adulterous women is sanctioned.
Again, what matters is their application of their beliefs and what it would mean from a policy perspective for the citizens of our country. For those Mormons who crawl on their cross with little provocation when Mitt’s religion is brought up, I usually ask them “would you vote for an atheist for president?” They usually concede that “no they wouldn’t.” What I ask of Mormons regarding Mitt, is to not vote for Mitt because he is a Mormon, but because they can truly articulate why he is the best candidate, regardless of religious considerations. Also, if you bristle up at the thought of people dismissing Mitt because of his religion, you should be equally bristled up at yourself discounting someone from consideration because they don’t believe in God.
In my opinion, what we should focus on in evaluating candidates is what are their policy objectives and how they align with our own objectives for our country. We should also evaluate what indications they give that they have the political savvy to accomplish those objectives as far as garnering support from the legislative branch. You also want someone who isn’t easily led or influenced by others. I want a President with a skeptical mind, willing to ask the hard, yet important questions of subordinates that give our Republic the best chance of operating effectively. Religion may influence some of the things I just mentioned, but they may not.
We as citizens who go to the ballot box have a responsibility to be informed and make our decisions on who to vote for on a sound and rational basis. Does religion of the candidate matter? It may, but I sincerely hope it doesn’t.