I'm a wee bit surprised at the number of trusted evangelical leaders who have jumped in so early to endorse former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for president. But I am stunned at how many of them also go on to claim that anyone who opposes Romney because he is a Mormon is guilty of bigotry.
Nobody should feel guilty about raising such questions. And a few distinctions are important.
"The Constitution," one long-time friend keeps reminding me, "says 'no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.'" He is right, of course-and I am thankful for that provision. But when the Constitution says that neither the nation nor a particular state can lawfully impose such a test, it in no sense suggests an individual voter cannot-with total legitimacy-impose the same test.
We all do this all the time-and properly so. Imagine, for example, what would happen if some winsome but devoted Muslim decided in the next few weeks to launch a campaign for the presidency. It would, of course, be unthinkable to suppose that such a candidacy might be outlawed by any federal or state provision. But does that also mean that any public discussion of the candidate's Islamic commitments would be an expression of bigotry?
Or suppose that Christopher Hitchens, the popular and often appealing atheist who has taken some quarters of the nation by storm, decided he wanted to seek the presidency. It's pretty clear that his candidacy, if he had been born in the United States, could not (and should not) be opposed on legal grounds. But to say that individuals and groups of individuals would be guilty of bigotry if they argued openly against an atheist as president is wrongheaded on the face of the matter.
So if it's legitimate to oppose (but not legally preclude) a candidate because he or she is a committed Muslim or atheist, I conclude we may do the same with someone because he or she is a Mormon, a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, or goodness-even a Presbyterian! And in none of these cases are we automatically guilty of bigotry.
I happen to find Mitt Romney a highly appealing candidate. I have talked with him personally, and twice heard him give compelling stump speeches. His Texas speech earlier this month on the subject of religion in the electoral process was statesmanlike, accurate, anything but boilerplate, and in very many ways helpful. He steered us all away from the glib implication we hear so often that it's a simple or desirable thing to separate church and state.
Romney was more thoughtful on the subject than any major candidate I've heard in my lifetime.
Indeed, his very thoughtfulness makes me want to be very careful when I raise the question: How does a person's Mormonism affect his or her possible role as president of the United States?
But just because I'm obliged to ask the question carefully doesn't mean I'm out of bounds in asking the question. I applauded when Romney stressed: "[Some] would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do." Nor should he; that is part of his personal character.
But this integral and holistic nature of the person is also exactly what makes it not just right, but necessary, to ask-even in detail-just how what this man believes "religiously" affects all the rest of his behavior.
So it's not bigotry for Americans to ask of Mormons they know: "Why so secretive? Why the necessity to hide so much?" One of the hallmarks of the historic Christian faith-as opposed to some of the cults it has spun off-is its eagerness to say: "Check us out! We may have embarrassing moments in our past, but we have no secrets." We're like Jesus saying to Thomas: "Feel the nail prints. Thrust your hand into my side!"
And in the same way it's not bigotry for Americans in general to ask that of Mormons they know, it's not bigotry to ask the same question of the man who this year is Mormonism's most prominent and celebrated member.