Getting our values straight on the Mormon “issue”

I am often offended by the number of conservative Republicans who fail to step up when partisans in their own party present ugly insinuations regarding President Obama’s alleged un-American-ness, his religion, or coded references to his race. Governor Perry’s comments about whether President Obama loves America, and Mitt Romney’s somewhat more sophisticated comments in the same vein rank among those that really tick me off.

People like me can object to these comments. Yet because we are liberal Obama supporters, our words don’t always reach the people that most need to hear them. We need John McCain, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and others to step up. They often fail to do so. It’s sometimes incumbent on Democrats to step up, too.

Consider the supposed issue of Governor Romney’s membership in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Romney is encountering religious bigotry. The core political problem isn’t with Democrats. It more often resides within a core of intolerant conservative evangelical voters who may not regard LDS adherents as Christians, and, thus, who may not vote for Mr. Romney. Still, Democrats should speak up about this.

A fairly amazing op-ed in today’s Washington Post illustrates the problem. Lisa Miller begins her essay, “an Open Letter to Mitt Romney” as follows:

Dear Governor Romney,

You haven’t asked, but I’d like to offer you some free, nonpartisan advice about how to talk about your Mormon faith in public. When a Texas megachurch pastor can rob you of a news cycle, as the Rev. Robert Jeffress did last weekend when he called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a “cult” at a meeting of religious conservatives, you need to do a better job of explaining your beliefs.

She closes with the final advice:

There is a lot in the Mormon tradition for a conservative to be proud of. You need to show the wavering voters on the right that you believe that at least as much as I do.

I have some free, nonpartisan advice for Ms. Miller. The problem isn’t Romney. It is those “wavering voters on the right” who need a swift kick in the pants along with a free copy of the U.S. Constitution.

As I mentioned, intolerance or skepticism regarding Mormonism extends beyond the Christian right. Some Democrats may be tempted to tap into these feelings, especially when the LDS church itself is occasionally active on behalf of illiberal causes, such as in its opposition to gay marriage.

In a tough 2012 campaign, some Democratic party operatives may be motivated to grab any weapon at hand. Of course, a few of the same bloggers and commentators who thought it was brilliant to write stupid and cruel things about the Bristol and Trig Palin will be writing stupid and cruel things about Romney’s LDS heritage. That’s not where we want to go.

LDS doctrine seems forbidding and strange when viewed from the outside, unsympathetically. The same is true of just about every other faith tradition. If you don’t believe me, imagine how a literal-minded person outside the Judeo-Christian tradition would read Psalm 137:9 (“Happy shall he be, that takes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.”) or any number of other problematic scriptural passages.

People should be judged on the basis of how they live their lives and how they treat others, not on the basis of their supposed theological commitments, their supernatural accounts of creation and the like. The theological pillars of most religions are implausible to outsiders. If religion were only “about” these theological matters, it would have died out long ago. Religion includes so much else: culture, community, and family. It involves drawing personal meaning from sacred texts that usually include crazy and offensive stuff interspersed with insights that millions of people find deeply meaningful.

Based on what really matters in life, I’m very impressed by many friends and colleagues who follow the precepts of LDS. They, and everyone else, have the right to be judged as individuals, not as members of their church.

Contra Lisa Miller, Mitt Romney does not have to explain his faith. He doesn’t have to defend his church, either, though it’s fair to ask his views regarding his church’s particular political activities. His main responsibility is to defend his own actions and beliefs, his own approach to public policy.

As a secular, liberal, Jewish Obama supporter, I’m no Romney fan. Maybe this gives me a special responsibility to defend him when he is attacked on the basis of his personal heritage. In 2011 America, it’s depressing that we even need to mention such basic points.