The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion. © James R. Conner.


24 April 2012

Schweitzer misses mark with polygamy comments:
but religion is a legitimate topic in politics

Updated. Why Gov. Brian Schweitzer thought it helpful to offer his thoughts on Mitt Romney and polygamy continues to escape me. It’s not that Schweitzer got the overall picture wrong: Mitt’s father, George, was born in Mexico to parents living in a colony of dissident Mormons. Although Mitt’s grandparents were monogamous, his great-grandfather reportedly did practice polygamy.

But that was five generations ago. Today’s Church of Latter Day Saints, of which Mitt Romney is a conventional member, renounced polygamy in the late 19th Century. Polygamy does survive, but only in a few small communities; Pinesdale, Montana, is one. They’re social curiosities, and administrative headaches for the states in which they’re located, but they’re not a political threat.

So what possessed Schweitzer to try to connect Mitt Romney to polygamy? Was his tongue loosened by Demon Rum? Was he frustrated from dealing with Pinesdale? Or with reactionary Republicans who also happen to be Mormon? Perhaps we’ll learn the answer when he publishes his memoirs. Meanwhile, he’s ignited a lively discussion.

Mitt Romney lightly, but carefully, disagreed with Schweitzer. President Obama’s campaign issued a stronger rebuke, asserting that a candidate’s religion is a taboo subject for attacks:

Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith denounced Schweitzer’s words. “Attacking a candidate’s religion is out of bounds, and our campaign will not engage in it, and we don’t think others should either.” (The Romney campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Friday afternoon, Romney did tell Fox News that “My dad’s dad was not a polygamist. My dad grew up in a family with a mom and a dad and a few brothers and one sister.”)

I disagree.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution, having had enough of the Church of England, wanted no Church of America. They wanted no requirement that an office holder belong to any church, let alone a designated church, or swear belief in any religious doctrine. That’s why the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for office.

But nothing in the Constitution forbids individuals from discussing a political candidate’s religious beliefs or practices, or from taking those beliefs and practices into account when they vote. Religious beliefs influence a politician’s approach to issues and governing. Sometimes that influence is so strong as to call into question a candidate’s fitness for office.

Rick Santorum, a Catholic so deeply devout that a 16th Century bishop would envy his piety, made it clear, at least to me, that as President he would work to have his church’s crackpot dogma on birth control adopted as national policy. Attacking Santorum's theocratic nonsense is a public service, not a political taboo.

That was not the first time Catholicism was an issue in American politics. Fears that Al Smith would not be independent of the Vatican contributed to his defeat in 1928. And in 1960, a great many Protestant Americans feared that if John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, became President, the Pope would be calling the shots in the oval office. Kennedy confronted the issue in his 12 September 1960 speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association:

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials — and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew — or a Quaker — or a Unitarian — or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Kennedy returned to that theme in the concluding paragraph of his Inaugural Address:

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

Half a century later, reported National Public Radio on 29 February 2012, Santorum found Kennedy’s forthright embrace of the absolute separation of church and state appalling:

“And then very late in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech and I almost threw up,” Santorum told a group of college students last year. “You should read the speech. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Santorum said Tuesday [28 February 2012] that he regrets his graphic language. But he insists Kennedy’s view was wrong, particularly the opening, when Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

On Sunday [26 February 2012], Santorum told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Kennedy set the foundation for expelling faith from politics. “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of nonfaith can come in the public square and make their case?” he asked rhetorically.

We do not live in that kind of country. Religious people can deliver remarks on religion and government from a soapbox in a public park. What Santorum wants is not open discussion of religion’s effect on government and policy, but an explicit partnership between church and state, a partnership to make sectarian dogma public law. Santorum’s religious convictions suggest to me that he might well take orders from Rome.

Mitt Romney’s detractors in the Christian right fear he will take orders from the LDS elders in Salt Lake City, and that his church may have given him weird ideas. Speaking at the George H. W. Bush library in December, 2007, Romney echoed Kennedy’s remarks 1960:

“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

“Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are. And I will answer them today.

“Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

“As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution - and of course, I would not do so as president. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

“As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America’s ‘political religion’ - the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution. When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

As President, I think Romney would govern as an American, subordinating his Mormon faith to the faithful discharge of his oath of office of President. He would enforce laws against polygamy.

That’s why I find Schweitzer’s comments on Romney, his father’s Mexican roots, and polygamy so strange. There’s no issue there.

But Schweitzer may have missed an issue with Romney’s relationship with Willard Cleon Skousen, as reported by National Review’s Mark Hemingway, “Romney’s Radical Roots,” on 6 August 2007. Hemingway discussed Romney’s appearance on a talk show:

But while the media pick apart the video as a way of zeroing in on Romney’s controversial religious beliefs or debating style, the conversation is far more revealing about Romney’s conservative political beliefs, something frequently called into question by his centrist turn as governor of Massachusetts.

That’s because Romney’s argument with the Iowa talk-radio host starts with the two discussing their shared affinity for W. Cleon Skousen. “You and I share a common affection for the late Cleon Skousen,” the radio host says. The former governor agrees, affirming Skousen was his professor and when the radio host professes his fondness for Skousen’s book The Making of America, while he acknowledges he hasn’t read it, Mitt quickly says “That’s worth reading.”

Who is Cleon Skousen you might ask? In answering that question, it’s hard to even know where to begin. Skousen was by turns an FBI employee, the police chief of Salt Lake City, a Brigham Young University professor, consigliore to former secretary of agriculture and Mormon president Ezra Taft Benson and, well, all-around nutjob.

Schweitzer might have pointed to Romney’s relationship with Skousen as a connection worth exploring. But instead he waved the petticoats of polygamy. I still find that inexplicable and wonder whether Schweitzer was waving a glass of Wild Turkey while he talked to the reporter.