A reader and friend, Robert Becker, directed me to a post at the blog "The Volokh Conspiracy," (http://volokh.com) by Kenneth Anderson, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law. In the post, Anderson pokes some holes in Mitt Romney's 2007 "Mormon issue" ... "Faith in America" speech where the 2008 presidential candidate hoped to reduce negative reaction to his Mormon faith. (Although it's probably no secret, I also am an active Mormon.)
In the speech, Romney sought to declare critical questions about his Mormon faith as out of bounds. He said, "Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance."
Romney avoided direct questions about his faith in the campaign, but candidate Mike Huckabee provided subtle digs at Romney's Mormon beliefs in campaign ads and an interview, where he mentioned that Mormons -- and by association Romney, -- believe that Jesus Christ and Satan are brothers. This is a complex belief in Mormonism that necessitates an explanation of the church's belief in an ante-mortal existence. In the soundbite, spin-quick world of politics, there is neither the time, nor attention span, to put this belief to a legitimate test of tolerance.
Certainly, Romney understands that, and he must know that other "peculiar" Mormon beliefs, such as "funny underwear," the belief that members can become gods and goddesses, a near universal salvation promise for all humans, a separate Trinity, and a God of flesh and bone, cannot be explained in a 25-minute interview on "Meet the Press." In his speech, Romney's solution was not to bring such issues up, because it really doesn't matter. He accepts Christ as his savior, and that's enough for voters to support him.
Anderson counters that argument in his post by asserting that "Sometimes a religion's 'unique doctrines' are, and should be, bases for criticism, for reasoned criticism by unbelievers, and sometimes for inviting the believers to re-think their positions. And on some matters, about which there will be much debate, there will not be grounds for tolerance of whatsoever, if we are committed to some form of rule of reason rather than multiculturalism and relativism."
That's a strong point, and it underscores that Romney's "Mormon question" will not go away if the former Massachusetts governor decides to launch a 2012 presidential campaign. And nor should it.
Although the Romney campaign does not seem to realize it, only a detailed introduction of Mormon beliefs, "peculiar" and otherwise, will eventually prepare voters to seriously contemplate a Mormon candidate for the position of world's most powerful man.
When everything's been aired out, and reasonable critiques have been compared with bigoted hysterics against Mormonism, the idea of shunning Romney due to his religion will be seen by enough people as wrong.
Finally, Anderson points out that Romney's request -- that Mormonism's unique doctrines should be a test of tolerance rather than a base for criticism -- is the same thing said by many moderate defenders of other "unique religions." He writes, "What Romney's religion speech did was to take the tack adopted by some Muslim intellectuals and their defenders, but it has lots of antecedents among minority religions in American debates over politics and the public square -- to challenge any demand to have a reasoned discussion of tenets of the faith as racism. Romney put his religion out of bounds -- all of it -- on roughly the same grounds. That can't possibly be right, and anyone in Romney's camp who thinks that it is should ask themselves whether they would accept that for a moment when, say, a Muslim says that this or that is required by God -- honor killing, for example, or stoning an adulterous woman -- end of discussion."
Many might object to that statement, reasonably saying that honor killings or sharia law stonings are crimes within a civilized society. Agreed, but the basic point still holds. Mormons should learn to admit that their religion appears to many outsiders as secretive, or even "cult-like." Only Mormons are allowed in temples. Only Mormons can witness Mormons being married in temples. Mormons take a vow to sustain in all things high church leaders.
Romney has proven he can govern in a secular world. But doubts will not go away if he continues to ask for privacy on his church's beliefs. That was a loser in 2008 and it will be again in 2012 unless he dares voters to learn all they can about his religion and then judge him on his actions.
Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's opinion editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.