Some personal declarations: Mitt Romney is not my candidate. He is (in my humble opinion) a man of principles so pragmatic that he lacks any unshakeable political foundation, save that he ought to be president of the United States. He is a politician of the moderate center who has sat down with his consultants in the calculus of management consultants everywhere and concluded that winning the presidency must mean dropping his moderation--itself principally a means of winning office in liberal Massachusetts--and reinventing himself as a man of the right. I'm afraid Fred Barnes was mistaken to suggest a few weeks ago in these pages that Romney means the "CEO as president." Right church, wrong pew. In fact, Romney represents the rational-choice presidency of Bain, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey; democracy as the maximization of consumer preferences; the president as primus consultant inter pares. Thanks but no thanks.
Moreover, Romney's consultant skills and consequent lack of principle (yet again in my humble opinion) do indeed derive from a specifically Mormon aspect of his upbringing. It is the two-year mission, in which young men of the church--the pairs of unenviable, dweeby males in their white shirts and ties trudging the streets, seeking converts as a rite of passage to adulthood--are taught discipline, perseverance, responsibility, leadership, self-reliance, teamwork, humility, and the beginnings of wisdom (in striking contrast to most of their non-Mormon peers of similar age). These young men are also taught, however, that success with God, as with life, is fundamentally a matter of sales. There is always a risk of young Mormons' concluding that packaging is more important than product.
A not-insignificant number of the evangelical readers of this essay are now, I take it, solemnly nodding their heads, true, true, very true, how true, all true; quivering and twitching with the sure knowledge, the Text Message from God, that Mormonism is the cult they always thought it was and a shallow one at that. Yet the worship of sales and marketing is not exactly unknown among the numerous evangelicals who promiscuously deride Mormonism as some kind of weird, even dangerous, sect but who themselves gather weekly to--well, what? Sing their country-rockified, feel-good, self-help-book ballads, lovingly serviced with the Word of the Therapeutic God by blow-dried yet humble, down-home yet suburban preachers whose cavernous mega-churches resemble nothing so much as the Wal-Mart of the soul on sale. And you ridicule Mormons? One need not be Christopher Hitchens to think that if there is something funny about Mormons, there is something funnier about a certain brand of evangelicals' condescending to them.
Although I once three decades ago served a Mormon mission in Peru, and am proud that I did, I am not a Mormon believer and have not been for a very long time. I hold no brief for the religion. On the contrary, I gave it up because I found I could not continue to say I believed a religion that had been rash enough to make many historical claims, the testability of which was not safely back in the mists of time in the way that protects Christian belief and worldly reason from meeting up to implode like matter and antimatter. The usual thing for a Mormon intellectual under such circumstances is to discover the beauty of postmodernism and its flexibility about rationality and empirical truth, but I'd rather stick with regular old modernity and the Enlightenment even if they don't grant me complete freedom to believe seemingly contradictory things. The same goes for Mike Huckabee and his Bible fabulism. Yet neither is this an antireligious brief in the style of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who make breathless arguments as though they were the world's first skeptics. There are very serious arguments, arguments I embrace, that preserve the possibility of religious belief on the basis of mystical experience. Unfortunately they are not available to rescue Romney's faith in events claimed to have happened in historical time in the Western Hemisphere. And they are also not available to rescue Huckabee's followers from their Bible literalism.
And yet, while an unbeliever in Mormonism, I hold the Latter-Day Saint church no ill will--unlike many lapsed Mormons, I'm neither embarrassed nor appalled by it. I rather admire it; I just find its central claims not at all believable. Mormonism not Christian? I am indifferent to the charge; if Mormonism was best understood at some point long ago in the past as perhaps a Christian fertility cult, it has been moving systematically toward the Protestant mean for an equally long period of time. And if our sects are to be thus put under the microscope, then perhaps evangelical Protestantism is best understood as a syncretic cargo cult promising self- and relational-fulfillment through Jesus, a religious movement marching relentlessly forward to embrace a secular culture of therapy in the name of the Nazarene. For this the saints suffered to be torn to pieces by wild beasts and submitted to the flames?
As to the question of cults, well, the traditional reference is to cult of personality--yet Mormonism ended its cult of personality with the deaths of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young some 150 years ago in favor of today's thoroughly modern corporate church, which brings its own problems, but the mad domination of a charismatic cult of personality is not among them. Is it not evangelical Christianity, rather, with its lack of hierarchical authority and discipline, constituted of individual charismatic preachers vying for the fickle attention of crowds, that is today most susceptible to the charge of cults of personality, at least living ones? And is its leading contender at this moment not one Huckabee of Little Rock, who enthralls the crowds with his musings that he is favored of Providence? Who is this Jesus of Nazareth that I should worship his servant Huckabee and offer him my vote?
If I sound irritated at the bigoted attitudes among the lumpen evangelicals--if I sound irritated to discover that an astonishing number of my fellow citizens--30 percent or so, we are told--say they will not vote for a devout Mormon, no matter what his positions or policies, solely on account of his religion; or that Christian voters should not offer support however indirect to supposed cults, or that America must have a "Christian" president. Well, did I say irritated? I understate; furious. Specifically: Instead of a sweet smell among that saving remnant in Iowa, let there be a stink among the pigsties and factory farms of the faithful, instead of a girdle a rent, and instead of well set hair baldness, and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth, and a burning instead of beauty: and may the Lord smite them with a scab, the crown of the head of the 30 percent of Zion: the Lord shall discover their secret parts. (Isaiah 3:17, 24; Bk. Morm. 2 Nephi 13.)
And if I, an ex-Mormon, am furious, I only wonder what actual Mormons think in the secret places of their hearts. The bigotry that has accompanied Huckabee's rise has certainly shifted my view of evangelicals. Am I the only one to find tiresome the endless trope among Christians of this country that they wish they could have (wholesome, good hearted) Mormons without (cultish, anti-Christian) Mormonism? My former confrères among the Mormons apparently do not count as Christian, yet somehow feel themselves bound by their allegiance to the teachings of the Nazarene to turn the other cheek and meekly suffer these attacks upon their spiritual fitness to participate in the public square. Admirably Christian, I suppose. I myself propose that Huckabee be horse-whipped in the square of public reason and turned out of politics so he can get on with writing The Seven-Day Diet of Creation and Mary Magdalene Got Skinny for Jesus and You Can Too.
Christian bigotry, in other words--and not the predictable bigotry of the NPR cohort, the Christians having saved secular liberals the trouble--led up to Mitt Romney's December 6 religion speech. I don't doubt that Romney had always planned to give something like it, just because his consultants would presumably have told him that it would make him Kennedyesque. But Huckabee likely forced him to do it sooner rather than later and shoot his spiritual wad for Iowa rather than South Carolina. Romney having done so and yet Huckabee still surging, let us now pause to reason together and soberly consider what damage the evangelical goading and Romney's response have wrought upon the possibility of pluralism of belief in political America.
The issue which the evangelicals profligately put on the table, and which Romney inadequately answered, is this. The Constitution prohibits religious tests for taking office. Individual voters are free, of course, in the secrecy of the voting booth, to take account of whatever they feel like, including such morally unworthy criteria as race and religion. Candidates are likewise free to campaign on their religion, even on their religious bigotry, and have done so throughout the history of the Republic. But that still leaves open the question of what voters who aspire to goodness and virtue ought to allow themselves to inquire of a candidate for public office, and in particular, the presidency. What, if any, content of doctrine ought a candidate have to explain about his or her religion in the public square as a condition of being elected? And what, if anything, ought to be regarded by an ethical citizenry to be a matter of private belief and therefore outside the bounds of public inquiry?
The answer offered by Huckabee's presidential bid is plain enough. At least in principle, it's all-in. Every particle of belief is in-bounds and subject to inquiry and debate. There are apparently limits to "all-in" even for Huckabee; at this moment they happen to be his church sermons, which his campaign has refused to release publicly and one wonders why. And when Huckabee's speculation that Mormons might "believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers" was aired in the New York Times, he was embarrassed enough to apologize to Romney, saying "I don't think your being a Mormon ought to make you more or less qualified for being a president." Nice to have that cleared up.
But why have a "no religious tests" principle in the first place? Why shouldn't every jot and tittle of doctrine be subject to public scrutiny? Would this not serve to give us more information about those who would be our leaders and rulers and, anyway, shouldn't we seek leaders who are, as Huckabee apparently believes of himself, beneficiaries of Providence? Shouldn't we want to elect the winners of the Providential lottery?
And note that on this matter, atheistic rationalists and religious overbelievers join hands to say, all-in. A Hitchens, after all, would say that the electorate deserves to know the full irrationality of a candidate, and that is best expressed in his or her religious beliefs, even apparently private ones. (He would say this, and has said it: "Phooey," writes Hitchens, "to the false reticence of the press and to the bogus sensitivities that underlie it.") Just as it is not considered irrelevant to know if one believes that space aliens came to Roswell, New Mexico, or has views on Area 51--shades of Dennis Kucinich?--a candidate's views on the Virgin Birth or transubstantiation or creationism are likewise relevant to making an informed electoral choice as to a candidate's fundamental rationality. Most of us think that Hitchens goes way too far--still, does anyone believe it was truly irrelevant to the public trust that Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer on weighty matters of public policy? Well, so too with Focus on the Family, although the issue of who might provide better advice remains in doubt.
The long-standing demurral in Anglo-American history against "all-in" sprang from prudence--it was the answer from Elizabeth I on, and the traditional answer of anyone who had to rule a religiously divided kingdom. The alternative, after all, might be, and all too often was, civil war. Prudence counsels toleration insofar as politically possible. Yet toleration is much more than simply a consequence of prudence. Like forbearance, to which it is closely related, religious tolerance is genuinely a virtue and not simply a useful political practice. The reason is that religious toleration in the liberal tradition recognizes (as Hitchens does not) that religion both is, and is not, a matter of rationality and cognitive propositions testable according to the criteria of reason.
This is one of the most urgent recognitions in political culture today, and it is enormously troubling that these stakes have not been put squarely on the table in this debate among Christian pretenders to the presidency. It finally goes to the heart, that is, not of how society deals with Mormons or with evangelicals, but rather with the precedent being established in this dialogue for how American political society will treat with Islam and Muslims. The stakes for a liberal society could not be higher--or seemingly less evident in the discourse of the interlocutors.
Tt is therefore all the more unfortunate that the issue of religious tolerance should arise in a morally and intellectually underwhelming debate between unworthy Christian evangelicals and an opportunistic Mormon politician. They are not worthy of it, but the debate is emphatically taking place. On the one hand, religion is a set of contestable cognitive propositions--not necessarily finally assessable, because of subjectivities--but still a matter of rationality, and beliefs that could, in principle, be accepted as right, or come to be seen as wrong and then changed. Changed within the religion--as with Mormonism and its earlier racial doctrines, for example, even if change requires appeal to such rhetorical devices as gradual reinterpretation of sacred texts and practices or even divine revelation rather than rational discourse. Or, if not within the religion, then changed in extreme cases from without by rational discourse resulting in regulation by the state--as with Mormons and polygamy. If this were all there were to religion, the arguments for outside rational revision of it--apart from prudence and civil war--would be considerable.
On the other hand, we also recognize that religion is more than merely a set of rational and therefore mutable doctrines subject to rational scrutiny. It is also an affective identity in considerable measure acquired as part of who one is. In that sense and to that extent, it is accidental and immutable in the way that skin color, race, and ethnicity are accidental and immutable. It is therefore not merely of prudence, but of morality, that good people seek to avoid, unless for extraordinarily strong and publicly accessible reasons, putting a person to a test that forces them to forsake characteristics that make them who they are (or which forces them to contemplate civil war in defense of who they are).
On the one hand, religion has been regarded as something that can be shaped by rational discourse and necessarily sometimes even the application of political and state power. An individual in this light must consider the rationality of his or her religious beliefs and subject them to reason. On the other hand, religion also has an accidental and immutable quality to it which, in the extreme case of one's eternal soul, can force an individual to the most harrowing choice. Liberal toleration has always taken account of both of these things. The canonical instance of the state forcing the issue in the United States was the outlawing of Mormon polygamy in the 19th century--and these were harrowing cases indeed, breaking apart families, even if they were not families recognized by the good Christians of the eastern United States.
Despite this history, Western liberalism has unaccountably decided to treat Islam and Muslims--not just Islamism or so-called "political Islam," but Islam as such--as though only one prong of religiosity mattered, the immutable part. Islam is treated as a race, ethnicity, or skin color--an immutable characteristic not alterable by believers and therefore not a proper moral basis on which to judge them. The consequence has been, particularly in Europe, to put anything claimed to be Islamic beyond the bounds not merely of rational debate but of public regulation or even public protest.
We notably do not treat other religions this way. One of the marvels of left-liberalism is to watch its willingness to kick around Catholics over progressivism's must-have list of social issues while taking a quite hands-off attitude toward Muslim atrocities. Consider that Columbia University president Lee Bollinger invited Iran's Ahmadinejad for such a tough little chat that 70 Columbia faculty afterwards scolded the witless Bollinger for his incivility, which was followed a few weeks later by the hanging in Iran of Makwan Mouloudzadeh for homosexual acts he allegedly committed at age 13: His blood is spattered on their accommodating hands. Yet, curiously, they don't see it that way. The reason, fundamentally, is that they have accepted that while Catholicism is subject to publicly reasoned scrutiny and even regulation, Islam is not. This is not to mention the profound fear of Western liberals, cautiously expressed as multicultural accommodation, of saying no to religionists who, when they take offense, might not merely write angry essays like this one, but embrace beheading their enemies.
Multiculturalism, as it has infected and diseased once-liberal institutions, is a very long way from the liberal virtue of toleration, and it has undermined toleration in the public sphere. Toleration seeks to recognize that, as far as a broad and liberal interpretation of private liberty can go, virtuous people forbear wherever possible from demanding that religious people choose between their public self and their god. Henry VIII was an "all-in" kind of monarch, and from a strictly rationalist understanding, one could see his point, loyalty and legitimacy not being irrelevant to government, especially when overturning a whole social and cultural order. Thomas More thought, in proto-liberal fashion, that he could distinguish between public self and private self, at least sufficiently to save his neck, but he was wrong. Yet any understanding of religion that fails to recognize both of these characteristics is of necessity illiberal.
Now consider Mitt Romney's speech and the answer he gave to the matter of religious tests. Leave aside the whining secularists who complain that Romney left no place for unbelievers in the Republic. Correct and not of unconcern by any means, but frankly far less important than the question of multiculturalism; and anyway, one may trust left secularists to look after their interests in such matters. No, the much more important matter was that Romney announced what might be called, appallingly, "conservative multiculturalism"--indeed, a form of conservative moral relativism. If the demand of the evangelicals was all‑in, then his answer was all-out.
To be sure, there was something good and liberal in part of his answer, and we should start with that. Romney said--correctly as a matter of deep liberalism--that for him to give representations as to the content of his faith would make him a representative of that faith, rather than of the people, who are of many faiths. To do so would be to head down the path of communalism, a political space defined not by a religiously neutral public sphere but by a division accepted as reasonably legitimate consisting of groups--religious, ethnic, whatever--that have claims on behalf of their immutably identified members. This is, by the way, the relatively humane (in historical perspective), but altogether illiberal political order of the Ottoman Empire. It is what many Muslims from those historical lands appear to think would be the best and natural political order in the lands to which they have emigrated--Canada, for example (which anyway has its own powerfully illiberal forces driving toward group-identity communalism), and, increasingly, Britain. It is not--at least not so far--the American way, and Romney was right firmly to reject it.
But he did so, unfortunately, in a typically Romney-like way, with a corrupt little wink-and-nod to his evangelical inquisitors--oh, but don't worry, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," etc.; just don't ask me about Mormon underwear. It is corrupt not because it is untrue, but because it aims to let him eat his cake and have it, too. He rejected demands to explain his faith, but did so while letting his interlocutors know that he was really one of them. Too clever by half, in the end, because they will not actually believe him, but this is what comes of positions of moral conviction devised by management consultants.
The "all-out" answer that Romney gave was the denial that citizens might ever legitimately and ethically demand to know the content of religious doctrines professed by a candidate for public office. ("Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.") It is multiculturalist because it essentially treats all private beliefs as immutable and beyond reason, and because it says that to propose to subject any of them to public scrutiny of reason is an act of intolerance akin to racism. It is a position traditionally asserted by the left on behalf of its identity-politics constituencies. It is dismaying, to say the least, that Romney would claim it for his own to deny the legitimacy of all questions.
It is, moreover, relativist in implication. Toleration is not an assertion of relativism. It is, rather, the forbearance from judging and acting on judgments in the public sphere that one might well believe oneself entitled to make in private. Toleration entails the suspension of public disbelief, or at least political action thereupon, about matters that one might nonetheless consider well within the realm of private moral judgment. Relativism, by contrast, is denial of grounds for judging at all. They could not be more different--and, crucially, relativism removes the possibility of toleration because it removes the possibility of reasoned judgment.
Romney's "all-out" stance goes well beyond a plea for liberal toleration to an assertion of genuine relativism and the denial of the very possibility of moral judgment. And all of this in the midst of a lecture on the decline of religion in Europe. But of course it is not declining, it is rising in the form of an Islam whose liberal commitments are in doubt at best. Romney answered as a Mormon looking for maximum room to maneuver, but seemingly without any thought whatsoever to the institutional settlement implicitly proposed, affecting not just Mormons and evangelicals, but Catholics and Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus, as well as the unbelievers and atheists he could not bring himself to mention.
Convenient and selfish--because it means not having to answer while giving him the ability to convict questioners of posing illegitimate religious tests. But here is the problem for the commonweal. There will come a moment when questions will have to be asked of a candidate for office: What exactly do you, following the requirements of your religion, believe about jihad, about political violence for religious ends, about the rights and status of other religions, about apostasy from Islam, about the rights of women, about the rights of gays not to be beaten up in the streets of Amsterdam or hanged in Iran, about free speech and blasphemy, and above all about separation of religion and state? Not all these questions, of course, would be directed uniquely at Muslim candidates--there are important questions there that one might ask of evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, and others. Of a devoutly Buddhist candidate, for example, one might want to know about his commitment to doctrines of nonviolence, while considering questions about reincarnation neither here nor there. But the historical and political reality today is that there is one religion in which those questions are genuinely urgent, for the religion, for its adherents, for the rest of us.
Unthinkingly, conservative multiculturalist Romney has just announced in advance, on behalf of all of us, that the perfectly legitimate answer is blandly to respond, ours is the religion of peace, you are effectively a racist for asking those kinds of questions, and we will file a lawsuit in Canada or the United Kingdom against you for discrimination using bottomless funds from Saudi Wahhabis. Insofar as anyone thinks, or hopes, that Romney's speech represents a new settlement of the religion question like the Kennedy speech four decades ago--well, it is frankly hard to imagine a worse outcome short of Romney saying with a shrug, "Paris is worth a Mass" and publicly converting to evangelical Protestantism. It is dangerous and wrong, for a whole series of reasons that unsurprisingly elude the secular, multicultural left, which is why it must be taken up by conservatives in the wake of this disastrous conservative foray over the cliff.
It is altogether understandable that a minority religion with strange practices and beliefs would like relativism in the public sphere. As a devout Mormon teenager in the 1970s, nothing was more attractive to me than the period's fashionable relativism. Nobody could say anything one way or the other about my religion. It was my own thing just as they had theirs; they smoked and drank and did many drugs, while I didn't. All cool. I am far from unsympathetic to Romney's plight, in other words, yet "all-out" cannot be the right answer. The issue then is: If neither all-in nor all-out is the answer, are there principles that can help define what religious questions should be in-bounds and what should be out of bounds in a tolerant, liberal polity?
It will always be messy. There will always be room for loud argument over whether something is legitimately in or out. But here are some provisional ground rules, offered as practical rules of thumb, not as academically defensible philosophy. First, for something to be "in," there does have to be a connection to governance, politics, and the public sphere. This is the most traditional form of American religious toleration in politics. A Buddhist's belief in reincarnation ought to be neither here nor there; a Mormon's conception of the Savior likewise; and a Jew's refusal to regard Jesus as Lord likewise. But what about things that are "in"? Religious doctrines of sanctity of life, for example, touching issues of public law and policy such as abortion, stem cells, or capital punishment must surely be on the table. But in what sense?
The publicly reasoned parts of these issues are not the problem; the problem is what to say about religious values that a candidate cannot expect his or her constituents necessarily to share, but which some or all voters might think relevant to public office. To what extent can one inquire of a candidate's religious doctrines? If the candidate puts it on the table as religious doctrine, then fair game, certainly. But what if it is not introduced by the candidate as something that is no longer private? In the first place, it seems to me, we should presume that even where the belief at issue is a religious one, deriving from a religious doctrine which is part of a faith, the locus of questioning should be on the person and not on the faith as such. It should presume to be about the personal convictions of the candidate as an individual, rather than corporate inquiries, so to speak, about the faith itself. This preserves at least provisionally the liberal separation of public and private, but it emphatically does not deprive the public of the chance to explore what a candidate's private convictions are insofar as they relate to public issues but arise from private judgments. Even if one disagrees with a candidate's position and is prepared to vote against a person on that basis, liberalism counsels in favor of doing so on the basis of the candidate's personal convictions, rather than communal affiliation, even where the personal conviction arises from religion. A candidate may correctly refuse to speak for the faith, while still being properly pressed to answer about his or her personal convictions that might, or might not, arise from such faith.
For Huckabee, perhaps the most important in this category is his creationism, because of its public policy implications if carried forward with any conviction; it is therefore a matter for thorough public discussion, starting with what he thinks follows, if anything, for public policy from a belief in a literal Adam and Eve. Some matters that, in some residual sense, remain part of the religion--the more robust parts of Deuteronomy, for example--revised and reinterpreted over time so as to no longer be a matter of contemporary controversy, ought to remain "out" altogether, unless a candidate's particular religious affiliations, the sermons he has preached, the congregation he attends, the pastors to whom he has given attention and support, give reason to believe something different. For Mormons, polygamy was given up a very long time ago; it seems to me no longer legitimately on the table. Likewise relations of church and state, in which Mormonism, after many past difficult struggles, accommodated itself to today's understandings. Yet for Islam, at least for parts of it, church and state remain a live issue. Although for some, likely many, Muslim candidates for office, their personal histories (the mosques they attend, the imams to whom they give attention and financial support, or perhaps the fact that, like many Americans and many politicians, they simply are not especially religious even while retaining a religious affiliation) make this not a live question, regardless of other parts of the religion. For others, it might well be an issue, just as it might be for some Christians, some Jews, etc. What is legitimately in and what is out will always be a messy debate, contested loudly by campaigns, sometimes in good faith and often in bad. But these are questions that ought generally to be put as a matter of the personal convictions of a candidate for office, not as a matter of the faith from which they might or might not spring as such.
But in that case, is there actually anything where it is justified to inquire of a candidate about a doctrine of faith as such, with a direct connection to the religion as such? Well, were a candidate to put an issue on the table as a religious assertion as such, prepared to act as such, it might thereby be disputed as such. And supposing (quite fantastically) the Catholic bishops were to announce excommunication as the sanction for any Catholic politician voting for abortion funding; and further that a Catholic candidate were to announce that he or she was bound by this on pain of one's immortal soul: It would, it seems to me, be justified to inquire as to the doctrinal content of something which specifically bound the individual to the content of doctrine and the authority of the faith. Fatwas can present similar issues of authority and obligation. Which is really to say, situations may arise that raise fundamental questions of authority and obligation to the faith as such, questions of loyalty and allegiance as between groups that constitute one's identity--commonweal and religious community. This was the fundamental question that Kennedy sought to address 47 years ago (orders from Rome?) and it is a legitimate one for members of a commonwealth to ask of those who would represent them insofar--but only insofar--as there are legitimate reasons to think that a leader might, for profound religious reasons, be caught between these two corporate identities.
These situations arise less frequently today than they did in the time of Henry VIII because we moderns are less religious--but also because, crucially, within our religions we have largely accepted the essential function of private conscience to set limits on religious authority and obligation. Private conscience fulfills this role precisely because, for us as moderns, it is a faculty of both the liberal mind and the religious soul; it began with the Reformation but has spread to every long-standing American religious tradition, Catholics, Mormons, Jews. But that is not necessarily true of all religionists of every faith, creed, denomination, and sect. And therefore the issue is squarely this: We as citizens are unsure as to whether a relatively new religious group in this political community, Islam and Muslims, or at least important subsets of the religion, have accepted the contemporary American understanding of public and private, church and state, simultaneous membership in political community and religion. Millions plainly have, and while they might be angry at the suggestion that it is an issue, because the implication too easily is that it is an issue for them, the fact is that for other adherents of Islam worldwide, it is. It is not illegitimate to address that fact. Indeed, we must address that fact, and directly. Assimilation and full membership in a political community cannot take place if, instead what some have accepted is a multiculturalism that denies any obligation to address the question of loyalty and allegiance, and so elides the deepest nature of membership in a political community.
These are provisional rules, rules of thumb, not hard and fast judgments. But there is a reason I have raised Islam and Muslims as a crucial test in something that might otherwise appear to be a spat between two Christian groups. The historical experience of drawing the Latter-Day Saint church into the political mainstream of this country is not irrelevant to the experience of Muslims and the political evolution of their religion in this country and elsewhere. The Mormon church joined the political mainstream after great difficulty and largely under painful pressure from two powerful forces. There was an exterior motivation exercised by a state that demanded, as the federal United States drew ever tighter around it, that it give up practices considered to be issues of genuine public morality--even ones, such as polygamy, that some people today would consider to be purely matters of private inclination and appetite. And there was an interior motivation--partly a matter of the survival of the church as an organized entity, but also from a desire within the church over time not to live apart from the rest of society, but to integrate itself within this country's suburban middle class even while maintaining, in certain matters, its own morality and standards.
These forces have powerfully acted on many cultural and indeed doctrinal matters within the Mormon church, ranging from the status of women to doctrines about race, as has of course been the case with many other American institutions. For Muslims, however, the task is made more difficult by the fact that many as a religious minority and many as immigrants have been trained to believe that to be an American is merely to demand one's group identity rights, and that the glorious essence of being an American is not to seek both individual liberty and our common cause, but to sue for discrimination. They are not alone in that--we can all thank left multiculturalism for doing its best to poison the conceptual well of citizenship--but in today's world, it matters the most for Muslims in the West and in America.
The firm demand of the state for conformity to neutral standards is what--contrary to the claims of the multiculturalists--provides the grounds of liberal toleration. There are many reasons, but the simplest is this: Taken together, the demands of religious groups for ever stronger and expansive special accommodations must eventually result in profound and antagonistic standoffs and conflicts. Indeed, we have gone too far with special accommodations for religions that depart from neutral governance. Meanwhile, this country will one day, God willing, elect a Muslim as president. He or she will be not a "Muslim president" in the freighted way some evangelicals mean that phrase, but a Muslim as president, president of all of us. We will also elect Mormons as presidents, Christians as presidents, Jews as presidents, and unbelievers as presidents, etc. What we shall not elect, God also willing, is a "Christian president" or a "Mormon president." That Muslim chief executive will be someone whose loyalty to the country, to its fundamental values, its constitutional faith, even over the claims and pretensions of some Islamic doctrines and beliefs, is unquestioned because, at some point in the past, it has been questioned, if not specifically for him or her, then for his religious community in America.
Far from a matter of bigotry, it is precisely what citizens should expect of their leaders, what they should expect their leaders to be willing to demonstrate, and what they should expect of other citizens. For Mormons, the process of gaining that trust took an arduous century or more; what remains is not a question of their loyalty to the commonwealth but the demands of the saving remnant who insist upon a Christian commonwealth. They are wrong. Nevertheless, the necessary questioning, the open questioning that must occur in order for Muslims to take their full place in this country's political society cannot happen under the strictures of multiculturalism, because it rejects the very category of citizen and embraces group identities. It leaves active citizenship stillborn--offering instead a devil's bargain in which Muslims are never really regarded, or regard themselves, as full citizens, while buying them off with special accommodations made by the multiculturalists to a group of people who, in virtue of their religion, are not considered fully rational or responsible under the neutral laws of this nation. This is Europe and we must avoid it; Europe must recover from it. Romney made that task harder for this country by endorsing a multi-culturalism that declares all those questions of membership and loyalty and the willingness to put the commonweal ahead of one's identity groups completely off the table insofar as they arise from religion.
The exchange between the Huckabee bigots among the evangelicals, on the one hand, and Romney-the-opportunist, on the other--between assertions of a "Christian presidency" and the dismaying response of "conservative multiculturalism"--might seem to many to be a struggle merely within the loopy, irrational religious backwoods of the Republican party. It is not. It is about this country and the rest of us and our long-term relationship to liberal toleration at its hour of grave need--and that is why Romney's wrong answer to the wrong question is so very, very dispiriting.
Kenneth Anderson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at American University, Washington College of Law.