Suddenly, it appears that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is everywhere, from the much-noted Broadway debut of “The Book of Mormon” to the fact that devout co-religionists Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are prominent within the likely Republican presidential field for 2012. And how does mainstream America (assuming such exists) feel about the possibility of a Mormon president? Here is an admittedly small sample (n=1) recently heard on conservative talk-radio in Seattle (reputed to be, incidentally, the least religious large city in the U.S.): “I don’t really care what religion he might be, I just want a president who prays.” How open-minded we are!
But how about, instead, a president who reads: briefing papers, and maybe some detailed, complex, and even occasionally contradictory and nuanced analyses of alternative courses of action and their likely consequences? Someone whose views are reason and reality-based, founded on good, hard thought instead of theological doctrine? Instead of someone who prays, what about someone who thinks?
The defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, marked the end of Spain as a global power. Before sailing, one Spanish commander “reasoned” as follows: “It is well known that we fight in God’s cause. So when we meet the English, God will surely arrange matters so that we can grapple and board them, either by sending some strange freak of weather, or more likely, just by depriving the English of their wits. … But unless God helps us by making a miracle, the English, who have faster guns and handier ships than ours, and many more long-range guns, and who know their advantage as well as we do, will … blow us to pieces with culverins, without our being able to do them any serious hurt. … So, we are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle.”
So much for a faith-based foreign policy. Indeed, the melancholy fate of the Spanish Armada also suggests why it is time for the American electorate to reconfigure its view of religion and politics. Now that Romney and Huntsman are joining the 2012 presidential contenders, the question arises: Is America ready to elect a devout Mormon? I certainly hope the answer is No. Indeed, I propose that it is high time for the electorate to reject anyone who is strenuously devout: Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Shinto, Wiccan, or committed fundamentalist practitioner of any other faith or creed. America’s problem isn’t too much prejudice against overtly religious presidential candidates (e.g., Messrs. Romney and Huntsman, not to mention Christian evangelical evolution-denier Mike Huckabee and the newly-minted “I’m no longer a womanizer” Catholic Newt), but not enough.
According to Article VI, paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Fair enough. My own immodest proposal, however, is that we turn this “no religious qualification clause” around and agree that no religiously fundamentalist candidate shall ever be permitted to obtain the office of President of the United States.
Why? For one thing, it’s time for politicians to accept responsibility for their actions instead of attributing them to divine advice or counting on supernatural intervention. Haven’t we had enough of the kind of faith-based policy initiatives favored by the previous administration? After all, George W. Bush claimed that in invading Iraq, he was acting out God’s will: How many more such faith-based disasters must we endure? (And wasn’t 9/11—a faith-based action if ever there was one—enough?)
For another, perhaps the most dangerous attitude for any political leader is the insistence that he or she doesn’t care about this life, being convinced that the real consequences of one’s actions are to be encountered only in the next. Think of the Islamic jihadists who devalue this world in favor of a forthcoming heavenly recompense. Remember James Watt, whose disastrous tenure as Interior Secretary under Ronald Reagan was notable for his claim that America’s natural resources don’t really need careful stewardship since “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” And don’t forget those who welcome nuclear apocalypse because it would herald the “end times.”
Can anyone genuinely claim that it is in the national interest to have presidential decisions made, not via serious policy evaluation but instead, “in the confident hope of a miracle”? And by—whatever else he may be—“a praying man”?
In his book, Shadow of Childhood, anthropologist Weston La Barre proposed that prayer is unique to our species: “No other animal when in distress or danger magically commands or prayerfully begs the environment to change its nature for the organism’s specific benefit. Calling upon the ‘supernatural’ to change the natural is an exclusively human reaction. … One doubts that even herding animals like the many antelope species in Africa have gods they call upon when they fall behind the fleeing herd and are about to be killed by lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, or hyenas.”
Give me a reality-based world-view any time, certainly not a prayerful one! Admittedly, my preference is unlikely to be realized. The U.S. is the most pro-religious among the world’s industrialized nations, with polling data consistently showing that by wide margins, people would rather vote for a religiously devout sociopathic ax-murderer with a miniscule IQ than for the most admirable atheist. It doesn’t seem to matter what the faith, so long as our leaders profess some religion, any religion. But I can still hope (or perhaps pray) for my countrymen and women to recognize that religious fundamentalists have already done the republic great harm, and that a genuine miracle will occur such that my fellow citizens will come to realize that absolutist faith on the part of any candidate—rather than being an asset—ought to disqualify anyone for higher office.