Two major news stories last week had unsettling implications for the status of religion – and freedom of conscience – in the United States. First, a USA Today poll reported that while 94% of Americans said they would vote for a qualified presidential nominee who was black – and 88% said they would vote for a woman – only 72% would vote for a Mormon. Only days later, General Peter Pace ignited a firestorm by commenting that homosexual behavior – like adultery – is immoral.
What was, perhaps, most disheartening about the USA Today poll was the silence of those who are usually most likely to publicize real or perceived instances of bigotry. It’s not hard to imagine how the “civil rights” lobby or the feminists would have reacted had, say, blacks or women been shown to bear the brunt of whatever prejudice still exists in America. But sadly, liberals in general – who still sympathize with those who harbored Communist sympathies half a century ago – had scant time to denounce unreasoned religious discrimination against a group of loyal, upstanding Americans.
As Hugh Hewitt – author of the new book “A Mormon in the White House?: Ten Things Every American Should Know About Mitt Romney” – has noted, the stigma that attaches to displays of racism and sexism is not as pronounced when it comes to manifestations of religious bigotry. In fact, it seems that anti-religious animus is the one remaining acceptable prejudice in America.
Take General Pace’s comments about homosexuality. His criticism of homosexual behavior (and adultery) is entirely consistent with the tenets of orthodox Christianity. They were merely an expression of his personal beliefs, and have had no impact on the discharge of his official duties. Yet gay activists had no compunction about denouncing him and demanding his resignation, even as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hastened to clarify that they found nothing morally dubious about gay behavior.
Taken together, the reported prejudice against Mormons and the outcry over General Pace’s words suggest an unfortunate trend toward penalizing otherwise law-abiding Americans for their personal exercise of religious conscience. After all, if a Mormon runs for President espousing the same political platform as a Protestant, Catholic or Jew might and expresses support America’s political-religious traditions – or if an orthodox Christian general is willing to abide by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that’s enshrined in law even if he disagrees with it – of what public relevance are the fine points of their personal theologies?
The apparent willingness to denounce public figures’ personal religious convictions – and then support or oppose them politically on that basis – is pernicious. That very old and universal human temptation is precisely what the Founding Fathers were attempting to suppress when they made unconstitutional the practice of administering religious tests for public office. But when personal opposition to gay behavior becomes a firing offense, or a candidate’s private religious beliefs are deemed render him unfit for public office per se, political discourse is trending dangerously close to that line.
America may well be proud of the strides it has taken to ensure that neither sex nor skin color constitutes a barrier to success in the United States. Certainly, much of the impetus for greater inclusiveness has been inspired by the Judeo-Christian principles that have animated so much of American life. It would be ironic – and sad – if, having come so far in so many areas, religion became the one area where bigotry and discrimination remained socially acceptable.