Tom at KVNU’s For The People posted a link to video clip of Noah Feldman’s keynote address at the Mormonism & American Politics conference at Princeton. The conference was held Nov. 9-10. Feldman is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. He specializes in “issues at the intersection of religion and politics.” At 37 years of age, he is already highly accomplished. His brilliance shows on the video clip.
It should be noted that Feldman is no stranger to controversy. One of his claims to fame is that he advised on writing the Iraq Constitution. Another interesting element is that he is an advisor to the Council on Foreign Relations, which is regularly maligned by certain conservative segments — particularly those that dabble in conspiracy theories.
The aforementioned conference included addresses by Richard Bushman, Jan Schipps, and many other respected experts in the field of politics, religion, and Mormonism in particular. Feldman’s keynote address at the conference was titled, “Persecution and the Art of Secrecy: An Interpretation of the Mormon Encounter with American Politics.” I think Feldman’s discussion is interesting, particularly in light of Mitt Romney’s Faith In America speech last week.
Feldman obviously has a somewhat different point of view than me. He runs through Mitt Romney’s list of qualifications and says that all of the other GOP candidates, by comparison, are “jokers.” Romney, contends Feldman, “is the perfect candidate” for the GOP at this time. In so many words, Feldman suggests that Romney’s religion is the only thing that could logically prevent him from winning the GOP nomination.
I believe that this analysis is flawed and that there are perfectly valid reasons not directly related to religion for preferring another candidate to Romney. Many conservative pundits have gone out of their way to discuss these in detail. While Feldman’s line of argument is tainted by the supposition that religion could be the only rational disqualifier for Romney, I’m not sure that it necessarily means that Feldman’s conclusions are substantially incorrect.
Feldman notes that Latter-Day Saints have been working for more than a century to become respected players in the mainstream of American politics. He then suggests that Romney’s candidacy means something different for Latter-Day Saints than any other candidate’s candidacy means to any other group.
If Romney with all of his magnificent qualifications cannot win the GOP nomination among a field of much less qualified candidates, contends Feldman, it will essentially mean that Latter-Day Saints are not considered full-fledged Americans. It would mean that one of the most patriotic, politically involved, upstanding groups of people in the US “is not welcome into the elite circles of American politics” based solely on specific elements of religious belief. It would mean that the US in fact has an unwritten religious test for the presidency — not a test formally implemented by the government, which would be unconstitutional, but a nonetheless very real religious test.
Despite what I believe to be a faulty assumption, I cannot decide whether Feldman is pushing his argument too far, or has rather arrived at an accurate assessment anyway. Although I wish I could provide an objective analysis, I must admit that I am not able to be fully objective in this matter, since I necessarily see it from my own religious-political perspective. Even if Feldman’s assumption is faulty, it is possible that enough people will perceive a Romney loss as Feldman suggests, so that the perception will become reality.
Feldman says that our Founders “would be appalled” at what is currently going on with the state of religion and politics in the US. I tend to agree with him there. Feldman is one smart guy, but I think the dust will have to settle after the primaries before it becomes clear whether he is correct or not. If he is correct, it will mean that for the time being, you may not be considered a valid presidential candidate unless you (at least on the surface) ascribe to a certain set of religious beliefs. It would mean that you don’t necessarily have to follow those beliefs (Like, hey, what’s a little adultery or bearing false witness between friends?), but you do have to belong to an organization that at least purports to teach them. By extension, it would mean that not only are Mormons not full-fledged Americans, but anyone else that fails to pass the unwritten religious test is also not quite as equal as are other Americans.
I could certainly be wrong, but my personal analysis suggests that Romney isn’t going to win the GOP nomination. He got a bump in the polls from his speech, but there are other factors that suggest he won’t be on top of the GOP heap by the end of February. So we should soon be able to get some idea of whether Feldman is right or not. For the sake of the nation, I hope Feldman is wrong.