A recent segment on the Memphis, TN Fox news affiliate highlighted the danger of ignorance about members of a minority faith and reminded me why the Constitutional protection that no religious test shall ever determine qualification for public office is so important. In the piece, which was an unfortunate hybrid of news and humor, conservative radio host Ben Ferguson interviewed Average-Joes on the street. On the surface, the piece didn’t seem like it had a bad premise. Going to “people on the street” and “getting their views on religion and the White House” seems totally appropriate. However, serious problems occur when the tone of the interview is insulting and the questions, instead of inquiring how much people knew about Mormonism specifically in regards to Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s faith, in reality spread misconceptions and imply that minor, unfamiliar teachings of Mormonism accurately represent the faith.
Ferguson asks, “Can you name the candidate, who is running for president, who believes that if he is a good person, he will get his own planet?” and “what country do you think hosts the Garden of Eden?” as his test to check if people know about Mormonism. After the video played, Ferguson made the troubling statements, “everyone that I talked to did not realize what Mormons believe in,” and “for a guy like Mitt Romney, you hope that people don’t look at your religion.” The frightening lack of understanding is more apparent in the interviewer than interviewees. Mormon writer Joanna Brooks said it is, “a distorting and sensationalistic caricature of Mormon beliefs to say that all of us believe we’re going to get our own planets.” If Ferguson thinks that these are vital tenants of the Mormon faith and that Mitt Romney will have to conceal his faith to run for office, I am very concerned. Rev. Welton Gaddy President of Interfaith Alliance and host of State of Belief put it well in his letter to the Fox news affiliate where he wrote:
“A candidate’s religion should never be a determining factor in his or her qualifications for public office. For someone who is unfamiliar with any religious tradition, I imagine some of its beliefs and practices would look “unconventional,” to use your description of some “aspects” of Mormonism. Does this mean you will ask “people on the street” similar questions about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the doctrine of sheol among some Jews, the doctrine of “a new birth” among evangelicals, the doctrine of “glossolalia” among Charismatics, or the doctrine of “preaching to people in hell” among some Christians?”
The powerful role of religion in politics is highly unfortunate in and of itself, but the ignorance and hurdles prominent Mormon candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have encountered are truly disturbing. We should strive to separate religion from politics as entangling the two compromises the integrity of each. Further, we should cherish our constitutional insurance that there is no religious test to hold public office in America. The piece is being called out not only by interfaith alliance but by other news organizations, political news organizations, and independent media watchdogs. This unfortunate segment that aired on what was supposed to be a news program should serve as a reminder of how we must be vigilant and try and prevent misunderstandings of minority and majority faith groups especially when these faiths are seen by some as disqualification for public office. The segment distressed me and made me worried for the level of religious dialogue in the upcoming election.
For a conversation about Mormons and Evangelicals bridging the divide in their faiths you can click here. For a discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith’s impact on his 2008 run for the Republican nomination click here. To read the full letter Rev. Gaddy and Interfaith Alliance sent on the issue click here.