One thing missing from all this discussion of religion and politics has been the increasingly evangelical character of American politics over the past generation. The key president here is not the impeccably secular John Kennedy, but rather Jimmy Carter, who presented his faith as central to his personal identity in a way that few presidents had done before him. In the wake of Carter’s presidency, and the rise of the evangelical Right, religion has come to the center of American politics, and, as such, deserves to be taken seriously, and questioned seriously.
Richard Lyman Bushman gives a good example of not taking it seriously enough when, in his exchange with Linker, he uses the notion of freedom of conscience as a rhetorical trump card against any questioning of Romney’s Mormonism ( e.g. “Mitt Romney’s insistence that he will follow his own conscience rather than church dictates is not only a personal view; it is church policy.”) ~David Bell
This post from Mr. Bell is a good deal better than the last one, though still not without its own problems. Fortunately, his colleague Jacob Levy had already discovered Prof. Fox’s response, which should improve the quality of the discussion over there a good deal.
In this post Mr. Bell thinks that Prof. Bushman has not taken religion seriously enough when he invokes the Mormon understanding of conscience, but here I think he has missed Prof. Bushman’s entire point in bringing up conscience. Prof. Bushman mentions the role of conscience in response to Linker’s fear that the prophetic church authorities, which worry Linker because of their theologically instability, will be able to dictate to Mormon politicians how they should govern. The point of Bushman’s explanation of how Mormons are supposed to make moral judgements is not to make a Mormon’s religion irrelevant or a way of pulling out a “rhetorical trump card” against any questioning of Romney’s religion. He is attempting to explain that Mormons are actually obliged to make their own judgements, and that this tends to preclude the aforementioned danger of church authorities dictating policy positions to a Mormon public servant. Regardless of whether the church authorities would try to do this (and, historically, they have not tried very hard), Mormon politicians would be obliged to judge the matter at hand for themselves. As Prof. Bushman notes in his latest response:
Consider the Church’s own renunciation of control over the consciences of Mormon politicians [bold mine-DL]–a stand Catholics have not taken. Are you saying this is a false front? Keeping in mind the injunction in Mormon scripture to submit to lawful government, is there any real basis for concern?
Would the politicians’ judgements be informed by their upbringing and life in their church? Obviously. It is so obvious, in fact, that it hardly needs to be mentioned. What Prof. Bushman’s remark about conscience was meant to accomplish was to counter Linker’s suggestion that Mormon politicians are somehow potentially open to receiving commands from their church elders on matters of public interest and will blindly follow what those authorities tell them to do. Prof. Bushman says this is flatly wrong and that official church teaching proves this. Is Prof. Bushman right about this? If he is, Mr. Bell really has no reason to object to this point.