Letter from Welton to TN Fox Affiliate
July 12, 2011
Mr. Ben Ferguson
Mr. Darrell Greene
Mr. John Koski
Dear Mr. Ferguson, Mr. Greene, and Mr. Koski:
I write to you with great concern about a segment that recently aired on one of your news programs regarding the impact of former Governor Mitt Romney and former Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s Mormon faith on their presidential campaigns. As a Baptist minister and as a patriotic American, I have been deeply disturbed by the disproportionate role religion has played during recent election cycles. Indeed, at times, the entanglement between religion and politics has seemed to threaten both the integrity of religion and the vitality of politics.
After seeing your segment, I could not help but be concerned with the extent to which religion is being used as an electoral tool. Of even more concern, however, is that your segment seemed to encourage that dangerous trend. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are not running as Mormons, they are running as Americans. They have no more responsibility to explain or defend their faith than Michele Bachman or Tim Pawlenty. Whoever is elected president, regardless of that person’s faith, needs to respect the religious freedom of all to practice their faith, despite how “strange” it might appear to outsiders.
Radio host Ben Ferguson’s segment seems simply to make a joke out of a major religion's doctrine, an attempt to poke fun at one faith group in order to question the validity of a member of that faith group as a candidate for the presidency while masquerading as a news segment.
The point made during your segment that most Americans do not fully understand Mormonism is an important one; but this is neither the responsibility of a presidential candidate, nor of the candidate’s electoral campaign. Though any campaign can be a venue for creating greater understanding of religious beliefs and practices, this is neither the purpose nor the goal of an electoral campaign. I know the Mormon Church, like any other religious group, would be happy to explain their beliefs and traditions. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what they have been doing of late through a broad array of media.
Furthermore, what was billed as a segment aimed at getting the views of “people on the street” about “religion and the White House,” did not in fact convey what “people on the street” think about religion and campaigns. Mr. Ferguson commented after the segment that these questions were asked somewhat jokingly, trying to be “light-hearted” and then understandably noted that everyone with whom you spoke did not really understand the Mormon faith. But to the benefit of absolutely no one, your segment simply perpetuated misperceptions and misunderstandings of the beliefs of the Mormon faith.
Voters have the right to know whether candidates will respect the boundaries between institutions of religion and government, as well as the role a candidate’s faith will play in creating public policy, and how a candidate will balance the principles of their faith with their pledge to defend the Constitution, particularly if the two conflict. But beyond this, 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? Every religion, every belief system has aspects that could seem unconventional to non-adherents, and even to some adherents. But what makes the United States the country it is, is the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom that has enabled diverse beliefs to flourish equally side-by-side, with none favored over another, and no religious test required of our elected officials or candidates for office.
Because of the complexities of this issue, Interfaith Alliance has developed a series of resources both for candidates, for houses of worship and for constituents. I suggest you take a look at these guides as they may provide insight on the proper role of religion during an electoral season. These resources are all available at www.interfaithalliance.org/elections
Thank you for your time and consideration of this concern.
C. Welton Gaddy
P.S. Should you have any interest in a conversation about these issues, I would welcome an opportunity to visit with you. Too much is at stake for errors to dominate the public conversation about this issue. I am eager to see an election cycle free of the manipulation of religion, respectful of people of all religions and no religion, and helpful to advancing the constitutional vision of separation between the institutions of religion and the institutions of government, appreciation for our democracy, and a recovery of political advocacy characterized by civility. I pray that this election cycle will leave the American people better informed and more active as concerned citizens. You will play a significant role in whether or not that is the case.
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Interfaith Alliance celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, and uniting diverse voices to challenge extremism. Founded in 1994, Interfaith Alliance has 185,000 members across the country from 75 faith traditions as well as those without a faith tradition. For more information visit www.interfaithalliance.org.