The Perils of Arguing About Religion During Election Season

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Prudence counsels against choosing the height of a presidential campaign to evaluate the faiths of the candidates -- especially the one you're against.

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During the GOP primary, Andrew Sullivan criticized a subset of religious voters, people he dubs "Christianists," for their anti-Mormon bigotry. He mocked religious voters who found Newt Gingrich an acceptable candidate, but wouldn't vote for a Mormon. A WorldNetDaily item that warned against putting a Mormon in the White House struck him as particularly loathsome. "If this really is the flavor out there in the wingnut fever swamps," Sullivan wrote, "it's going to get much uglier."

It didn't get any uglier.

Mitt Romney won the Republican primary, his Mormonism was never a major factor in the campaign, and whether he wins or loses his bid for the White House, it won't be due to his religion.

So why is Sullivan still upset with "Christianists" on this subject?

His latest complaint is that evangelicals are hypocritical for being insufficiently bigoted against Romney's religion. "The Christian Trinity is not the Mormon Godhead. Many evangelicals understand this," Sullivan writes. "But despite their fervent belief that religion should be indistinguishable from politics, most will ignore it. And that is why they will vote for Romney not as Christians as such, but as Christianists, willing to overlook the bizarre theology of Mormonism in order to promote the policies most fundamentalists of all types favor: re-criminalizing abortion, stripping gay people of the rights heterosexuals have, and a new war to protect Israel." (Perhaps their "belief that religion should be indistinguishable from politics" isn't as "fervent" as Sullivan assumes.)

I bring all this up to make a larger point about politics, religion, and double-standards.

In October 2011, Sullivan wrote (emphasis added), "I have no interest in judging Romney's faith. The only legitimate criticism of the Mormon Church in terms of its public identity is the secretness of its Temples and some of their ceremonies. I think voters have a right to know what a candidate does in those ceremonies and why, unlike most ceremonies in mainstream Christianity, they are hidden from view."

That's a perfectly defensible position. But it isn't the position that Sullivan has taken in recent days. "One question I have asked is: what did Mitt Romney, who claims he wept when he heard the news about the end of white supremacy in the LDS Church in 1978, do to challenge the racist policy before he was 31?" Sullivan wrote last week. In another post he mentions Brigham Young University, writing, "If football teams change their names to obliterate even a hint of racism, why is a major university in America still named after a vicious racist and, as you can see, someone who dreamed of a divine genocide and defended slavery as a function of a divine curse?"

I am not here to assert that x, y, or z criticism of religion is beyond the pale. There are plausible arguments to be made in favor of all the inconsistent standards that Sullivan has employed. What his writing on this subject shows is how fraught it is to choose political campaigns as the moment to evaluate the religious traditions of the candidates, especially for those especially invested in the outcome. With only the best of intentions, a person in that position might find himself being especially uncharitable to the religion of the man he wants to lose; focusing exclusively on the worst parts of his faith; and abandoning previously articulated standards about what sort of criticism is useful and what is illegitimate. The results are unlikely to edify.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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