Morality and ‘people of faith’

Former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney has declared himself a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2008. I argued earlier that Romney’s religion (he is a Mormon) should be immaterial to whether he is qualified to be President.

But at a recent campaign event, he was challenged by someone who called him a “pretender” because as a Mormon he did not believe in Jesus Christ. Instead of answering that a person’s faith was a private affair that did not belong in the public sphere and closing the discussion on that topic, Romney responded that “We need to have a person of faith lead the country.”

Obviously I disagree with that but it also strikes me that Romney has opened himself up a can of worms because once you say that faith is necessary for being president, you have to deal with the issue of what kinds of faiths are allowed. This means that questions about the suitability of a person’s faith can become part of the political discussion. What about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? Are believers in those religions considered ‘persons of faith’? What about a person who has faith in tree spirits or voodoo or Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Are those faiths good enough? There is no question at all that the leaders of al Qaeda are ‘persons of faith’ by any reasonable definition of the term. So are their faiths acceptable?

A good question to ask Romney, which has been made legitimate by his response, is what criteria he uses to determine what constitutes an appropriate faith. Of course, no candidate or the media is going to discuss these kinds of questions because it would be too awkward. They know that there is no answer that can be given that does not (at best) contradict the US constitution that religious beliefs cannot be a test for public office or (at worst) comes across as rank bigotry. Both media and candidates tend to use ‘person of faith’ as code for ‘people just like us.’

As Atrios says:

It’s become vogue for politicians to make their religious beliefs, their “faith,” central parts of their campaigns. If they do so, it’s quite fair for people take a look at just what those beliefs are.

Romney says only a “person of faith” can be president. Plenty of people are going to say they don’t want a Mormon to be president. Is this bigotry, an objection to belief (or lack), or both?

Want to make personal religious beliefs a central issue in politics? Fine, bring it on. You guys can fight it out.

“We need to have a person of faith lead the country.”

“We need to have a Christian to lead the country.”

“We need to have a member of the Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915 to lead this country.”

Where’s the line?

The phrase ‘person of faith’ has come to mean someone who believes in some supernatural entity, but more importantly, believes in things similar to what you believe. In particular, it is used to signify a particular stance on certain moral issues.

For example, in response to an earlier post on this topic, a reader emailed me the following:

To me, without a presumption of a Divine Creator, objective morality is impossible. How will we judge anyone, if their retort is effectively, “my behavior might not seem right to you, but it’s right for me”? Unless we can state some objective ground for morality, all our law goes out the window, and anarchy must result. That conclusion seems inevitable.

I am always puzzled by the assertion that belief in a god leads to an ‘objective morality.’ How can that be squared with the blatant contradictions that are so easily observable? After all, we have all kinds of different religions that believe in a ‘Divine Creator’ and yet they all have different moralities. We even have within religions (be they Christianity, Judaism or Islam) different moralities even though they claim to believe in the same version of god. And even within each tradition morality has changed with time, so that what Christians and Jews and Muslims consider moral now is quite incompatible with what was considered moral in the past. To belabor the obvious, owning slaves and the ritual sacrificing of animals was considered quite moral at one time.

Rather than belief in a Divine Creator being the basis of morality, it seems pretty clear that people use their ideas about morality to decide what version of god they would like to believe in. In other words, ideas about morality are prior to belief in a god.

This idea that belief in a god is the basis of morality is so obviously contradicted by the facts that I can only conclude that this is an example of the power of religion to blind people to logic and reason.


  1. dave says

    Next week Mitt will say, ‘When I said a person of faith I meant a person who has the faith that America can be a better place. The faith that the international community will once again look to America as the city on the hill. The faith that our children can be educated fairly without prejudice or malice.’

    ‘I believe I am that man of faith.’

  2. Anthus says

    I think you dodge the question regarding objective morality. Religions are subjective and contradictory, but they have inherent self-confidence; the existence of a god and his edicts provides firm ground, as shaky as it seems to us.

    It doesn’t matter, of course; it’s easy enough to posit a firm morality without a god. By firm I mean that it provides a basis for judgment and escapes the paradox of subjectivity (how can one know anything in a subjective world?).

    What I’m getting at: the establishment of a “faith” in reality. Somewhere along the line everyone believes in a firm, objective reality, whether they say they do or not. Otherwise arbitration between people becomes impossible; otherwise life is nothing because it cannot be defined. The act of defining is an affirmation of reality, which is why anyone who does something must in all practicality accept reality.

    But I’m sounding too much like Ayn Rand.

    The point is, atheism has an objective morality, or at least a morality that it can enforce.

  3. says

    “Rather than belief in a Divine Creator being the basis of morality, it seems pretty clear that people use their ideas about morality to decide what version of god they would like to believe in. In other words, ideas about morality are prior to belief in a god.”

    Do you really think people put that much thought into it? I mean, it seems to me that most people are born and raised in a particular religion, and only question the associated dogma when they can understand it conceptually.

    Just a thought.

  4. says


    People are raised in a particular religion but that only assures a broad general belief. They tend to pick and choose from the detailed consequences, which is why you can get members of the same family believing in quite different things.

    I suggest that prior ideas about morality influences the religious choices that are made. The moral beliefs may not be consciously or explicitly articulated but they do exist.

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