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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Romney, Muslims and “Conservative Multiculturalism”

While lounging on the couch after an indulgent Christmas dinner this evening, ReligionWriter could not resist turning her attention from relatives and instead reading an essay titled, “Mormons, Muslims and Multiculturalism,” which she stumbled upon while leafing through a recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard.

The essay, which goes for a lengthy 6,000 words, would have read better as a pithy 1,000-word op-ed, but it makes some good points, and RW will try to do justice to these in a few hundred words.

The author, Kenneth Anderson, an American University law professor, a Hoover Institution fellow and a former Mormon, writes that Romney’s recent speech on religion was “very, very dispiriting.” And why? Anderson gives a nod to those who took umbrage at Romney’s lack of recognition for non-believers, but says he is troubled by something else entirely.

In Anderson’s view, Romney’s speech was little more than a strategic attempt to win evangelical votes, especially those being usurped by Mike Huckabee. He failed to give a good answer to a set of very pressing and difficult questions, which Anderson defines this way:

The Constitution prohibits religious tests for taking office. Individual voters are free, of course, in the secrecy of the voting booth, to take account of whatever they feel like, including such morally unworthy criteria as race and religion. Candidates are likewise free to campaign on their religion, even on their religious bigotry, and have done so throughout the history of the Republic. But that still leaves open the question of what voters who aspire to goodness and virtue ought to allow themselves to inquire of a candidate for public office, and in particular, the presidency. What, if any, content of doctrine ought a candidate have to explain about his or her religion in the public square as a condition of being elected? And what, if anything, ought to be regarded by an ethical citizenry to be a matter of private belief and therefore outside the bounds of public inquiry?

Anderson envisions two possible answers here. You can either say, “all-in,” as Huckabee seems to, making private belief a public issue and therefore open to public scrutiny (and Anderson seems to find this religio-political strategy extremely distasteful, along with Huckabee’s creationist beliefs.)

The other option is to say, “all-out,” as Romney did, drawing a line around his faith and implying that the American tradition of religious freedom means not calling into question other people’s beliefs, even when they are running for the highest office in the land.

Anderson doesn’t like this approach either, but why not? In his view, Romney made a conservative argument for multiculturalism (a concept that for Weekly Standard readers is usually a negative.) He writes:

The “all-out” answer that Romney gave was the denial that citizens might ever legitimately and ethically demand to know the content of religious doctrines professed by a candidate for public office. (“Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance,” said Romney.) It is multiculturalist because it essentially treats all private beliefs as immutable and beyond reason, and because it says that to propose to subject any of them to public scrutiny of reason is an act of intolerance akin to racism.

So why is this relevant to Islam in America? Anderson rejects the all-in and all-out approach to religion and politics: He wants to see something in the middle, where citizens have the right or even the duty to ask candidates about their faith where it pertains to public life. “Of a devoutly Buddhist candidate, for example, one might want to know about his commitment to doctrines of nonviolence, while considering questions about reincarnation neither here nor there,” he writes.

If a Muslim were to run for high office in the United States — and Anderson writes plainly that “this country will one day, God willing, elect a Muslim as president” (yes, that sentence was in the Weekly Standard!) — he or she should have to answer questions on his or her beliefs about religious minorities, apostasy in Islam, the status of women and the idea of violent jihad. And why would those questions be legitimate and not, as Romney suggested (in Anderson’s interpretation,) off limits by way of religious tolerance? Well, because those issues are “live” ones in much of the Muslim world, Anderson asserts, and all of them relate to public life. (RW wonders if Anderson would consider CNN’s Glenn Beck’s question of Rep. Keith Ellison- “Prove to me that you are not working with our enemies”-to be legitimate or not.)

So Anderson’s solution here might be called “half-in,” or “in-where-relevant.” He is forthright in acknowledging that this strategy will always be contentious: “What is legitimately in and what is out will always be a messy debate, contested loudly by campaigns, sometimes in good faith and often in bad.”

What is gained, however, is an ability to wrestle with religion at least somewhat rationally, and to make reasonable demands on it in the public square. Anderson’s essay, though lengthy and at times digressive, makes this argument more fully and is worth reading, even on Christmas night.

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  1. [...] ajrt wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe author, Kenneth Anderson, an American University law professor, a Hoover Institution fellow and a former Mormon, writes that Romney’s recent speech on religion was “very, very dispiriting.” And why? Anderson gives a nod to those who … [...]

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