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Romney and Obama both struggle with religious issues

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By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — The confluence of Barack Obama ‘s problem with contraception and Mitt Romney’s candidacy reminds me of that often expressed sentiment that the United States is a “religion soaked” country. It leads western democracies–including Israel–for people who express a belief in God and pray on a regular basis.

The existence of the Mormon faith is part of the larger picture. It is arguably the most successful of the new religions created in the United States during the 19th century, along with Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and the now defunct Shakers.

The Mormon faith (formally the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, or LDS) is also the most peculiar of the new faiths created in America.

Its story begins with an angel who revealed a book of golden plates to Joseph Smith, together with magic spectacles that allowed its translation from ancient Egyptian. The product, the Book of Mormon, tells a story of migration from Jerusalem to America across the Pacific, and Jesus’ appearance to the migrants who became the Indians.

The original book of golden plates disappeared before its existence could be verified. Efforts are continuing, so far without persuasive results, to confirm the story of the migration.

During the two Sabbaticals I spent at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah I encountered highly educated colleagues who insisted on the literal truth of the Mormon narrative, others who admitted to quiet doubts as the price of living in a congenial and supportive community, and some who rebelled against their church, but remained in the communities (more often the case for people in Salt Lake City than Provo) for personal or family reasons.

My wanderings and ongoing conversations have exposed me to parallel sentiments among more conventional Christians, as well as among Muslims and Jews.

I’ll admit to my own periods of varying degrees of adherence to Jewish practices. “Belief” is not emphasized in this tribal community, as it is in religions that claim universal communities of the faithful. While currently I am a secular extremist, I remain fascinated by the phenomena of religion. My jury is still deliberating the question of whether religion is a positive or negative force.

Those wanting to pursue the issue of Utah and Israel can find my article comparing them in the Journal of Church and State, Summer, 1997, available in most university libraries.

Along the way to that article I  encountered a BYU faculty member, intensely religious, who was refused tenure, and years later excommunicated. His sin was teaching  that he understood the Book of Mormon as metaphorical rather than literal truth. The university has no Phi Beta Kappa chapter, at least partly on account of doubts about academic freedom.

Both Romney’s nomination and Obama’s problem with Catholics are far from settled. At present, Obama’s problem reminds me of his problem with Israelis, and with more than a few American Jews, due to his insistence that there be no Jewish construction in East Jerusalem. That was a key element in a plan, unveiled three years ago, that Israel and Palestinians do what was obvious to make peace within a year’s time. Aside from causing a problem for my wife Varda about new curtains in our French Hill dwelling, and with other Israelis somewhat higher on the pecking order, that input of the President had little impact on peace or construction.

Occasionally I perceive signs that the President may have learned something about the Middle East, and recognizes that quiet is his best tactic. Yet there are continuing demands from the administration that Israel stop settlement activity and get on with the peace process. As always, it’s impossible to know what is really the key thinking in a huge, amorphous, and competitive administration with lots of hangers-on. It is also far from certain how many American Jews will abandon their Democratic loyalties on account of the President’s clumsiness with Israel.

What is similar in his problems with Catholics and Israelis is a clash between ideological and pragmatic clusters among American Democrats. One can guess that the same tensions occur within the persona of Barack Obama.

On the one side are strong  sentiments in favor of contraception and most likely abortion, and the justice of Palestinian claims. On the other side is a recognition that both issues are more complex. Neither birth control nor the Middle East is resolvable by the kind of bluster that plays well on a liberal college campus.

So the President has a problem, or maybe two. Re-election will be difficult without Catholics, and there will be no Middle East peace without Israelis. Most Catholic women use birth control, but a lot of Catholics object to the government’s pressure on Catholic institutions.

If Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate, we may hear assertions by know-nothings about polygamy, and maybe some more reasoned questions about wine, coffee, and black tea at White House functions, or whether the LDS belongs in the community of Christianity.

It’s been a long time since John Kennedy had to argue with Protestant clerics about his relations with the Pope, but we have already heard some nasty things from anti-Mormon preachers.

My search of the Internet and queries to Massachusetts informants indicate that Governor Romney managed to navigate whatever problems came from holding high  office in the context of intensely Catholic and intensely liberal Massachusetts.

Those of us fascinated with religion, whether or not we believe in any of the unbelievable, will have much to ponder between now and November and most likely beyond, no matter what happens in the politics of here, there, or elsewhere.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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