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What should the role of religion be in politics?

There has been some recent, some might say puerile, interest in the religious observances of two Mormon politicians, Massachusetts Republican governor and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who will become Senate Majority Leader in January.

The real questions that should be asked are how their personal beliefs shape their political platforms and perspectives.

As the first Catholic president, it was important for John F. Kennedy to show that he did not represent the Pope but rather the great and varied American people in his White House.

Joe Leiberman, not only the first Jewish vice presidential candidate but the first observant Jew to run for such a high national office, throughout his years in office has shown that being grounded in a personal faith commitment can help keep one’s personal moral compass straight without imposing one’s personal beliefs on others.

That seems to reflect the electorate’s view as well, judging from a recent poll cited in the Dec. 3 edition of The New York Times by op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof: While 90 percent of the respondents say they are willing to vote for a woman, African American, or a Jew, only 37 percent said they would vote for an atheist.

Rather than asking them about their Sabbath observances or what kind of underwear they wear, there are some religion-related questions we do need to pose to Mormon candidates: Are they dedicated to the separation of church and state? Can they reconcile themselves with defending the rights of people of other faiths (or no faith) to follow actions of personal choice that are contradictory to their own Mormon religious dictates? How does their understanding of religion shape their understanding of how contemporary events fit into world history (their theological history), particularly regarding the “End of Days” and the current Mid-East crisis?

Mormon politicians aren’t the only ones who need to clarify their perspectives on such matters. It would have been helpful to have answers to these questions from the current President Bush when he was running for office.

Whenever I read about the current mess in Iraq, I can’t help but wonder how much of it was due to incompetence, how much to oil shenanigans, and how much to a fundamentalist Christian End-of-Days mentality that keeps such books as the “Left Behind” series on the best-seller charts.

–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

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