Consider Character, not Religion

Yesterday’s e-mail brought its share of supposedly urgent political fund-raising notices. All but one went straight to the virtual dustbin.

The message which caught my eye was from Utah right-wing activist Cherilyn Eagar and her American Leadership Fund. It went out again this morning: “Deadline TODAY!”

Judge Not, Unless You’re Fund-Raising

Both messages said, in their subject lines and titles, “Why Harry Reid is an embarrassment to his Mormon faith.” A third message this afternoon added: “Here’s the blunt truth. Senator Harry Reid is an embarrassment to his Mormon faith. I know. I’m a Mormon.”

Two more messages followed, early and late in the evening. The last of the five didn’t mention Senator Reid’s religion. I felt better about that one, but I still didn’t send any money.

I have certain thoughts of my own about Senator Reid. I think he’s toxic to decent politics, to say nothing of good government. I have found cause in his actions and words over the years to question his character. But according to messages three and four, I get to question more than his character: “Does Harry Reid believe in his own religion? You decide.”

To put it bluntly, the e-mails are wrong. I don’t get to decide whether Harry Reid believes in his own religion. Neither does Ms. Eagar or her organization.

My Reid Empathy

I feel some empathy with Senator Reid. I’m far to the right of his politics, but I’ve offended Utah right-wingers myself often enough. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked how I can consider myself a conservative, when I support a candidate someone else has decided is not the “true conservative” in the race.

They often go further: How can I be a good Mormon, when I publicly support Orrin Hatch? Or Mitt Romney? Or allowing gays to live and work in my community? Mormons anywhere to the left of me — such as moderates, Democrats, and Greens — hear this sort of question even more often.

In short, people who have no business judging my ideological purity end up judging my piety, too.

Either some folks missed the memo saying Mormons are allowed to choose their own political views and may properly differ from other Mormons — not that we need anyone’s permission for that — or I missed the memo saying that political activists get to decide whether another person’s political views and actions make him a good Mormon or not.

Looking to Utah?

I should mention that Ms. Eagar’s stated objection to Senator Reid has to do with confirming activist judges who overturn laws enforcing a traditional definition of marriage. (I generally support those laws at the state level, where constitutional authority exists to legislate in such matters.)

Some legal battles are in process over marriage definitions, as you know. In the present campaign the American Leadership Fund is raising money to help pay attorney fees. It’s important that I donate. “The nation is looking to Utah,” you see.

Here’s what I wish the nation were seeing, in looking to Utah.

I wish they were seeing a debate on crucial issues in which both sides respected religion, religious people, irreligious people, American citizens generally, and American government and institutions enough to hold themselves to this reasonable standard:

In our politics, character matters immensely. Religious affiliation should not matter at all.

The left and the right — by the latter I mean the far right — acknowledge no such restraints, especially in their fund-raising. Yet how is it their business or mine whether Senator Reid is “an embarrassment to his Mormon faith”?

What Matters Is Character

It is the nation’s business whether he is a man of good character, whatever his religious profession — or even if he professed no religion.

If the folks at the American Leadership Fund have issues with Senator Reid’s character, they should approach those issues directly, not by presuming to judge the degree to which a man’s conduct matches the beliefs we assume he has, based on his known religious affiliation.

In our politics, character must matter. Religious affiliation must not.

Is that too much to expect from people who swear devotion both to divine truth and to sound American principles? And who see the latter as an application of the former?

In our time much of the left wants to purge religious people, religious principles, and religious organizations from the public square — instead of simply protecting the public square from religious control. At the very least, it would be nice if the “religious” right and its bad behavior didn’t give more moderate citizens cause to listen to the left’s arguments about that.

It’s Not Just Me, Is It?

When the nation looks to Utah, I wish they could see more clearly that there are religious people and political conservatives here who respect religion and Americans enough to focus on character and issues, and who don’t presume to do God’s judging for him.

What do you think? Does this matter at all? Am I making a little mountain out of a smaller-than-average molehill?