There was a time in America’s past when one could take for granted that much of the nation’s electorate possessed a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of theology and religious doctrine. Moreover, you could assume a degree of consensus among orthodox or traditional Jews and Christians about basic foundations of Judeo-Christian faith and belief. Those days are obviously long past. Polls and surveys reveal that most American voters have become religious know-nothings. Even among regular churchgoers, you cannot expect too much theological understanding. This know-nothingism is, for the present moment, allowing Mitt Romney to minimize concerns about his Mormon religious beliefs. But in this column and the next, I will show that Romney’s free pass on religion may soon expire as pollsters and the press start asking some probing questions that make the former governor’s religious beliefs a more troublesome matter.
Numerous factors have contributed to the long, steady decline in Americans’ theological sophistication. For some Americans, the rise of science made it a replacement for religion, pushing skeptics to agnosticism or even atheism with little incentive to keep up with theology. Even Americans who remain in the Church today are generally not exposed to as much theological and doctrinal teaching as Americans were even 15 or 20 years ago. Most churches assemble less often for preaching and teaching. Sermons are likely to be shorter and less theologically rich. And many churches have so diluted their beliefs that there’s not much to say anyway, even if the sermons were longer.
Theological knowledge is also declining because religion has been driven out of the schools. At all levels of schooling, from kindergarten through grad school, the teaching of religion is frowned upon or even prohibited by policy or law. The sheer ignorance of basic tenets of the orthodox Judeo-Christian faiths has become so profound that some institutions of higher education have finally recognized that students are often unable to understand key parts of Western civilization and culture because they know little or nothing of the religious foundations of our history, art and society. This discovery has prompted some secular institutions to reinstate classes in religion and Christianity that were cancelled a decade or more ago.
But the church and the academy are not the sole culprits in the decline in America’s theological IQ. Journalists and the media that once might have conveyed some information about theology to their audiences have followed schools in freezing out religious coverage. I suspect that anyone inside a mainstream media operation that is theologically sophisticated probably isn’t going to be trusted to read, write or comment on the news.
So in the midst of such widespread ignorance of matters religious, we are asked to ponder the meaning and acceptability of a candidate for our nation’s highest office whose religion differs so fundamentally from traditional orthodoxy. Should we anoint Mormon Mitt Romney to be our believer-in-chief? Decades from now, when history looks back at this election, that question may be the most compelling storyline from 2008, surpassing even considerations of race and gender.
But so far, it’s been a nothing issue; Romney has barely had his well-coiffed hair mussed by any furor over his religion. There has been more detailed examination of his healthcare plan than his beliefs in the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression, and reporters have more thoroughly analyzed the “liberal” campaign of 1994, when he ran against Ted Kennedy, than his two-plus years serving as a Mormon missionary.
This “What, me worry?” attitude about Romney’s faith life is not surprising. As I have described, large percentages of American voters and pundits don’t know much about religion and are ostensibly happy in their ignorance. But will that state of affairs persist? That’s the focus of next week’s column.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.