Until a few years ago, I had a neighbor named Donna. Widowed well before she was ready, she plodded on, alone in her leaky house, unread mail and remembrances piling up in dusty corners. We invited her to holiday meals, cared for her dying cat, and, when the 2007 wildfire forced our town’s evacuation, she came with us, enjoying a prolonged pajama party in a small, borrowed apartment, raucous with four women. We ate out, watched movies late into the night, laughed about the yard-waste bag full of adult diapers Donna offered to share with us, found succor for our fears in chocolate and wine and camaraderie. And, while combing Donna’s hair one evening and avoiding a fairly large knob on her head, we learned that she was Mormon.
“They used to say we have horns,” she said, “like the devil. That’s my Mormon horn.”
I’d never heard that particular slur, and Donna laughed it off, saying the lump was just a fatty deposit, so I thought little of it — until recently.
When Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, became the Republican nominee for president, I thought of Donna and her easy acceptance of our dramatic situation, of the multitude of our differences, of her simple request for water while we imbibed our wine.
Of course, I won’t vote for Romney or anyone who embraces a fundamentalist interpretation of women’s rights and roles, such as that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whether long-held or politically opportunist, as Romney’s ineptly shifting positions on women’s issues reveal. Nonetheless, I was relieved that there wasn’t much Internet fecal matter slinging at Romney’s faith. But Mormon teachings are certainly vulnerable to critique, as they dwell in the realm of patriarchal Christian fundamentalism. When adhered to fully, as the church encourages, they are as denigrating of women as the many other fundamentalist churches — churches that, by the way, preach that the Mormon church is a cult, which smacks of the pot calling the kettle black, one of Donna’s well-worn idioms.
However, does any of this matter, as long as Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, honor the separation of church and state? Whether Romney is a true fundamentalist or one of political convenience, if he is able to honor a wall between his personal commitment to his chosen religion and his public commitment to the people of the United States — people of many beliefs — does his flavor of faith, or Ryan’s, matter?
In an ideal world, one of rational, collaborative adults, the answer to that question would be “No,” But U.S. politics being what it is today, rampant with fundamentalist lobbies office holders, the answer is “Yes.” Yes, one’s faith does matter — or, more accurately, one’s ability to separate one’s faith from one’s public service matters.
And determining Romney’s ability to do so has become evermore important in light of Ryan’s declaration at Thursday’s vice presidential debate that, in essence, he, like many rightwing politicians, does not accept the separation of church and state, a principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Debate moderator Martha Raddatz posed the following to Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden: “We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.”
Ryan: I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.
Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science. You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.” Now I believe that life begins at conception.
That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life. Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don’t agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.
In contrast, Biden delivered a personal rendition of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Biden: My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who– who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to– with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a– what we call a (inaudible) doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.
But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the– the congressman. I– I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people, that women, they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.
The contrast between Ryan’s insistence on battering the wall between church and state and Biden’s commitment to honor it is distinct — and a clear warning of faith-based things Ryan would foist on the nation if he were allowed to continue his pursuit.
I lived next to Donna for 15 years before I learned she was a Mormon. At the same time, I learned she was also the politest of guests in the small apartment that sheltered us during the wildfire. She worked hard to do her share, graciously allowed us to compensate for her physical limitations, joined in the alternating frivolity and consternation, was willing to share what little she had — even her adult diapers. And, she honored her own beliefs without imposing them on the rest of us, as each of us did — for the sake of community, of a more perfect union.
Because faith does matter in this election, it’s important to ask: Does Romney practice his faith as Donna does, gently and accommodatingly, or is he another guest from Hell, like Ryan?
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.