Meet the Press   |  April 08, 2012

The role of religion in the American political landscape

A Meet the Press roundtable featuring political and religious leaders discusses the mixing of religion and politics in the United States.

Share This:

This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

MR. GREGORY: And we are back with a special Easter Sunday discussion . I'm joined by Democratic Congressman of Missouri and United Methodist pastor Emanuel Cleaver ; daughter of the Reverend Billy Graham , Anne Graham Lotz ; His Excellency Bishop William Lori , archbishop- designate of Baltimore ; the executive editor of Random House and author of "American Gospel: God , the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation ," Jon Meacham , and Republican Congressman of Idaho Raul Labrador , a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , commonly known as the Mormon Church . Welcome to all of you. I know, I want to get it out right out front. I'm doing something you're not supposed to do and that's mixing politics and religion . And on Easter Sunday to boot. But I, I, I've wanted to have this conversation because it seems to me the role of faith in our national life , as a national discussion , but certainly the role that it plays for our national leaders seems overly ripe in this campaign season particularly. And that's where I want to start because the criticism from Republican candidates for the presidency against this administration has really boiled down to this issue of whether faith is under fire. Listen.

FRM. GOV. ROMNEY: I think there is in this country a war on religion . I think there is a desire to establish a, a religion in America known as secularism.

FRM. REP. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): This administration is waging war on religion . And if he wins re-election he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he's re-elected.

FRM. SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): The president has reached a new low in this country 's history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before.

MR. GREGORY: Jon Meacham , play referee here. Is this accurate?

MR. JON MEACHAM: I don't think so. I don't think so. I think religion has been part of the American experience from the very beginning. We came over for God and for mammon. We were in search of gold, but also of religious liberty . You cannot run for president without a plausible faith story and I think in a nation that is overwhelmingly religious perhaps more in terms of polls than observance sometimes, I don't think there's a war on religion . I think that there is a robust disagreement about a lot of important issues, and because religious faith , like economics, like partisanship, like geography, is an intrinsic part of human experience, there's always going to be a religious component to debates over issues.

MR. GREGORY: And, Archbishop, when you have an issue of the role of government in a healthcare decision like insurance actually funding contraception, you have this tension and that's where a lot of that criticism came from. But what is the nature of this war? Do you agree with those men?

BISHOP WILLIAM LORI: What we've seen, the bishops of the United States have seen, is an erosion of religious liberty . Perhaps we wouldn't use the word war. I wouldn't underestimate however how engaged we are in the struggle and how determined we are. But there has been -- the HHS mandate is certainly the most urgent of these underminings of religious liberty . But there's many other things that are going on.

MR. GREGORY: But explain why you think it undermines it. I mean, what the, what the actual mandate actually does and why you think that's an erosion of freedom .

BISHOP LORI: Well, first of all, we have the government imposing its definition on what religion and religious organizations are to be. And it's an inward-looking definition. If you're only serving your own, hiring your own, inculcating your own doctrine, you're exempt. But the minute you serve the common good, which is what all of our organizations do, then you're not exempt. Then you're subject to having to provide, fund and/or facilitate services which are contrary to the church 's teaching, and I don't think we should have to do that.

MR. GREGORY: Well, Congressman Cleaver , as a Democrat but also a minister, how do you come down on this question?

REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER (D-MO): Well, I think we need to take God off the ballot. This issue surfaces every two years, but for sure every four years, and I think people exaggerate certain positions in order to help themselves politically. There is no war on, on religion in this country . This country would, would not even tolerate war. But, but people realize clearly that religion causes us to right, to fight, to even die, and so it has a, a grip on us that nothing else holds us tightly. And so people realize that and so they exploit it during the political season. I think that's something that we've got to get away from.

MR. GREGORY: But Anne Lotz , in this particular case was this the government going too far or was this the government saying, "Look, if you want to be an insurer and you want federal funds there's a path that you must follow"?

MS. ANNE GRAHAM LOTZ: You know, I would have to confess I'm not an expert on that. And I would come very close to siding with Archbishop Lori because I believe that it is a beginning. It's just a very small step in a direction that I think could become something more serious. I'd like to go back to your opening statement about the importance of religion in politics, or because we look at our president or look at our leaders as having a religious example for us. And the think that I think is so important, the Bible says that the beginning of wisdom is fear of God . And I believe one of the greatest lacks in our nation today is that genuine fear or reverence for an almighty God . And that's where wisdom begins. So we have a lot of knowledge. And you can go on Google and you can pull up all sorts of stuff, but to know how to use the knowledge in a way that benefits the majority of people in this country , that's what I look for in a president. I want my leader to have a fear and a respect and a reverence for God .

MR. GREGORY: And I want to come back to this expectation of faith in, in -- among our leaders in a moment. But Congressman Labrador , let me get you into this. We, we are on the precipice of a -- of an historic moment for Mormons in this country , and that is that Mitt Romney is a Mormon and somebody who has a very significant role in the church looks like he's going to become the Republican nominee. And Congressman Cleaver talked about the need to take religion off the ballot, but here you had Orrin Hatch from Utah , a senator of Utah , saying that the Obama administration , the campaign is going to throw the Mormon Church at Mitt Romney and make this an issue. Do you agree with that? And how would he do that?

REP. RAUL LABRADOR (R-ID): I think the media's going to do that for, for the Obama campaign . But let's talk about your original question real quick. There is an attack on religious freedom at this point and if you look at what the Obama administration did with the contraception issue, they first set up a rule that, that was contrary to some religions. Then they decided that they were going to reform -- they were going to change that rule and then when they changed that rule, they really didn't change the rule, they actually just said that they were going to change the rule and they wanted to have this conversation about contraceptives, which nobody was talking about at the time. If you remember, the first time they talked about contraceptives was George Stephanopoulos in one of the debates, he's the one who brought it up. There wasn't a single Republican candidate who was talking about that issue. And all of a sudden we start talking about an issue that wasn't even a campaign issue and then we started on an attack on, on religious freedom . I think there clearly is. But going back to your question about Mormonism , everyone in, in politics is going to have some sort of role -- is going to be influenced by their faith . Whether it's Emanuel by his faith , whether it's me by my faith , and I think we can't talk about having politics void or any religious faith because then what you're saying is you have -- you're asking people to not be who they are.

MR. GREGORY: But I'm asking you about this very specific charge. You have the senior senator from Utah saying that the Mormon Church is going to be thrown at the Republican nominee, who is a Mormon . In what way, and you just said you think the media will do it. I mean, let's talk about what you mean.

REP. LABRADOR: Well, they've already started doing it. You look at your own network. MSNBC , you have Lawrence O'Donnell just saying some really nasty things about the Mormon religion , about the founding of our religion , that it was based on some guy just waking up some morning and deciding that he, that he wanted, that he had an extramarital affair and that's how the religion was founded. There's some really nasty things already being said by, by your own network, by NBC . There's, there's many other people that are going to be talking about these things. And I think what we need to realize is that everybody's faith origins are, are peculiar, if you look at any one of us, and we need to realize that what you need to look at is the man. The man, Mitt Romney . I have not endorsed Mitt Romney , but it clearly looks like he's going to be the nominee for, for the Republican Party . We need to look at his life and the things that he has done. And he's had a very, very good life.

MR. GREGORY: Jon Meacham , this question of whether his Mormon faith will become an issue, whether the president, who has had to face down questions about whether he is a Muslim, which he's not, over time , does this become a big issue as we move through the campaign?

MR. MEACHAM: I'm going to offer a counterintuitive argument. I wonder if because of those two premises you just -- premises you just set out, I wonder if perhaps explicitly religion will be less important in the fall, in the general election, than at any time since 1972 , before Roe vs. Wade really transformed the landscape. Because it's not in, frankly, in either candidate's interest to get into theological debates at this point. It's never in a candidate's interest, I would say.


MR. MEACHAM: I think the great thing about the country has always been that we have created a public sphere in which religion shapes us without strangling us. And that was the great achievement of the founders. And it's something that from generation to generation has been, has been respected. Ms. Lotz 's father is one of the great figures in this. Billy Graham plays this enormous role in our culture, but in a nonsectarian, nondivisive way. And so that's why when we talk about wars on religion , we talk about these -- this internal conflict. Let's think about it . Where do we go in moments of national crisis or mourning? We go to the National Cathedral . Where do people pray at inaugurations? There's a, there's a, there's a tolerance, there's an acceptance, there's a hunger for a kind of religious conversation. And I think that the more generic it is, and I understand the theological problems with this, but the more generic it is, the more effective and the more accepted it is. And I just wonder if you get to October, if whether it's in either candidate's interest to be bringing up specific religious issues.

MR. GREGORY: Archbishop:

BISHOP LORI: This is not a theological debate. We are not trying to get the government to stop something or to start something. What we are talking about is the government forcing religious organizations to do something that is against their teaching. This is a religious liberty fight. We recognize there's a lot of opinions about abortifacients and sterilization and contraception. What we're saying is that we're not just houses of worship, we are places that try to live our teachings as we serve the common good. We have this freedom now, we've had it for generations. Our teachings have been accommodated, but now they're not being accommodated. This represents a

definite diminishment of our freedom to provide our services according to our....

MR. GREGORY: All right, but you're arguing -- Archbishop, you're arguing still this issue of contraception and the Obama administration 's rule, which they, of course, would argue there's an exception provided for and an accommodation provided for that the insurance would pay for it directly. But rather than go down that road, which I, I don't think will convince you, I want to stay on this sort of broader question, Congressman Cleaver , which is in the case of Mitt Romney , but more generally about someone's faith . As a person of faith that Romney is, and as a Mormon , it's the core of who he is. As a missionary for two years, as somebody who was a bishop in the church , which is the, correct me, Congressman, if I'm wrong, the equivalent of being a priest because it's lay-led, a very close association with the church , he doesn't really talk about what guides him so powerfully. Isn't it fair for both scrutiny, questions, because there's so much ignorance about the Mormon faith , but also to understand the man, to understand his religious journey.

REP. CLEAVER: Well, look, I think all of us who claims some kind of connection to religion and if we are in government , we are informed by that religion and we are, in many instances, regulated by it. We don't have to make an announcement every day and, and, and go out and wave a flag.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

REP. CLEAVER: It comes out of our somebodyness. And, you know, but I have to talk about it . When I was mayor of Kansas City , we had a -- our church opposed -- the Methodist Church -- opposed gaming. I said from the very beginning, if, if I'm going to do what my church says, then I should've campaigned on a -- as a Methodist running for mayor. I did not. And so therefore I eventually signed that into law. I'm, I'm not going to vote for Governor Romney , but I am more concerned about Washington 's religion of confusionism than I am Governor Romney 's religion about Mormonism . So I think we've got to stop this. It's not healthy for the nation . We've completely forgotten Article VI , paragraph 3, which says there shall be no religious test . And I think we've got to try to prevent our country from doing that. E pluribus unum, out of many, one.

MR. GREGORY: I understand that, but we live in the real world here and evangelicals, which you are one, are deeply suspicious of Mormons and the Mormon faith and do not consider them to be Christians. To -- and you have a -- the, the likelihood now of a Mormon Republican nominee. Is there not an opportunity for more national understanding and more of a discussion about the Mormon faith when to have the standard-bearer of one of our two major political parties of that faith ?

MS. LOTZ: I'm sure there will be. But when you just addressed him and said that out of your deep conviction...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. LOTZ: know, that -- what drives him, what's the powerful force that drives him, then I think you can learn by seeing what he has done. So his policies , his decisions and, and how he has conducted his life. So that's some -- you can learn from that, something of how his religion drives him. And I think rather than discussing all the religion and I'm not into religion , and I know that will be another discussion .

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. LOTZ: And I would like to talk about Easter morning at some point this morning because this is our day, and -- but, but your, your religion , what's on the table is the policies . You know, the -- what -- the decisions, what's the social politics that's driving this nation right now. So I think it's not- -the discussion of religion is almost a smoke screen and a diversion from the real issue, and that's the policies . And there's a clear choice, I think, this fall, between the way the nation 's going to be led. And that's what I think we ought to be looking at, not so much as, as at the religious preference of a particular person .

MR. MEACHAM: President, President Kennedy , even though this is a speech that causes Senator Santorum stomach problems, in 1960 , gave a marvelous statement of this on exactly this point, that he was not the Catholic candidate for president, he was the Democratic candidate for president. And voters can make a judgment on the whole person , the whole policy. But I don't think, to go to the congressman's point, I don't think we want presidents sitting around discussing substitutionary atonement. You know, we don't want people, I think, discussing -- there's enough for presidents to do without having them worrying about the theologies of different religions.

REP. LABRADOR: And, and the reality said religion informs your thinking. But look, look in the United States right now. Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid are both members of the LDS faith . You can't find any two more opposite individuals. So even though it's going to inform who you are -- and they're both faithful members of the church . So you can -- can't find any two more opposite people, two people who have different philosophies and, and political doctrines. So I think we -- it's important to know a little bit about Mitt Romney and his religion , but I think it's more important -- I, like I said before, I have not endorsed Mitt Romney . I have not decided -- I'm not going to go out and endorse him, but I think he's going to be the candidate. And I do believe it's time for Republicans to get around -- to get behind him because we know he's going to be the candidate. It's time to beat Obama . But...

MR. GREGORY: But Congressman, let me ask you one more about your specific faith .


MR. GREGORY: And I want to show you a poll done by Quinnipiac over the summer. Would you feel uncomfortable with a Mormon president? The number of Republicans , 29 percent say yes, Democrats , 46 percent. I come back to this question...

REP. LABRADOR: That shows you the most biased people are the Democrats , so.

MR. GREGORY: Well, I mean, that poll is, is -- but, but, but let me ask you that. I mean, unlike Christianity , a lot of people say the difficulty that, that Mormons have is that the, the, the religion is relatively new, and therefore, critics can be debunked more easily or attempted to be debunked. Is there room for Governor Romney to take some of these issues on, not to get engaged in a doctrinaire discussion of the Mormon faith , but to take some of these issues on because there are questions and there are -- there is discomfort?

REP. LABRADOR: Well, he should talk about who he is and, and, and what formed him. And I think you discussed his missionary work . I was a missionary for two years in South America . My son, my oldest son, is now a missionary in South America . It's one of the most formative things that you can do in your life. It, it informs who you are for the rest of your life . I think he could talk about that. He could relate to the people that he has taught as, as a bishop. He was a bishop and a stake president in the church which means that he actually dealt with a lot of different issues dealing with poverty and other issues.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

REP. LABRADOR: He should talk about that a little bit more . But if you want -- I mean, you shouldn't be getting into the theology because there's -- they -- every church has a different dogma, different teachings, and we're not -- we shouldn't be judging, as Emanuel just said, we shouldn't be judging. Our Constitution tells us that we shouldn't be having religious tests on who's going to be president.

MR. GREGORY: Right. Let, let me take a quick break here. We'll continue this discussion on the other side of it. More from our roundtable on this Easter morning discussion after this.

MR. GREGORY: We are back with our roundtable. Back in 1957 , your father, the Reverend Billy Graham , was on this program and the question came up in the context of how to spread the word to the public, how to talk about religion . We've been talking about sort of de-emphasizing the talk of theology in our, in our national political life , and yet here was the Reverend Billy Graham saying, "Hey, no, we got to broadcast this." Watch.

MR. RICHARD CLURMAN: You have been quoted as saying, "I'm selling the greatest product in the world. Why shouldn't it be promoted as well as soap?" Is that an accurate quote, Dr. Graham ?

REV. BILLY GRAHAM: I think it possibly is.

MR. CLURMAN: Would you care to explain it to us?

REV. GRAHAM: Yes. I do believe that we can use modern means of communication. The problem of the church today is indifference in its evangelistic thrust and in its mission. It's facing apathy and indifference. And we have the problem of communication. We have the message, but how to communicate it to the masses. And we have used television and radio and the press and every way we possibly can to communicate the fact that Christ can transform human lives.

MR. GREGORY: He was for and is for using every platform available.

MS. LOTZ: Right. But for the, for the church , for my daddy...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. LOTZ: ...who is an evangelist, and televised his meetings, I don't think he was necessarily talking about the political arena when you're running for president.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. LOTZ: And we were just having a discussion over the break that it's interesting that Jimmy Carter and George Bush were both considered evangelicals...

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MS. LOTZ: ...but very different. So to me, I still think we need to look at the policies . And I do want a president -- I would not want -- I would not vote for a man who was an atheist because I believe you, you need to have an acknowledgement, a reverence, a fear, for almighty God , and I believe that's where wisdom comes from. But...

MR. GREGORY: It's -- and it's so interesting that you, you say that, the point about the, the public's desire...

MS. LOTZ: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: ...for men and women of faith in national life . And we, we have some polling that indicates really that point of just how strongly that belief is held. Sixty-five percent, Archbishop, believe that it's important that a presidential candidate believes in God .

BISHOP LORI: You know, I think people have an intuition that religious faith is connected with the moral values that make for just laws and that if we cut our laws away from their moral moorings we're not going to have a society which we would like to think of as a civilization of justice and love.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

BISHOP LORI: So there really -- I think that what we want to say is that religion is not an irrational force, it's not a divisive force. In all of our diversity, our faiths contribute to a moral consensus that underlie, that underlies our laws. And the more we build that moral consensus about the dignity of human life , solidarity, the common good, the more we're going to be able to find ways of talking across the partisan divide. And so I think that religion has a huge role to play. And we have to watch out getting instrumentalized one way or the other.

MR. MEACHAM: And that was the Madisonian position is that religion would be a force, not the force. We -- we've seen how well theocracies work around the world. If you have a pluralistic democratic society in which religion is respected but not exalted above other forces, that's a pretty good system, and that's what we've come up with and I think we tamper with it at our peril.


MR. GREGORY: Go ahead, Congressman.

REP. CLEAVER: ...we need to, to, to be, I think, very honest. Religion at its very essence requires theological arrogance...

Offscreen Voice: That's true.

REP. CLEAVER: ...because, I mean, we have to declare "This is what I believe in. I believe that this is the way ," you know. And so what we, what we have to understand is that this nation is united in its diversity, and therefore, even with the arrogance we have to have respect, and that's the part that I'm concerned about right now. I don't think President Obama is any -- it was -- that's ludicrous that President Obama wants to have a war on religion . It makes no sense. Respect. We've got to respect our differences and that's, I think, the one thing that should separate us as a nation from the rest of the world .

MR. GREGORY: Congressman Labrador , there was a moment all of these questions about the president's faith and whether he's a Muslim. And it came up on Fox News on, on the "Hannity" program. They actually had a focus group that they were doing. And I want to show a piece of that because it was very striking to watch.

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe that Barack Obama religious beliefs do govern his foreign policy .

Unidentified Man #1: And what are his religious beliefs ?

Woman #1: I believe that he is a Muslim.

Man #1: You do?

Woman #1: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Man #1: How many of you believe that here? Wow. You believe he's a Muslim?

Unidentified Man #3: Yes.

MR. GREGORY: What's striking to me about that clip is that on its face to say he is a Muslim is thought to be a bad thing. Colin Powell was on this program saying, "So what if he was? Why wouldn't that be acceptable"? Is that unacceptable? And is that -- is this being used as a way -- has it been used to try to delegitimize the president?

REP. LABRADOR: You know, I personally don't believe he's a Muslim. He has told us that he's a Christian and I believe him. And I don't agree with, with that clip. But it wouldn't matter if he is. I, I agree with, with Anne that what we need to look at is the policies . What are the policies that the individual has? The policies that Obama has put on this nation have actually weakened our nation . That's what I'm worried about. It's not what his religion is. I think it's important for us to understand that and that will be important for, for Romney as well, or whoever the nominee is. And like I said it looks like it's going to be Romney .

MR. GREGORY: The question of political reconciliation is one that, that interests me as well. As a Jew on Passover , you know, we read from Leviticus , which to me the essence of being a Jew is to remember that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt . And if you remember that you think about the duties of liberation, but you also think about the other and how as human beings we're all enslaved in one form or another. Is there a path? Does anybody see a path from their own religious faith convictions to, to take it into the political arena as a way to reach some kind of reconciliation that we don't see?

BISHOP LORI: It seems to me that as we approach and celebrate these high holy days that, that we share in common, Christians and Jews , share a lot in common this time of year, among them the exodus story and the story of a liberation, not just from one place to another, but from sin to grace and a restoration of human dignity . I think that what, what we need to uphold in our country is a renewed sense of the dignity of the human person . And the dignity of the human person always includes the person 's transcendent dimension, the fact that the person has an openness to God and also the values, the truths that underlie human dignity . And various religions might approach that in various ways. But I think the true test for religious liberty is when the minority unpopular views find respect. And I would just also add -- and I represent some of those, I represent those teachings that are a bit countercultural. Those have to be respected and accommodated, as well as others.


MR. MEACHAM: Our finest hours have been driven in part by religious motivation and conviction. Arguably the greatest moment of religious nondenominational cooperation was the civil rights movement . You know, the Reverend Martin Luther King performed an, an essential mosaic role in an exodus story.


MR. MEACHAM: And he did it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial . Lincoln had run against an evangelist for Congress and in fact went to one of his meetings once and the evangelist did the altar call and said, "Anyone who wants to go to heaven get up," and Lincoln didn't stand up. And his opponent said, "Well, Mr. Lincoln , where are you going "? And he said, "Well, I'm going to Congress ." Now whether you can go to both I don't know if that, if that's possible. But you have -- it's this, it's this wonderful thread, it's this wonderful history. And experience has taught us, to go to your question, experience has taught us that we can have fine hours, hours of reform and reclamation, without being hopelessly divided.

MR. GREGORY: Do you have a lesson from this -- on this Easter morning from your faith , tradition, that has instructive, do you think, to our national leaders, to our presidential candidates?

MS. LOTZ: You know, I do, David . Thank you for asking. I was thinking when you were talking about your heritage and this big Passover , they were saved by the blood of a lamb. And on this Easter Day , you know, I just have to say that for me I'm, I'm a sinner and Easter means to me that I can be forgiven of my sin. When I put my faith in Jesus as God 's lamb, who died in my place on that cross, then I can be forgiven of my sin, I can be reconciled to God . I can have peace with God . I can have eternal life . I know that I'm going to heaven, but also have a personal relationship with God .