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Talk about faith, scholar tells BYU

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Noah Feldman

Noah Feldman

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

PROVO — Don't wait for someone else to start talking about Mormons and politics, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman says.

"If you wait, the discourse won't expand," he told BYU students Tuesday. "Then, what will happen is Mitt Romney or someone else will run ... and be in the same terribly awkward position, to be the spokesman for your religion. He didn't want to be, but he had no choice by then, because nobody else was really speaking in a very visible or significant way, or they weren't being given a chance to speak."

And there's no better place for that dialogue to begin than BYU, the legal scholar said at a question-and-answer session following a forum address about religion in the public sphere.

It is the second time Feldman — who wrote "What Is It About Mormonism?" for the New York Times Magazine in January 2008 — has been to BYU, he said. The first time was several years ago when he spoke at the J. Reuben Clark Law School while writing his book "Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem — and What We Should Do About It."

"It is only through, I believe, this sort of public debate and discussion that the complex process of recognizing that all people, regardless of their religious faith, ought to be able to participate fully in our American life (is achieved)," Feldman said. "I don't think this will happen overnight, and I don't think it will be easy, but I do know one thing: that it must start soon and that in all probability, it must start here."

Feldman told the Deseret News he was surprised at the harsh anti-Mormon sentiment expressed by many vocal evangelicals during Romney's 2008 presidential campaign.

"It's the kind of thing that one doesn't expect to see in the early 21st century," he said via telephone before his visit to Provo. "It's very striking. I found it disturbing."

But as Feldman explained, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aren't the only people to face skepticism and criticism due to their religious beliefs. In the election of 1800, John Adams, with his Calvinistic roots, attacked challenger Thomas Jefferson and his alleged atheism.

"It was a serious fight," Feldman said in his forum address. "Jefferson was badly bloodied. From pulpits across New England, it was regularly said, 'Jefferson is unworthy to be president because of lack of religious belief.' "

In 1960, another Massachusetts challenger, John F. Kennedy, also faced serious scrutiny as voters worried that the Catholic Church, of which he was a member, would exert undue influence on his presidency, Feldman said.

However, in a 1960 speech, Kennedy famously declared, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

Continuing his focus on presidential candidates from his home state of Massachusetts, Feldman said Romney also had to address the issue of religion; however, because Romney wanted to appeal to values-based voters, he couldn't, like JFK, say that religion was irrelevant in his public life.

Romney declared his belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God but declined to discuss his LDS religion further, saying it would be a violation of the Constitution, which prohibits a religious test for public service eligibility.

"The question (is) what alternatives (are there), either for Mitt Romney or for other politicians in the future who find themselves in a similar position of believing ... that religion does matter in the public sphere?" Feldman asked.

One answer is to increase awareness and religious understanding by engaging in the study of comparative religion, Feldman said. Such study requires members of a religion to momentarily set aside their beliefs and look for common, uniting bonds among belief systems.

Although there may be some not ready or willing to do that, BYU and universities in general constitute an "unbelievable resource for generating conversation, and therefore generating certain kinds of change," Feldman said. "People talking is crucial. So don't wait. If you wait, it won't happen."

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com