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Richard Davis: Gary Johnson's remarks on Mormons, religious freedom, raise concerns

FILE - In a Friday, May 27, 2016 file photo, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks to supporters and delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention, in Orlando, Fla. Omn Sunday, May 29, 2016, The Libertarian Party again nominated
FILE - In a Friday, May 27, 2016 file photo, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks to supporters and delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention, in Orlando, Fla. Omn Sunday, May 29, 2016, The Libertarian Party again nominated former New Mexico Gov. Johnson as its presidential candidate, believing he can challenge presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton because of their poor showing in popularity polls.
John Raoux, Associated Press

Recent polls indicate many Utahns are not keen on the prospect of voting for Donald Trump in November. Some have been mulling giving their vote to Gary Johnson, Libertarian presidential candidate. A recent poll showed Johnson with 16 percent support in Utah, an unheard of percentage for a Libertarian candidate. Reportedly, Mitt Romney has considered endorsing him. Johnson is gaining new attention this year because of the Trump phenomenon, but his recent comments on religious freedom and Mormons suggest Johnson’s views should cause concern in Utah and among religious believers anywhere.

In an interview with a conservative newspaper, Johnson took a very un-Libertarian position on discrimination of gays. He voiced support for laws that would force businesses not to discriminate against gays. His social libertarianism in favor of gay rights would extend to requiring the proverbial wedding cake maker to provide cakes for gay weddings, despite the maker’s religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

Johnson went ever further. He asserted that it is the federal government’s role to intervene to stop discrimination even when that occurs on the basis of religious grounds. He told the reporter that if exemptions for religious freedom are allowed, then “discrimination will exist in places we never dreamed of.”

His views on religious freedom and discrimination against gays were part of a larger perspective about the claims of religious freedom generally. He called such assertions “a black hole.” He felt that if some exemptions were made for religious freedom, then it would open up “a can of worms.” Indeed, he worried that “under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything.”

Johnson pointed to Mormons as an example. “Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn’t somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead?”

After he was criticized for these views, Johnson put out a statement saying that he was imprecise in his wording in an impromptu conversation. He said he understood and respected the persecution the LDS Church had experienced. He added that some of his closest friends were Mormons.

What he did not say is that he understood that rights exist across various groups, not just one. He did not explain how he would protect the religious freedoms of Americans. Indeed, he did not back away from the statements lumping religious freedom with extremism. He did not show that he understood that, in the United States, it is rare that such claims lead to violence and that laws already exist to convict people who commit such violence, even in the name of religion.

So, the question remains about his real views. Is he hostile to religious freedom? Does he really view claims of religious freedom as a license for anybody to do anything? As president, how would he view the free exercise of religion? Would he consider religious belief as dangerous because it could be an excuse to kill people?

Johnson’s views on religious freedom may be related to his overall self-description. He has said: “I am not a social conservative in any way shape, or form.” His past actions support that description. As New Mexico governor, Johnson signed a federal version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that required government to show it had “a compelling interest” in violating an individual’s religious practices. However, he initially vetoed the bill and then, when he did sign it, he said that he did so with hesitation because he believed it would “lead to less religious freedom than not.”

As a presidential candidate, he supports gay marriage, abortion rights, and the legalization of marijuana. Those are not views generally associated with social conservatives. Nor would Mitt Romney come to mind when one would think of those views.

For those considering Gary Johnson as an alternative to Donald Trump, it may be a good idea to look more deeply into what Johnson is saying and what he has done on issues of importance to Utahns. Until he explains more fully how he would protect religious believers in the public sphere from discrimination against religion, Utahns should be wary.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.