I find the prominent Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress’s vituperative attacks on Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith to be appalling. I agree with Bill Bennett, who subsequently accused Jeffress of hyping “bigotry.” I agree with Bennett, but with an important caveat. I don’t believe reaching the theological conclusions that Mormonism is not an authentically Christian religion is evidence of bigotry. The bigotry here was Jeffress’s attempts (video clip here) to whip the conservative Christian crowd up at the Values Voter Summit by calling Mormonism a “cult” and saying that all things being equal, Christian voters should prefer a born-again believer (Rick Perry, according to Jeffress, who endorsed him) over someone like Romney, who by definition cannot have the “indwelling spirit of Christ” helping him make big decisions, such as whether or not to go to war. (One would love to ask Pastor Jeffress how much help the indwelling spirit of Christ was in guiding George W. Bush to launching the disastrous war on Iraq.) I wonder if Jeffress has considered that his standard would prevent Christians from voting for a Jew. It’s fairly easy for him to say this about Mormons. Will he say it about Jews — that Jews, who by definition lack the “indwelling spirit of Christ”, are therefore defective potential presidents? I bet he won’t — but the theologized identity politics he’s promoting require it.
Look, I don’t like Mitt Romney’s political views and don’t expect to vote for him. Nor would I vote for Perry, though I prefer Romney to Perry. For me, though, his Mormonism is, if anything, a character asset. I have yet to meet a Mormon who did not come across as an honest, genuine, friendly person with strong and healthy values. Maybe I don’t get out much, I dunno, but I have a very positive view of Mormons. But as a strictly theological matter, I don’t believe they are Christians. Below are excerpts from a column I wrote for the Dallas Morning News the last time Romney ran for president. The column is now behind the paywall, but I found fragments on a website. You can get a good idea of my thoughts regarding Romney’s faith and its role in presidential politics.
1. Mormons aren’t Christians. I don’t mean that as a criticism, only as a descriptive phrase. When Mormons claim Jesus Christ as their savior, there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity and good will, or even to deny that they are in some way followers of Christ. Yet Mormonism rejects foundational doctrines of traditional Christian orthodoxy, such that it is impossible to reconcile with normative Christianity.
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3. Theologically, this is a big deal. But politically, so what? Mormons vote like Southern Baptists and come down on the same side of most issues of public morality like conservative Christians do. If you’re a socially conservative lawmaker, wouldn’t you rather have a Mormon in your legislative foxhole than a Kennedy-style cafeteria Catholic or progressive mainline Protestant? I’m no Romney fan, but is there really no meaningful political difference between Good-Mormon Mitt and Bad-Catholic Rudy, to say nothing of Liberal-Protestant Hillary?
4. There are plenty of good reasons for conservative Christians not to vote for Mr. Romney, but his religious beliefs are not among them. Do Christians want to be in the position of rejecting a candidate whose political views and moral values they agree with, solely because they don’t like his religion? On what grounds would they condemn secularists for rejecting Christian candidates?
5. “If Mitt Romney believes what Mormonism teaches, no telling what he’ll believe,” say more than a few conservative Christians. Oh? Non-Christians have to overlook the fact that Christian candidates profess to believe that God became man, was murdered and rose from the dead. They have to ignore the fact that some Christians believe that same God-man mysteriously appears as bread and wine under certain circumstances, and others believe that the universe was created in seven literal days. The content of a religion’s doctrinal teaching is not a reliable guide to the overall judgment of one of its adherents.
8. Does freedom require religion, as Mr. Romney asserts? Superficially, no, unless you wish to argue that post-Christian Europe is unfree, which is plainly nuts.
But we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss John Adams’ observation that the U.S. Constitution is made “only for a moral and religious people” and will not work for any other. His point was that maintaining political liberty requires a people capable of governing themselves and restraining their passions for the greater good. He might have said “moral” people, and left it at that, because in his day and in ours, one can find morally upright men and women who have no religious faith and believers who are morally corrupt.
9. But the crooked timber of humanity is frail indeed. If God doesn’t exist, then by what standard do we decide right from wrong? If a society recognizes no independent, transcendent guardian of the moral order, will it not, over time, lose its self-discipline and decline into barbarism? The eminent sociologist Philip Rieff, who was not a believer, said that man would either live in fear of God or would be condemned to live in fear of the evil in himself.
10. Adams’ pronouncement raises the question: “Whose morality, and whose religion?” The American constitutional understanding of the rights of man and human dignity come out of both the Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian tradition. The American constitutional order, and the American civil religion, is inexplicable outside of both, together, in creative tension. Religion is not sufficient for securing liberty, but religion, restricted by boundaries required by a pluralist democracy, is necessary to maintain it.
11. Mr. Romney, as a Mormon, may not be a Christian, but his values are deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christians who judge a candidate’s fitness for the presidency based on his particular profession of faith should reflect on the quality of governance our devoutly evangelical president has provided over the last seven years. Martin Luther is supposed to have said that he would rather be governed by a wise Muslim than a foolish Christian.
Smart man, that Luther. For a heretic.