Romney’s Not A Christian: So What?

“I would rather be governed by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian.”  — Martin Luther

Last week, I discussed one aspect of the controversy over Rick Perry-supporter Pastor Robert Jeffress’s comments at the Values Voter Summit — namely, whether or not his characterization of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism as a “cult” was accurate and appropriate. The offensive-to-some quotes by Jeffress that are under discussion are:

“Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of our Lord Jesus Christ?”

“Well, Rick Perry’s a Christian. He’s an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. Mitt Romney’s a good, moral person but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity. So it’s the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian.”

Mitt Romney with small smile

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney

These remarks bring up another issue, of course, which I thought I’d throw in my two cents about. (For sake of discussion, whether or not you’re comfortable with the “cult” label, I’ll assume you agree that Mormonism falls outside of orthodox Christianity.) The questions is: Can a Christian in good conscience vote for a Mormon? Or, more generally, how much weight/concern should Christians give to the religion and theological doctrines (or lack thereof) that a political candidate holds? I know this is a big concern for some people. But, I wonder if the objections are sometimes knee-jerk rather than well thought out?

On the one hand, yes, the LDS have many teachings, rituals, and customs that orthodox Christianity (and many other people) consider strange. So what? That in itself is certainly no reason to write someone off. Many people think Christianity’s teachings, rituals, and customs are strange, too. I wonder how my fellow Christians would feel if an atheist told them “I can’t vote for any candidates who are ‘born-again’ Christians — or theists of any stripe, really. They just have all these weird religious beliefs and some of them even think God is telling them what to do! I just can’t help to put such a person in charge of the country, let alone our nuclear weapons!” Fair?

Related question: Would you vote for a conservative Jew?

Of more concern, I think some Christians are afraid that having a Mormon as President could make Mormonism more acceptable, even popular, with the American public. This isn’t just a question of religious turf. Orthodox Christianity teaches that other belief systems (including Mormonism) are dangerous, in that they lead people away from a proper understanding of Who/What Jesus Christ is and the true Gospel message. There are eternal consequences for such misguided beliefs. (There’s probably a better way to state that, but it’ll do for purposes of this article.) But, I don’t really think this is cause for much concern. How many people have you heard say that they became a Christian (or a particular denomination), Deist, agnostic, or whatever, because a president that they liked was of that persuasion? Extremely few, if any, I’ll bet. A Mormon in the White House might be a novelty and spark more interest in the LDS church and teachings (as Romney’s candidacy already has), but I doubt it would result in a “Great Mormon Awakening”.

“But,” you say, “a Mormon’s beliefs could affect their policy. And the role of the LDS Church in a Mormon’s life could give Mormon church leaders undue access to and influence on a Mormon President.” Well, I suppose this could be the case. Anyone who takes their religion seriously will integrate certain values and principles into their lives, and that would & should influence their decisions at work. As for the second part, I admit that I don’t know enough about LDS hierarchy and doctrine to know how much influence (or control?) a Mormon POTUS would be obligated to give LDS church leaders. [Note: The official position of the LDS Church is a non-partisan role in politics, though it is not averse to endorsements regarding certain “moral issues”.] As many are quick to point out, this was a concern when JFK, a devout Catholic, was running for President, and some people thought he would be a puppet for the Pope. Didn’t happen. So, until someone can show me something concrete in Mormon teaching that indicates Romney (or Huntsman, who is also a Mormon) would be taking orders from the First Presidency and/or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, I’m not going to fret too much over this.

Large Mormon Temple

A large Mormon Temple

On the other hand, what about the charge of “anti-Mormon bigotry” against those who dare to put Romney’s religion under the spotlight or claim that it isn’t Christian? (Ironically, these are often the same people who usually mock religious people, ask probing questions of professed Christians about their faith, and scream about “separation of Church and State”.) They complain that people like Jeffress are using unfair & unconstitutional “religious litmus tests.” What they are referring to is the end of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates:

“[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

However, this needs to be understood in context. The Article in question asserts that the Constitution and all subsequent, federal laws and treaties “shall be the supreme Law of the Land,” thereby taking precedence over any “contrary” State laws. It then goes on to state that officers of all three branches of government, State and Federal, are sworn to abide by the U.S. Constitution. So, why would it then tack on the above clause disallowing religious tests for holders of government office? Because the early, individual States/colonies were often dominated by a particular Christian denomination, and the State constitutions allowed for (or mandated) such litmus tests in elections and appointments to State office. This clause in Article VI was another way of “de-sectarianizing” the government, such that one could not be “shut out” from office for not belonging to a particular denomination or sect or adhering (or not) to a particular set of religious doctrines.

But,… just because certain religious beliefs cannot be a legal requirement for office, there is nothing to prevent people from taking such things into consideration in their personal assessment of candidates. To do so would be a breach of 1st Amendment rights. (And pretty hard to enforce, when it came down to it.)

Now, getting back to Jeffress’ above quotes, as I understand it, the first was made in the course of his introduction of Rick Perry on stage, while the second was a later response to a journalist’s question about whether or not he would ever endorse a non-Christian. (Or, maybe it was whether he could ever vote for Romney. Not sure.) I admit, this didn’t quite sit right with me, at first. It sounded like Jeffress was saying that a Christian — or, at least, one who self-identifies as “evangelical” — should only vote for a fellow-Christian. I wanted to ask questions such as: What about the candidates’ positions on different issues and ideas for solutions? Is this just for primaries, or general elections, too? What if there is no “evangelical Christian” in the race?

On MSNBC with Alex Witt a day or two later, Pastor Jeffress explained further:

“I believe that Mitt Romney is a good, moral, family man. I’ve said in interviews that if it was a choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, I would vote for Mitt Romney. But, I believe, in this primary season, those of us who are evangelical Christians ought to look at a number of criteria for selecting our nominee, and, certainly, we would prefer someone who embraces historical, evangelical Christianity over someone who doesn’t…. [I]f Mormonism is not a concern to a lot of conservatives out there, there are a lot of other reasons to be concerned about Mitt Romney, not least of which is his inconsistent conservative positions on values like the sanctity of life…. I don’t think Mitt Romney will energize evangelical voters, not just because of the Mormon issue, but because he is viewed as an inconsistent conservative…. Right now, when we evangelicals have a choice, I think we ought to prefer someone like Rick Perry [who holds to orthodox Christianity] over Mitt Romney. But, if Mitt Romney is the nominee, I’ll support him.”

Pastor Robert Jeffress on town sidewalk

Pastor Robert Jeffress

In another interview, Jeffress said,

“I really am not nearly as concerned about a candidate’s fiscal policy or immigration policy as I am where they stand on what I believe are Biblical issues. And that’s why I’m embracing Governor Perry. I believe his voice is strongly consistent on those values that evangelical Christians find important…. I believe every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian, ah, if things like competency and other issues are the same.”

And again,

“…[T]hose of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.”

Well, that helps some. Jeffress would endorse and vote for Romney over Obama in the general election. In the primaries, though, he thinks (evangelical) Christians have not only the right but the duty to vote for a self-professed, orthodox Christian (assuming there is one running) over anyone else. The assumption is that said “Christian” will have the same values and concerns and will lead always with those values in mind, and presumably with God’s blessing. This is certainly understandable, since everyone wants someone like-minded to them in charge.

Of course, Christians still differ on matters of policy, appropriate legislative or military action, etc. There is the issue of competency, too, which I was glad to hear Jeffress bring up in the later interviews. He mentions “a number of criteria for selecting our nominee” yet doesn’t seem to place much importance on things like fiscal and immigration policy. Instead he focuses on “Biblical issues” with a moral component, e.g., sanctity of life. Unfortunately, I think this represents a short-sightedness common among many Christians. I think all policies have a moral component, even if that isn’t always as clear as with certain social issues. I’d like to know what other selection criteria Jeffress has in mind.

For me, I want to have some idea of a candidate’s positions on all conservative issues — fiscal/economic, military/security, social/cultural –, as well as any ideas they have for solving the most pressing problems. I want to make sure they have an originalist view of the Constitution and strongly support the real rights expressed or implied therein, not those ‘discovered’ or intuited by progressive activists. I’d like to hear sensible approaches to energy independence (including making good use of our natural resources) and patient-centered healthcare; commitment to tax reform and limited government; a practical, non-alarmist approach to environmental issues; etc. Also, do the most reliable polls (or whatever criteria one may use) indicate that a particular candidate can win in the general election?

checklist cartoonBeing a theologically conservative Christian might give a candidate another plus point in my overall assessment. But the religion issue is really secondary, or even tertiary. I want to make sure — or, at least, have some level of confidence — that a candidate not only supports “family values” & broadly Judeo-Christian principles but also has the right skills, the right ideas. I’m not going to agree with any candidate on everything. But, I need to believe they can win the general election and will uphold the Constitution, support “traditional” values, keep the U.S. strong, and get us back on firm economic footing again. As long as s/he can do that, I don’t care if they are Mormon, Christian, Jew, Atheist, or Agnostic.

“Mitt Romney’s not running for pastor, he’s not running for bishop, and he’s not running for Pope. This is a presidential election.”  — Ralph Reed, Faith and Freedom Coalition

P.S.  Just for the record, Mitt Romney is not my first choice (or second or probably third, either). But, if he wins the GOP primaries, I (like Pastor Jeffress) will support and vote for him in a heartbeat over Obama or anyone else out of the liberal/progressive Democrat stable. As I did with McCain, hold my nose and pull the lever.

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