Just When You Think The Worst Is Over…
One of my Evangelical brethren jumps up and just flat out makes a fool of himself. R. Phillip Roberts, president of the Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary, ran a breakout session at a conference on Christian Apologetics called "Mitt Romney: Should Evangelicals Vote for a Mormon President?" and let's just say he was less than enthusiastic about the prospect. David over at EFM has done a great job of refuting much of the nonsense reported, but there are a couple of additional points that I want to tackle.
The opening paragraph of the Baptist Press piece is:
The "overarching and primary concern" why evangelicals likely will not vote for a Mormon for president is the Mormon claim to be the only true Christian church, a Southern Baptist seminary president said during the International Society of Christian Apologetics' annual meeting in Kansas City, Mo.
That is the most overstated bit of the obvious I have ever seen. Every religion, every church, every denomination makes such a claim, in fact it is definitional for a religion of any stripe to claim to have THE TRUTH. All this is is a fancy, high-falutin', attempt-to-sound-smart way of returning to the same old dog-marking-its-territory battle over the word "Christian." More on this in a minute.
But then there is this whopper of a paragraph:
The nation's conservative constituency and their spokesmen "must be very careful about how they speak to Christian voters," Roberts continued. "They must understand that we can't … divide up and deconstruct a Christian personality … or position so that, 'Yes, you can vote as a Christian on one issue, but not on another.'"
That is truly an amazing statement, and frankly a bit frightening, but revelatory. This paragraph, taken in conjunction with the one quoted above, reveals one of the major flaws in this particular branch of Evangelicalism today – it has lost the intellectual moorings of the greater Christian movement and been reduced to an arguement over when the label applies and when it doesn't.
A Christian, creedal or Mormon, is always a Christian, or course they are not somehow sub-divided into Christian and non-Christian parts. What smart ones do is take their faith and intellect, look at an issue and apply those to arrive at a stance, which will always be a "Christian" stance because it has been taken by a Christian using Christian principles. However, this naturally means that Christians are going to disagree on stuff.
In the book, Religious Literacy, Stepehen Prothero makes the case that American Evangelicalism has largely reduced itself to a religious label without much religious content, an affiliation without faith or much in the way of practice. I think Prothero overstates the case; such is not true accross the breadth of Evanagelicalism, but it is true for some streams of it; and this, frankly, is one of them.
As if to make my point for me, John Podhoretz at The Corner over last Thursday described Romney as "The Other." Indeed, Mormonism is different than creedal Christianity, but "The Other"? That's about labels, not reality.
Lowell interjects: I think J-Pod is revealing an Eastern elitist provincial bias. I doubt he's acquainted with many Mormons. In the West, I'll wager it would strike most people as odd to consider Mormons the "Other." But what do I know? I'm one of those . . . Others?
I am struck by how much these statements, about what is and is not under the "Christian" umbrella, sound like the much maligned and always feared declarations of who is and who is not a part of "the church" which many fundamental Protestants decry from Roman Catholics. In essence, "You're a 'Christian' when I say you're a 'Christian.'"
The Roman Catholic Church has overcome this historical tendency and learned how to work in the American system – as have the Mormons. Sadly, it appears that some branches of Evangelicalism, a movement founded out of that same system, has "grown" to the point where they have picked up that rejected mantle.
In the end it is a naked fight over the political power that comes with the label. Such is precisely the circumstance that triggered the Protestant Reformation – the church lost its mission for the sake of the power it wielded. It appears to this observer that some of us have come full circle.
Speaking of which, American Catholic bishops discuss their political involvement in the current election cycle, and, sadly, display a reason and grace with which I resonate far more than the statements of Roberts above. It is instructive that theologically I personally am much, much farther from the Roman Catholic bishops than I am from the Southern Baptists.
In yet another counter-example, people keep looking at where Obama goes to church. There are two important comments about this piece. The first is that in the practice of Christianity Obama's church deviates far more from the generally perceived Christian norm than does Mormon practice, and yet we are not treated to any seminary officers decrying the church as other than Christian. What matters more when looking for someone as a business partner, or a president: what they think, or what they do?
Secondly, Obama's church has to go a long way to suffer the scrutiny the LDS have in this election cycle. This strikes me as Obama trying to play the religious victim card.
Meanwhile, back on the campaign trail, as we reported on Friday, some of McCain's people got stupid, and have stirred up a real hornet's nest. Late Friday, McCain took a shot at an apology, but given his history and plummeting numbers, I'm thinking it is too little, too late. A candidate worth serious consideration would never have gotten himself into this deep of a hole to begin with.
It is, however, interesting to note that the last couple of weeks have seen one top-tier (Guiliani); one second-tier (Brownback); and one first-tier-to-the-press, second, no third, no fourth-tier-to-the-base (McCain) candidate apologize loudly and publicly to Romney – Sort of makes Romney look like he is leading doesn't it? Please note, Romney never demanded these apologies, that would be playing the victim card, all he did was receive what the American public knew he deserved.
Although I think Romney is walking a tight rope with this AP story that spread like wildfire Saturday.
Mitt Romney said Saturday that criticism of his Mormon religion by rival Republican presidential campaigns is happening too frequently.
It is important to note that Romney limits his comments here to other candidates and to his religion as a political issue. These are comments he needs to make, but timing is all important. In this case he made them in SLC where they are bound to resonate, but they will also be off-putting to the Roberts, from above, of the world. People like Roberts will perceive Romney's comments as an apologetic defense of Mormonism, which they are not, but such people see all things in terms of apologetics. Romney is betting that the case has been made sufficently with most Evangelicals that the religious comments are off limits – the rapid, well save for McCain the increasingly non-important, apologies are indication that it has. But that will not prevent some from trying to capitalize – sadly.
Some additional notes from Lowell:
With political "buzz" like this, and NRO repeating it as if it were significant, The Question will never go away. I would think a writer like Geraghty would know better.
John comments: The Question is no longer a question, it's the press narrative, they report on it reflexivly, for most of the press it is a question of "easy." For Geraghty it is more a question of thinking too hard to find some reason to join the chorus of his compatriots. Fortunately, voters are not part of the publishing peer group.
A late, but extremely excellent addition:
Political observer extraordinaire, John Fund of the the Wall Street Journal, pens his weekly column today titled, "Question of Faith." His two concluding paragraphs are one of the most excellent summations of the proper view of The Question – I have yet to encounter:
Recognizing that Mr. Romney's faith is in some ways a major benefit to him while also discussing the backlash some voters have against him is perfectly appropriate. But journalists and supporters of other candidates should also strive to include another perspective. Mr. Romney notes the indisputable fact that most Americans are religious and goes on to say: "I think the American people want a person of faith to lead the country. I don't think Americans care what brand of faith someone has."
That is not entirely true. But it would help all of us if everyone in the political community worked towards that goal. In a country as diverse as ours, we will benefit if there are as few religious barriers as possible to those seeking high office. We've made great strides. After all, few people know or care that there are now two Buddhists in Congress–Democratic Reps. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. We will be a better country if even people who don't support Mr. Romney for president come to recognize that our country is better off if his candidacy rises or falls on factors that have nothing to do with his faith.