The Relative Comment

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Mormons, Christians and American Presidents.

with 8 comments

We are in the throes of another presidential primary season, which means, among other things, that religion and politics are being uncomfortably joined together, and candidates are enduring the headaches that result from tearing them asunder. Last time it was Christianity as understood by white Americans in suburbs clashing with the Christianity of urban African-Americans. This time the contrast is evangelical Christianity and the cult of Mormonism, or the Religion of Mormonism, or the Christian Denomination of Mormonism, depending on whom you ask.

Front-runner for the GOP Presidential Nomination, Mitt Romney, is a Mormon. Everyone knows this. Some people, like evangelical Christian and former front-runner for the GOP Presidential Nomination, Rick Perry, may not be comfortable with Romney’s Mormon faith. There is wide swath of opinions, apparently, on whether Mormon’s belief in Christ makes them Christians, or whether their religion is outside the bounds of Christianity, and is thus a false religion.

Growing up in the Midwest, I knew several Mormon families, and they seemed to be generally viewed as slightly odd if not kooky, but certainly not as a threat.  They were our friends and their Mormonism was known and not commented upon. It was just kind of weird. (Originally I wrote down some of the beliefs of the Mormon Church that seem strange, but when you write them side by side, Christianity’s beliefs really aren’t any less kooky.) This is not news to the Mormon Church, which has been making great strides to advance its image of normalcy in the US in recent years. I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials (which I’m not going to link to, but you can watch them all at mormon.org).

But the Midwest tries hard to be nice. There’s seems to be a little more worry regarding the Mormon Church in other circles, such the centers of the Evangelical Church. It seems fair to say that (correct me if I’m wrong) Evangelical Christianity does not accept Mormons into the fold, and as Evangelicals have a strong voice in American Politics, problems are bound to appear when someone, like Mitt Romney, tries to blend the two. The most recent uproar comes from Pastor Robert Jeffress, who introduced Rick Perry at a speaking engagement. Jeffress described Mormonism as  cult, called Planned Parenthood a slaughterhouse, and asked, ““Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person — or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?””

Small uproars ensued. Mitt Romney asked Perry to publicly decry the claim that Mormonism is a cult, which Perry did not do, because Jeffress is not an associate of Perry’s, which then turned out not to be the case, so Rick Perry did acknowledge his belief that Mormonism is not a cult, shortly after describing Jeffress as having “knocked it out the park” with his introduction. These are the binds one will inevitably find in the mixture of presidential politics and religion.

Many journalists/bloggers/rabble-rousers ran with the Perry-Romney-Cult dust-up, since they love writing about the consequences of these kind of religious intervals into presidential politics. And who doesn’t? It’s great fodder for complaining; that’s what we’re doing right now. The question I have and I haven’t seen addressed is: why should anyone be surprised that a Southern Baptist Pastor believes, and would say, that Mormonism is a cult? Of course that’s what Jeffress thinks, along with a lot of evangelicals around the world. Because Mormonism isn’t Christianity, at least not to Jeffress. What else does it take for a religion that is not Christianity to be considered a cult by Christians like Jeffress? This is religion we’re talking about. It’s not acceptable (possible?) to dispute the Truth when one’s religion has a different capital-T than another religion. Overlapping Truths, I can understand, and promote. But exclusive Truths don’t overlap. And if you are outside, your options are few and unpleasant.

Remember that uproar over Reverend Wright and Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign? I wondered the same thing about that issue. Why wouldn’t Reverend Wright, a black preacher in a black community in Chicago, preach what he preached? And why wouldn’t white suburban Christians not feel threatened? That makes perfect sense. It’s all considered Christianity, to the Christian who believes it.

So here’s a little rant: The shock people feel at the exclusivity or the rigidity or the offensive nature of someone else’s beliefs is either false, or misplaced. Religion has no place in politics, whether you think Mormonism is a cult, or think that evangelical Christianity is oppressive, or Reverend Wright’s Christianity is anti-white, or that Religion impedes the progress of society. If you adhere to the strict notion of capital-T religious truth, then  the others have to be wrong, by necessity, and you are free to condemn them to hell or to accept the differences. Either way, it shouldn’t matter, because none of this has a place in politics. The only way that these conversations serve the presidential process is to demonstrate how candidates handle bad press. If you are President Obama, you give a speech on religion and race and handle the problem with poise and grace. If you are Mitt Romney, you keep your hands clean and stay above the fray. And if you are Rick Perry, you continue your fall from relevance, because, unfortunately, religious discrimination in politics does not play outside of a small community of religious hardliners.

Regardless, keep your religious muck out of the political process. There is plenty of muck gumming up politics as it is.

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Written by Christopher ZF

October 18, 2011 at 11:54

8 Responses

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  1. Not being American, i can only comment from an observer’s perspective. But as to your final “rant” i can only ask this: CAN we keep religion out of politics? I suppose it depends on how you define religion, but i’ve found, on the whole, that people mean ‘religious convictions’ by the term religion. And in that sense, i don’t see how it would be possible to keep that out of politics for our convictions are a big part of the definition of who we are as people. My convictions about life (and when it begins) will shape my policies on abortion. My convictions about marriage will shape my policies on same-sex unions. Yes, politicians are to represent the people firstly, but the people vote on this person based on who they are and whether or not they feel they will best represent them. In that light, i don’t see religion EVER being divorced from politics.

    outin2thedeep

    October 18, 2011 at 12:53

    • I don’t actually think we should remove religion form our politicians, morals, convictions, etc. Just from our political processes. Which I admit is impossible. You are right that we cannot separate the two. But I think that is an unfortunate situation to be lamented and to try our darnedest to correct, rather than throw our hands up.

      I’m working towards the (my) ideal picture, where presidential candidates lay out policies and a plans for the nation (pro-life or pro-choice / pro-gay marriage or anti-), and that American voters decide based on policy prescription and plans for the future (rather than devolve into damnations and pseudo-scientific/religious pandering for votes).

      In this world, the status of one’s religion in comparison to another has no bearing. Ah, to dream.

      czfinke

      October 18, 2011 at 13:19

  2. A well-reasoned rant. Here’s mine: I’ve got $50 that says that Perry has no idea what makes Evangelicalism doctrinally distinct from Mormonism. I find it odd that Perry and other Evangelicals care at all to make the distinction between their own Evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism. Evangelicals have always privileged their message over doctrine, and continue to do so at the expense of doctrine–and doctrine is really the only meaningful distinction between Perry’s Evangelicalism and Romney’s Mormonism. Politically, socio-economically, and morally, the Evangelicals are almost indistinguishable from Mormons (Prop 8? Anybody?). Only in a primary fight between two white rich guys who both want to run on a record of economic prowess would something like this matter.

    Luke Freeman

    October 18, 2011 at 13:36

  3. Here’s a paragraph i wrote to a friend to add some clarity to the idea that religion does not belong in politics, by which I mean, the political process.

    “I do not argue that one must keep one’s religious convictions to oneself in politics. nor does it seem necessary for politicians to not be religious individuals or to tout their religious convictions or beliefs. that’s all fine and constitutional. the problem is that the process of politics in the United States should be removed from religion. Of course one’s policy and governing schema are going to be influenced by one’s religion. But the processes need to operate separately. Thus one’s policies, determined by religion or not, are the proper material for politics, not how one arrived through prayer to get to that policy. Otherwise we end up not with political opponents but a political world where the opposition is a member of a cult, or going to hell, or what-have-you.”

    czfinke

    October 18, 2011 at 13:56

  4. I’m short of the source at the moment, but I recall reading about a survey showing that significant portions of the populace have qualms about (or refuse to) vot(ing) for an atheist. 30%? I might be pulling numbers out of my ass but that seems to stick in my head for some reason.

    I can’t help but be reminded of the Christianity and Western Culture class at Bethel, where the framework laying out a “meaningless existence”, with “no moral compass” was laid out for a secular society – with Freud, postmodernism, et al. as the culprit. The dots were already on the paper – professors only expected us to connect them. It’s that much more sad in retrospect, and in this context – that those beliefs are still so pervasive.

    But more generally speaking, where our political process is based around a contingent of rigid ideologues or the politically/intellectually lazy – from both sides of the spectrum – I can only hope that the balance doesn’t shift too much to prevent the “rational” minority from being the group which truly determines electoral outcomes.

    Evan Burke

    October 20, 2011 at 00:23

    • I would expect that number to be much higher than 30%, Evan. Atheists and smokers are the two most disliked population groupings in the US.

      czfinke

      October 20, 2011 at 09:07

      • Don’t forget fat people. Fat discrimination is another of the few remaining socially acceptable ways to discriminate – heavier people being stereotyped as lazy, unhealthy, etc. despite research showing it’s very heavily dependent on genetics, and that it’s relatively common to be overweight and perfectly healthy with low risk of heart disease, diabetes, etc.

        Evan

        October 20, 2011 at 20:31

  5. […] a post about Mormonism, Religion and Politics, the following comment was […]


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