CULT OR CULTURE?: Is the growing tolerance of Mitt Romney’s faith among evangelical Christians a sign of theological maturity or political desperation? (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
“We’re electing him to be our Commander-in-Chief, not Pastor-in-Chief.” That’s how one Christian woman recently defended her support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a Facebook comment.
It has been curious to observe the about-face that many formerly doctrinaire evangelicals have taken when it comes to the subject of Governor Romney’s religion. For most evangelical Christians, the Mormon faith has commonly been viewed as an unorthodox, non-Christian religion. Even the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which once characterized the Mormon religion as cultic, recently deleted that wording from its website. This has got me to thinking more about the relationship between politics and faith.
In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F.H. Henry, one of the principal architects of the modern evangelical movement, called conservative Protestant Christians to abandon their otherworldly stance encouraged by the liberal-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s and to actively engage society from an orthodox Christian worldview in order to redeem our culture from the chaos of the times. Though his message initially was met with stiff resistance from older evangelicals, Henry’s message was warmly received by the younger ones who went on to positively impact society from a distinctively Christian worldview.
Since 1947, when Henry’s influential book was first published, until now, evangelicals have increased their sophistication in articulating the gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ and in their analysis of social problems and corresponding solutions. Evangelicals subscribe to a high view of Scripture and have always maintained that all true knowledge is divine in origin and is complementary to the Word of God. As a result of this conviction, they have boldly and confidently entered into all the realms of social engagement that previous generations affected by the impact of fundamentalism were reticent to enter. One of these areas has been the political arena.
The engagement of the political arena by orthodox Protestant believers is not new; from colonial times until the present, Christians have been at the center of much of the contested issues in American life. What evangelicals brought to the table was a clear commitment to the Bible, personal conversion, and social engagement. Evangelicalism sought to bridge the chasm opened by the focus of fundamentalists on evangelism to the exclusion of social witness and the focus on social justice by liberals to the exclusion of personal conversion. While evangelicals have always leaned towards the right politically, they have always done so with a theological articulation for that leaning. Plainly put, most evangelicals are convinced that the Republican Party is more compatible with the Christian faith than the Democratic Party.
While I am not surprised that most evangelicals heartily endorse the Republican Party given its explicit commitment to religious liberty and its stated support for certain moral positions congenial to conservative social ethics, I must admit that I am a bit disturbed by the implications of the current evangelical support for Mitt Romney. While aspects of my own sociology tempt me to critique this support for his candidacy, my main contention is theological.
I am concerned about the theological implications of Christians committed to a certain view of Scripture and of orthodoxy wholeheartedly endorsing a candidate who is a member of a religious tradition whose doctrine compromises both. I am not saying that it is inherently wrong for a Christian to vote for a secular candidate or a member of another religious tradition; after all, we do live in a post-Christian, secular, pluralistic democracy. What I am saying is that Christians have an inherent responsibility to wrestle with the implications of the teachings of Scripture, the witness of the Christian tradition, and sober theological reflection when doing so.
Simply put, Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints matters. Maybe not enough to automatically invalidate him as a viable candidate, but it does matter. The reasons are obvious, almost all evangelicals have asserted that the the Mormon religion is not in fact a legitimate Christian denomination and is in fact a heretical sect. By contrast, as far as I know, no credible evangelical has ever stated that the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which President Barack Obama received his religious formation, is an illegitimate Christian tradition. (A bent for liberation theology and a progressive stance on certain social issues is not a disqualification for Christian orthodoxy.)
The groundswell of evangelical support for a Romney candidacy seems peculiar — not so much because of what evangelicals are saying, but because of what they have said about Barack Obama’s beliefs in the past, and what they are not saying about Mitt Romney’s now. Despite President Obama’s public confession of his Christianity on numerous occasions, many still question the veracity of his faith, calling him a “closet Muslim” or pointing to his support of same-sex marriage. But do they practice the same degree of scrutiny when it comes to Governor Romney’s beliefs? As a friend of mine recently said, “What’s worse, altering the definition of marriage, or redefining the nature of God?”
It’s something to think about.
‘Alive but Ailing’
“Affirmative action is alive but ailing, the idea of ‘critical mass’ to measure racial diversity is in very critical condition, and a nine-year-old precedent may have to be reshaped in order to survive. Those were the dominant impressions at the close of a one-hour, nineteen-minute argument in the Supreme Court Wednesday,” said veteran U.S. Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, after the Court heard arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
Embarrassed for the Court
“Critical mass” is the idea that there need to be enough students of color attending a school to overcome a sense of “racial isolation,” explained Linda Greenhouse at The New York Times. Greenhouse was embarrassed for the court after acquainting herself with its questions, she said. “Of the four justices most intent on curbing or totally eradicating affirmative action — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas — the three who spoke (minus Justice Thomas, of course) failed to engage with the deep issues raised by Fisher v. University of Texas. …It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that ridicule rather than a search for understanding was the name of the game.”
Plaintiff ‘Failed to Meet Threshold’
The plaintiff in the case, Abigail Fisher, “failed to meet the threshold of being in the top 10 percent of her graduating high school class — which would have automatically guaranteed admission to UT,” said Edward Wyckoff Williams at The Root. He went on to argue that “four decades after legalized discrimination was still codified in law, racial disparities persist at nearly every level of American society. From criminal justice to education, employment to housing, minorities in general and African Americans in particular continue to face an uphill battle toward social and economic equity.”
Affirmative Action for Whites
Williams also mentioned a new book, What’s the Matter With White People? in which the author, Joan Walsh, reminds readers that “white Americans enjoyed the benefits of the Great Society social welfare programs, in particular the postwar GI Bill, expansion of public universities, FHA mortgage-lending guarantees and union jobs … amounting to affirmative action government policies for poor and low-income whites — and often, almost explicitly, excluded African Americans and other people of color.”
At The Huffington Post, Steve Nelson accused Fisher of having her cake and wanting to eat it too and he accused the court of appearing “ready to hand her a fork.” Said Nelson: “The young white woman, a recent graduate of Louisiana State University, filed the lawsuit now being considered because, she claims, she was unfairly denied admission to the University of Texas. One might argue whether the distinction between these two institutions is so great that Fisher had standing to bring the case at all. She claims that this allegedly diminished pedigree has done her grievous harm. Whatever. Lots of kids don’t get into the colleges they most desire. Did Fisher, or those who advised her to sue, choose to complain that some other white student of ‘lesser qualification’ won the spot she so dearly coveted? No, it was only the allegedly ‘inferior’ black applicants whom she apparently resents.”
Court’s High Bar Cleared
Noting that “the Supreme Court has [previously] insisted that any affirmative action plan must meet the test of ‘strict scrutiny’ — that is, that the plan must be ‘narrowly tailored’ to serve a ‘compelling interest,'”Greenhouse said “the justices obviously know that the court has concluded that affirmative action in higher education admissions can clear that high bar — as it did nine years ago in Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Michigan Law School decision.” So, she concluded, “There was a context in which the Regents of the University of Texas, following upon the Michigan decision, chose to act, a history they sought to acknowledge, and a better future they hoped to achieve for their diverse state by supplementing the unsatisfactory and mechanical ‘top 10 percent admissions plan with one that considers each applicant as an individual — with race as ‘only one modest factor among many others.'”
‘Temporary Measure’ to Permanent Entitlement
At Forbes, Bill Frezza wondered how “a set of ‘temporary measures to level the playing field’ become a permanent entitlement advantaging even minorities from wealthy backgrounds over white kids who grew up in poverty?” Frezza advised readers to take the approach that blond-haired, blue-eyed U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren did when she identified herself as a Native American on a Harvard Law School job application. Said Frezza: “Suppose enough of us chose to adopt the Warren standard? After all, every human being has ancestors that came from Africa, however remote. Who’s to say we don’t identify with them?And therein lies the fastest way to put an end to affirmative action without relying on the courts or the ballot box.”
Clever, isn’t he?
Downside for People of Color
Frezza and Fisher are obviously not alone in their disdain for Affirmative Action. Some however, are uncomfortable about it for entirely different reasons. At CNN, for example, LZ Granderson said, “If I had a nickel each time a white guy e-mails or tweets that I have my job because I’m black, I wouldn’t need the job, because I’d be rich. This is at the heart of a little talked about secret regarding affirmative action: A lot of black professionals don’t like it either. Not because they think the playing field is necessarily leveled, but rather their skills and talents are constantly being slighted by whites who think their jobs were given to them solely because of their race.”
Big Business Backs It
Big business, meanwhile, is on the aside of Affirmative Action, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “Some of the biggest corporations in America say that having a diverse payroll helps boost sales, and they want the Supreme Court to keep that in mind as it considers this term’s affirmative-action case,” the article said.
What do you think?
Should Affirmative Action become another entry in the history books or is it still necessary for leveling the playing field?