The Riddle of Romney’s Religion

The Riddle of Romney’s Religion

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.

From Congo to Middle America

From Congo to Middle America

SHARING THE BREAD OF LIFE: When not making biscuits at a local restaurant, Democratic Republic of Congo refugee Benjamin Kisoni pastors a congregation of African immigrants in Tennessee. He awaits asylum in the U.S. and dreams of reuniting with his family. (Photo by Dawn Jewell)

Benjamin Kisoni’s recent life reads like the story of a modern-day Joseph. But instead of donning a fine multicolored robe, he ties apron strings in pre-dawn stillness. His fingers freeze mixing chilled buttermilk and flour. He is preparing the day’s first biscuits at the fast-food restaurant Bojangles’ in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Until three years ago, Benjamin had never tasted a biscuit in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Amidst the region’s ongoing turmoil, he was pastoring a Baptist church and publishing a Christian youth magazine. But in 2009, five times men assailed his house, seeking to kill him. Each time Benjamin evaded them. Desperate, he fled to the U.S., leaving behind his wife and eight children (ages 14 to 30) and effectively shutting down his family’s printing business.

Benjamin was targeted because he pursued a court case for his brother’s assassination. Hired gunmen had murdered his brother, a veterinarian and businessman respected for his humanitarian works. Local influential leaders had feared his brother’s increasing popularity.

“I love my country and wanted to help change it by writing. I never imagined I’d be chased from it,” he says. He and his wife reluctantly agreed that his leaving the DR Congo was the best chance they had for everyone to survive. So in May 2009, the beleaguered pastor arrived with one suitcase in small town America, welcomed by his sister and her husband.

Since then, Benjamin’s faith has been refined. After applying for asylum and while awaiting a work permit, Benjamin penned his story on God and suffering to encourage his fellow countrymen. “The ink which wrote this book is my tears,” he says. The book, “God, Where Are You?” will be released later this year by Zondervan’s Hippo imprint.

Biscuits for Jesus

Five days a week Benjamin rises at 3 a.m. to pray and read Scripture. His eight-hour shift begins at 4:30. He has honed the science of Bojangles’ made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits.

“It’s non-stop work,” he says. But God prepared Benjamin via his Master of Theology thesis on the ethics of work years ago.

Last year Benjamin was promoted to Master Biscuit Maker, training new hires from other restaurants. On their first day, he tells each trainee: “I’m a Christian, I love God…The manager may be present or not, but I know God is there. I’m working to please God.”

God, in turn, has blessed the work of his hands. Business has improved at Benjamin’s Bojangles’ location since he started working there, his boss told him. Three times his manager has nominated him “employee of the month.”

Each month Benjamin wires home a large portion of his meager salary to provide food, medicine and rent for his family. It’s not how he  imagined supporting them or rebuilding his nation. But he has accepted God’s plans.

Silent worship carries Benjamin through hours of biscuit-making. As the batter forms a ball, he softly sings in French:
“Here is Good News for all who are disappointed;
He offers better than anything we’ve lost,
Because what we see is not all there is,
His provision never ends…” (English translation)

“I used to think you can go through suffering and then reach victory on the other side. But I’ve learned that when you are in the midst of suffering and have hope in God, that is victory,” he says. Like Joseph, this suffering servant in exile has excelled, trusting in God’s plan.

An African Billy Graham

God keeps confirming the strange twists of Benjamin’s life. Twelve years ago, he dreamed he was helping to build a church, oddly within a bigger church. Today Benjamin is senior pastor to a fledgling congregation of local African immigrants. It meets within the larger American Grace Fellowship Church.

On a recent Sunday, 50 men and women, and more than 25 children from Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, the DR Congo and Cameroon filled chairs. The International Christian Fellowship formed in 2009 out of a Bible study to meet cultural needs that American churches couldn’t.

From the pulpit, Pastor Benjamin preaches the Word clearly and simply; Billy Graham is his life-long model. As a pastor’s son, a young Benjamin devoured each new issue of Graham’s Decision magazine.  Today he avoids theological debates and exhorts congregants to imitate Jesus. The church is slowly expanding.

Besides discipling fellow Africans, Benjamin has helped Bryan Henderson, a bi-vocational pastor and financial advisor, grasp God more clearly. The two men email, pray and meet regularly as friends and accountability partners.  “I’m white, he’s black. I grew up with privilege and he grew up with poverty,” Bryan says.  “We had nothing in common, but everything in common. We had the Holy Spirit guiding us.”

BI-VOCATIONAL BROTHERS: Bryan Henderson (left), a pastor and financial advisor, met Benjamin during a time of personal despair. “He helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” says Bryan. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Henderson)

The two men met shortly after Bryan had lost his job with financial giant Merrill Lynch. Benjamin’s deep faith amidst persecution and trials “really helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” Bryan says. Now they discuss church leadership issues, American and African culture, and Scripture passages.

A strong daily dose of God’s word sustains Benjamin’s hope. “People here want fast food, fast cars, fast this, fast that. They haven’t learned to wait patiently on the Lord,” he says.

Recently he resonated with the three women who carried spices to Jesus’ tomb, despite awareness they couldn’t budge the boulder at the entrance (Mark 16). “The women could’ve stayed home, but they didn’t,” he says. “So I said, ‘God, I have many stones in my way. I believe you will remove them.’”

A Place to Call Home?

The biggest stone in Benjamin’s life is his asylum case. Last year the U.S. granted asylum to about 25,000 people seeking sanctuary,  although three times as many applied here. Like refugees, asylum seekers flee their home countries because of persecution or well-grounded fears thereof, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Back home, Benjamin is sure he would be killed. His family is scattered across the eastern DR Congo, too afraid to return to their house but tired of living in limbo. Recently his daughter texted him, “Dad, I want to go back home. If they will kill me, let them kill me.”

This May an immigration judge denied Benjamin asylum, claiming inadequate grounds. His lawyer is appealing, but the process could last years.

Massive backlogs of asylum cases sit in the vastly under-resourced U.S. court system, says Lisa Koop, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a Chicago non-profit. Anxiety for family members still facing danger back home is a huge stressor for asylum seekers, Koop says.

In recent months, fighting between marauding militia and the army has increased in the lush green hills of eastern DR Congo, near Benjamin’s hometown. Despite peace accords signed in 2003, 5 million people have died since 1998 in the world’s deadliest conflict.  The current battle for power, the region’s mineral wealth, or security originates in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the subsequent flight of Hutu civilians and militia into the DR Congo.

Meanwhile, Benjamin looks beyond the American dream, “longing for a better country, a heavenly one,” he says (Hebrews 11:14).

“I  trust God because He’s sovereign. I’m not asking the ‘why’ questions,” he told Bryan after his case was denied.

The final pages of Benjamin’s story are unwritten. Meanwhile, reads his book’s epilogue: “I thank God for my suffering. He made himself known to me, and through them he has allowed me to comfort others.”

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King Memorial Controversy Continues

King Memorial Controversy Continues

Does the King Memorial Make Him Sound Arrogant?

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that was unveiled last week came under fire first for appearing too Asian. Now poet and author Maya Angelou says a quote inscribed on the statue makes the humble pastor sound too arrogant.

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told Ebeneezer Baptist Church two months before he died in 1968. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

“The sermon was so powerful that the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader,” The Washington Post reported today, but a design change led to a paraphrase instead. The inscription on the side of the statue reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” said Angelou, who consulted on the project. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.” Ever the wordsmith, Angelou added, ” The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

Angelou isn’t the first writer to make this observation. Last week, Washington Post editor Rachel Manteuffel voiced a similar complaint. “An ‘if’ clause is an extraordinarily bad thing to leave out of a quote. If  I had to be a type of cheese, being Swiss is best,” she wrote. “I say, let’s undo the mistake. Let’s get the chisels back out. Let’s remember the words he chose and not let this be one more way we’ve failed King.”

Should Rev. Billy Graham Get a Statue Too?

“Not now,” wrote Charlotte Observer journalist Tim Funk at his Funk on Faith blog, but after Graham goes to his heavenly reward “a statue of this Charlotte-born evangelist — pastor to presidents — would be a popular addition to Our Nation’s Capital,” Funk said. But the U.S. Capital would be a more appropriate location than the National Mall, which he said should be “reserved for titans who profoundly changed America: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK.”

Funk chose the capital building because each state is allowed to donate likenesses of two of its native children and he thinks two former North Carolina governors have had their day under the dome. There’s precedent too. Hawaii, California, Utah, and Illinois have all donated statuary of religious figures, said Funk.

What do you think? Does the King paraphrase make a humble preacher sound arrogant? Should Rev. Graham be similarly honored?

Graham’s Diversity Push Lives On

Graham’s Diversity Push Lives On

Will Graham

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) may not be the first organization people think of as a leader in reconciliation ministry, but at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration that took place in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, on May 20-22, the ministry’s emphasis on diversity brought Christians together to meet the spiritual needs of an ethnically, racially, and denominationally diverse population, as the legendary evangelist’s grandson, William Franklin Graham IV, and others addressed enthusiastic crowds.

“For us to move into a city and begin to work with churches, it’s understood that we look for denominational and racial inclusiveness. It’s not something that we have to be told. It’s in the BGEA DNA, and that goes back to Dr. Graham’s commitment to racial inclusiveness,” said Rod Barnett, director of BGEA’s North American crusade field staff.

Christians counseling new believers at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration

“We look at the number of churches in each denomination and make sure that at least the top five or six denominations are represented on our executive committee. And then we look at the ethnic mix. … The strategy of each of these committees is they have a reach into each of these areas that nobody else does,” said Celebration director Terry Wilken, adding that BGEA requires women and business leaders to be represented as well.

Owen Alston is pastor of Harmony Ministries in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and was on the executive committee for the Jersey Shore Celebration. Alston said he’d met and become friends with pastors of white churches that he wouldn’t have otherwise met.

“Most of the pastors and leaders project unity. They push for it, but they still have to deal with all the people in their congregations,” said Alston.

“I’ve put extra effort into mobilizing what we would consider the black churches to get them on board and to allow this to be a tool to help break down the racial barriers. What’s unfortunate is I’m getting more negative input from the black community than I am from the white,” he said.

Alston had invited nine black pastors to participate when UrbanFaith talked to him this spring and only two had declined. UrbanFaith was unable to contact these two pastors.

“It’s always challenging convincing the churches that we want them to be involved. … That happens in almost every city,” said Wanda McCurdy, a longtime BGEA employee and the only African American staff member on site at the Jersey Shore Celebration.

“The Graham Association always goes the extra mile to make sure everyone is involved and has opportunities,” she said.

James Taylor Jr. teaching youth in preparation for the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration

James Taylor Jr. taught at a series of  youth training events before the Celebration. He had previously volunteered with BGEA after his predominantly African American church didn’t want to support its efforts to host a festival in his city, he said.

“It was kind of more of a politic thing,” said Taylor. “What are you going to do for us as blacks? But I felt like it would really help integrate our students, because what was a problem for me was that I had so many black students and white students at a predominantly African American church. … I knew when the Graham festival came, that was a way for our kids to see more diversity,” he said.

Now Taylor pastors a racially and ethnically diverse church in Portsmouth, Virginia. He said BGEA’s diversity commitment is one of the top two reasons he works with the organization.

“[Dr. Graham’s’] concept of racism was basically that it’s not just a social problem, that the root of racism is sin. The only way to overcome that sin is through Jesus Christ. It’s the changed heart of an individual. You’re not going to legislate it. He was saying you gotta’ change the human. That’s always been BGEA’s stance,” said Barnett.

Alston said denominational “spirits” are just as bad as racial ones, but both were overcome at the Celebration through the prayers of spiritually mature people.

“Our prayers were to break down these barriers. We really shouldn’t have to break them down. Jesus already did that. He broke down the wall of partition, but here again the adversary has built them back up. It takes concerted effort to [break them down] and if you don’t do it, it won’t happen,” said Alston.

Barnett recalled a 2006 event in Gainesville, Florida, where there had been a white ministerial group and a black ministerial group that had never worked together.

“As an outcome, at the end of the festival, there had been such a movement between these two groups and a softening of the heart that when we finished the festival there, two weeks after the festival, both ministerial groups met and dissolved and they formed one ministerial group,” said Barnett.

“[Dr. Graham] had one single focus and that was leading people to the cross, leading them to Christ. For us to do that way of evangelism, you work through the local church and when you work through the local church and that is your single focus, one of the outcomes is a better sense of unity,” he said.

On June 25-26, BGEA will hold its first ever bi-lingual American Hispanic Festival at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. According to its website, more than 600 Hispanic churches are involved.

“The Hispanic population in southern California is looked at and treated many times as second-class citizens,” Festival co-chair Danny de Leon told BGEA. “For a Crusade to come for them sends a very important message that they are loved and cared for.”

Barnett said Franklin Graham’s interest in this community is born of his passion for people.

“You look back through Dr. Graham, and you look back with Franklin and with Will, there is a passion to reach people for Christ. And with them, it doesn’t make a difference who they are, where they’ve come from, what their background is, what color their skin is. They realize that everyone stands in need of the savior, and they want to reach as many people as they possibly can,” said Barnett.