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10.17.11 | Cecil Van Houten | Comments[8]

Well, did anyone see this one coming?  Rick Perry, the latest shining star in a rapidly shifting constellation of Republican contenders has his own Jeremiah Wright.  You remember Jeremiah Wright - the outspoken Chicago pastor whose controversial statements became a major distraction for Barack Obama early in the 2008 campaign?  Well, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas – you know, that little church on the corner with 10,000 members and a $130 million building project – got into hot water with the media, some Republicans and a number of evangelicals recently because of comments he made about Mitt Romney. 

Many people believe he was making a valid point but the manner in which it was delivered was questionable and he’s been trying to spin his way back ever since.  Actually, the comparison to Wright is unfair because the situations are different in nature, but once again a well-intended Christian leader has put his foot in his mouth and caused the focus to shift from the ‘main thing’ to a media sideshow.  It’s getting kind of humorous; last Monday candidate Jon Huntsman, also a Mormon, referred to Jeffress as “a moron”. 

But don’t blink – there’s more.  Perry’s numbers are dropping; his performance in last Tuesday’s debate is causing concern.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, himself a possible vice-presidential nominee, is not running and has endorsed Romney.  And by the middle of the week the spotlight (and thus the target) had moved on to Herman Cain, although his outsider status could end up working against him and his 9-9-9 plan for restructuring the tax code is being greeted with skepticism.  Who’s left?  Michelle Bachmann seems to have flamed out, except among Tea Party members.  Newt Gingrich carries the stigma of being a “former” which is an apparent liability these days.  Ron Paul?  Interesting, but too far out of the mainstream to be viable.  So is Mitt Romney the presumptive Republican nominee, despite his perceived negatives?  Is his Mormonism something followers of Christ should be concerned about? 

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With more than 70 days until the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses, there’s a limited shelf-life on frontrunner status and by next week it will be someone else being forced to defend a decision they made years ago, a policy proposal or even…their faith. 

The last sentence of Article VI of the Constitution reads: "[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

It doesn't get any clearer than that.  But it’s hard to let go of the temptation to use an opponent’s religion as a means of planting doubts about their fitness to serve.  In December, 2007, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee was quoted in the New York Times asking, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" an obvious jab at Romney.  Huckabee went on to beat Romney in those caucuses, and some say it was Romney’s Mormonism that cost him the votes of evangelicals who flocked to Huckabee.  But that was probably pure political calculation on Huckabee’s part, not an attack on Mormonism.

So does the fact that, like him or not, Romney may be the most viable Republican candidate present a conflict to people of the Christian faith, many of whom have doubts about or outright opposition to Mormonism?

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The way we view issues like this has changed in recent years, especially among younger evangelicals.  Many are restless with ‘business as usual’ and struggle with Biblical authority to the point that even the basics of the faith are being called into question.  Remember the controversy earlier this year over Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins”?  The questions it raised about Bell’s theology and how a respected writer, pastor and speaker could put forth the ideas he did and still consider himself an evangelical remain unanswered.  He was accused of being a heretic, of being misunderstood and of being taken out of context.  No matter; seven months later, no one is talking about it.  We’ve moved on to other things.  Bell is leaving the church he founded and heading to Los Angeles, in part to work with producer Carlton Cuse (the creator of ‘Lost’) on a new television series.  I still don’t know if love won.

Likewise, some baseline assumptions about different faiths in relation to Christianity are changing.  In something that sounds like a plot from a Jerry Jenkins novel, there have been ‘behind-closed-doors’ meetings going on for the last decade between a number of prominent evangelicals and their Mormon counterparts.  They have discussed key theological issues such as the authority of the Bible, the person and work of Christ, the Trinity, “continuing revelations” and the work of Joseph Smith, the 19th century founder of the LDS Church.  Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and co-chair of the group, says that evangelicals and Mormons disagree about important theological questions but that on some matters, “we are not that far apart”. 

While Mouw believes Mormon theology does not fall within the scope of historic Christian teaching, the important thing, he says, is that the dialogue is ongoing, “with increasing candor and mutual openness to correction.”  He accepts many of his Mormon friends “as genuine followers of the Jesus whom I worship as the divine Savior.”  In a recent blog, Mouw writes that those involved in the dialogue with Mormons “have come to see them as good citizens whose life of faith often exhibits qualities that are worthy of the Christian label…”

I’m willing to be corrected if I’m misinformed about facts or act in a questionable manner.  But should I consider it being ‘corrected’ when I am told that there are three sacred books in addition to the Bible, all of equal merit?  That the Trinity consists of three gods born in different times and places?  That eternal life must be earned through self-meriting works?  That Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, equal if not superior to the Old Testament prophets? 

No, I don’t think so. 

At some point there is no point in further dialogue.  I’m not suggesting we should be antagonistic toward people of other faiths – quite the opposite - but if we really believe that God’s truth is expressed in his word and through the life and example of Jesus, let’s not pretend there is common ground where none exists.  Truth is objective, that’s why it’s truth.  It is not something to be debated, despite the good intentions of those who engage in such dialogue.  In our touchy-feely, Oprah-infused, everybody’s ok in their own way, don’t step on any toes, politically-correct world many Christians are retreating from the battle for truth.  Like Peter, we either blunder our way into an embarrassing scene that does nothing to advance the gospel, or we start to cut corners on what we believe until truth doesn’t resemble anything divine.       

Yes, we need to wrestle with theological issues and their implications while living in a turbulent culture.  We have to be open to greater understanding of scripture in light of archeological or scholarly enlightenment.  But the more porous we allow the foundational elements of our faith to become the more we risk error and its consequences.  It’s a delicate balance – to understand truth and allow it to transform our lives, which undoubtedly includes questioning and growing, while at the same time presenting it with certainty as the only way to eternal life in an increasingly pluralistic religious environment.  

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We’ve had presidents of many faiths, Protestant, Catholic, Quaker.  Jimmy Carter was a professing Christian; today many evangelicals look back on his presidency as a failure.  George W. Bush, who courted evangelicals with his born-again faith and was largely supported by them through two terms, disappointed many by saying in late 2008 that the Bible is “probably not” literally true, that he prays to the same God that other major religions do and that he believes there is scientific proof to support evolution.  As they have since the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, many Christians felt as though they were wearing a ‘kick me’ sign on their backs again.  (Personally, I don’t think many of them ever took them off.)  A politician’s assertion of affinity with a particular group, religious or otherwise, means very little in the day-to-day world of governing.

So here’s the question:  do we really expect that a president’s faith is going to make a tangible difference in what occurs during their term?  I would never underestimate the power of one person’s faith but a president, any president, represents only the executive branch.  When you factor in the compromise often required to reach political consensus, the influence of PACs and lobbyists, the vitriolic partisanship that exists in the House and Senate, and the clamor of special-interest groups, I’m not certain how much it matters if the occupant of the Oval Office is “one of us”. 

Most Americans (68%) say a Mormon candidate’s faith makes no difference to them. But in a recent Pew Research survey, 31% of evangelical Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon.  And a new poll done by TIME magazine shows Romney outperforming Rick Perry among evangelicals in a general election matchup with President Obama.  So the dilemma facing evangelicals is, while they may want Obama out they’re not sure they want Romney in.

We haven’t yet had a Lutheran president, an LDS president, a Jewish president, a Jehovah’s Witness president, a Pentecostal, a Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim or an avowed atheist.  I’m no theologian or political analyst but my sense is that if Mitt Romney is the eventual Republican nominee and runs successfully against President Obama, all the concern being expressed now over his religion will disappear.  The economy, jobs, America’s changing role in the world and a host of other issues will dominate all but the extreme fringe’s agendas. 

Writes author and sociologist Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Separation of church and state is one thing.  Separation of religion and politics is another thing altogether.  Religion and politics flow back and forth in American civil society all the time – always have, always will.”   

Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a respected writer and teacher, wrote over the weekend on CNN’s Belief Blog, “If evangelicals intend to engage public issues and cultural concerns, we have to be ready for the scrutiny and discomfort that comes with disagreement over matters of importance. We have to risk being misunderstood - and even misrepresented - if we intend to say anything worth hearing.” 

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So we arrive at a crossroads and must decide which direction to go.  We may have more questions than answers.  For example, in our quest to be a credible voice for our faith in the public square will we commit to Biblical truth and stand for it unflinchingly?  Rather than going on the attack will we present the gospel in a compassionate, informed manner?  Are we going to distract ourselves with conversations about what is negotiable and what isn’t?  Will we lovingly engage those of other faiths with the truth of the gospel or lose our way in a maze of endless dialogue and theological give and take with no clear end result?  Will we do our part to lower the rhetoric or will we continue to clank our swords in a noisy display of dominionism?  And do we really think having an avowed Christian as president is going to have a significant impact on the many problems our country faces? 

God calls us to respect those in authority.  You may not like them or agree with their practices, but the office and the person occupying it are to be respected.  Jesus admonished the disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.  Romans counsels believers to give everyone what is owed them, including respect and honor to those who are in authority. 

I think what we need is a little more humility.  Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self.”  If we’d start there, examining our lives in the light of God’s word, we’d have a lot less time for name-calling and finger-pointing.  Our commitment to truth would allow for helpful dialogue and self-examination but its uniqueness would never be in question.  And while we debate which political figure is the lesser of two evils might we find our way to a place beyond simply being tools of a political agenda and realize that our highest calling is to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the One whose name we carry.

I’m Cecil Van Houten and I approve this message. 


Your Comments(please keep them on topic and polite)

on 10.18.11 Donna commented

I dont know how anyone can compare this pastors remarks, even tho they were so unnecessary, to anything Jeremiah Wright said. The are not equal in any way. True the pastor should have kept his foot out of his mouth and his comments were at the worse unkind. Jeremiah Wrights teachings and comments were pure evil. No comparison.

on 10.18.11 Jessica commented

See, I disagree with what the previous person said. I think what he's saying is that the pastor who supported president Obama caused him a lot of problems because he said what he did years earlier. The pastor from Dallas was making a direct attack on Mitt Romney. I don't believe in Mormonism but I think what the pastor did was wrong.

on 10.18.11 Randy commented

My parents were very involved in the Moral Majority and I always wondered why they put so much effort into a political movement. They were very conservative Christians and Jesus was the answer for everything, unless it was something political. Then it was about voter checklists and people who supported one candidate fighting with people who supported another. It was like either Jesus didn't matter or if he did he voted Republican. But not any Republican, only the ones my folks approved of. I'm so glad I'm not like they are. It doesn't matter to me what faith a president is as long as it's not some weird thing. So many Christians I know think that voting for the right man (or woman?) will make all the difference and like you say, it's much more complicated than that. Other friends are just tired of it all. Christians need to grow up. When we let politics be our God, God laughs at our foolishness.

on 10.19.11 Mike commented

Right on! I watched the debate last night and you can see how much things are heating up. I like Newt Gingrich but I don't think he'll go very far. Nothing against Rick Perry but I'd rather have a qualified Mormon in office than a lesser qualified Christian.

on 10.20.11 Rhonda commented

There are two things going on here and you're right about both. Christians have to decide whether we're going to stand for God's truth without compromising or having dialogues that don't go anywhere. The other thing is we have to decide where we should be in the political process. It's good to have a Godly person in the White House but if we put all our effort into that we have shifted focus to man's way of getting things done not God's.

on 10.21.11 Erin commented

If it comes down to Romney and Pres. Obama that would be a hard decision. I think it will be unemployment and the economy that people vote about more than anything. I don't know who would be better at fixing that.

on 10.25.11 Steve commented

What a dilemma. I get tired of all the rhetoric and negative ads, no matter who's doing them. When Christians start to use their faith as a battering ram to try and make change happen it's totally opposite of what the Bible says. The only way to change people is to change hearts. If all the Christians like Perry and Bachmann (I don't know about Gingrich or Cain) would act more like serious, qualified people who also love Jesus, rather than playing the cheap political games, they might do better. I don't think a president's beliefs matter and I would certainly prefer a more qualified non Christian than a Christian in anything from a car mechanic to the president.

on 10.26.11 Cameron commented

With the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote being so low, the country gets what it deserves. It isn't just Christians who don't understand the process, it's everyone. People are either apathetic or they're so wrapped up in their own self-interest that they cancel each other out. I think the politicians in Washington would rather not get anything done than give an inch. I don't think God cares as much about who the President is as we think He does. I think He would be more concerned with the poor and people who are on the lower end of society.