The Huckabee Paradox

If you care about the religious values of a political candidate, it is because you believe there is some direct correlation between how and who they worship and what policies they would espouse. Even more specifically, it is because you have a theory about the reliability of that correlation. What is your theory?

My experience tells me there is little evidence that what one believes or does not believe about the nature of God or how one chooses to worship and serve provides any kind of consistent or predictable measure of what kind of politician you end up with. Does that mean belief is irrelevant? I don’t think so, but it is relevant in a paradoxical way. Every Christian at least should know this. Christ and James, to name just two examples, made it all too clear that it is one thing to believe and another altogether to act on that belief. So belief only matters to the degree that it shapes character, inspires integrity and honesty, and brings greater love into the world. But I guess if what matters most to a person is that their political leaders reflect their identity in some fundamental way, then belief matters a great deal but only in the most shallow sense—as a marker of identity.

I remember how Mike Huckabee handled Romney’s Mormonism in the last election cycle. He was cagey, even brilliant, in the way that he raised doubts about the legitimacy of Mormonism as a Christian faith, playing upon well known fears among evangelicals about Mormonism’s seemingly heretical doctrinal claims. He wanted to make it clear that Romney’s Mormonism disqualified him for the job. But now, faced with the task of supporting a Mormon candidate for office, he tells the nation at the recent RNC: “Let me clear the air about whether guys like me would only support an evangelical,” he said. “Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical is Barack Obama, and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb or even beyond the womb, and tells people of faith that they must bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls health care.” Cartoon characterizations of Obama’s positions aside, this is a stunning admission of the unreliability of belief as an indicator of political conviction. Adding evidence to this unreliability and as if to introduce a bold and new concept into American politics, he says: “I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country.” Isn’t he finally admitting that he prefers a partisan litmus test to a denominational one, that political orthodoxy matters more than religious orthodoxy? And if that is the case, why does he still want us to believe that belief matters? As long as Romney walks and talks like a Republican, who cares what he does on Sunday? Of course, the Romney campaign and Republican Mormons everywhere hoped that last night’s portrait of the life of an LDS Bishop convinced the Huckabees of the party that it does indeed matter what one does on a Sunday. But last night was really only an admission that it is more important what one does than what one believes.

Although I am sure Huckabee did not intend this, such a position is the essence of ecumenism and is the kind of ecumenical spirit that this nation was founded on. Factionalism and religious litmus tests were never intended to drive the political process. But here we are in the 21st century, and we still cannot define what an American nation means without resorting to calls to protect or restore what others–enemies within–have stolen from us. This is because have never cultivated a generous and charitable definition of community. Religious belief is deeply relevant to politics, but it is most helpful to building a Christian community when it is first and foremost devoted to the old virtues of loving enemies, exercising forbearance, showing forth compassion and patience, and seeking out the good in all people, virtues that were supposed to be the very core of Christian values. Which is to say that one of the most Christian acts we Christians can perform is to be willing to lay down our swords of righteous indignation and obsessions with weeding out errors of belief from our culture and pick up the ploughshares required to build good and decent and fair communities. I believe in the right and responsibility to announce my Christianity. I think John Lennon’s utopia of a world without religion is a farce. But sometimes being Christian paradoxically involves an ability to make ourselves indistinguishable from every and any other person of good will. This goes beyond saying to oneself begrudgingly, “I don’t like these people, I don’t agree with these people, and I hope someday they will just go away but I will work with them for the time being.” It means having to acknowledge the gap between our wisdom and God’s, between our understanding of how God works in our life or in national and international affairs and who God actually is or what he actually does. Believing in God sometimes means having to acknowledge the possibility that we are often wrong about him, that he gets his work done through processes, exchanges, and through many, many people of all stripes and cultures and beliefs, far beyond our reckoning.

Every religion needs to recognize its own explicit or implicit theory of other religions. Is God only at work among us? Is his inspiration and love and truth available only to us in our understanding and in our historical moment? If your answer to these questions is yes, then you have no choice but to go to war against the world. We have seen what kind of hatefulness this can unleash. Brigham Young said that all truth belongs to Mormonism but in the same breath acknowledged that we don’t yet have all the truth yet and that is why education and other cultures matter. I like one of the central messages of the Book of Mormon, even if we Mormons are sometimes lazy about remembering it: “Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word?” (2 Nephi 29:7-8)

If you can begin to acknowledge that God is somehow at work in other belief communities, even among secular people, that he is as intimately involved in your life, your community, and your nation as he is in the lives of the most different human communities here and elsewhere, then you must face the ultimate paradox of belief. Belief roots us in an understanding of God and of our place in the world, but it does not serve its deepest purpose if such rooting takes place in willful ignorance or disdain for populations with radically different stories than our own. America, it seems to me, is the greatest test of Christianity in this sense. Will our American Christianity merely tepidly tolerate our diversity? The secular solution, of course, would be to just give up on belief altogether. Lots of Americans, like Lennon, just wish religion would go away. But secularism is itself is a kind of dogma that often fails to jump its own hurdles of tolerance and forbearance, which is why we would be better off finding a way to balance belief with our plurality. Besides, if Christianity cannot understand its own meaning in the context of diversity, it was never very Christian to begin with. Too often what we want from the truth, even more than an accurate understanding of the nature of things, is an affirmation that our instincts, our culture, our experiences are not just valid but affirmative of ultimate meaning. We want to be right! We do not want to be lost in the sea of people, issues, cultures, and complexity of our modern globalized world, and so we gather our Christian energies to entrench ourselves deeper into tribalism against the onslaught of otherness that surrounds us and forget that Christ commanded us to lose ourselves.

One of the most potent notions of Christianity, when accepted at face value, is that God is the father of all of humanity, that he loves and cherishes his children no matter their religion, culture, language, skin color, sexuality, economic status, etc., etc. He feels all of their pains equally. And yet, I think, it is rare that believers really take this to heart. If we did, I suspect politics would indeed change maybe more dramatically than we are prepared for. Wouldn’t it change attitudes and policies especially about oppression in all of its forms, about public health, environmental degradation, war, and poverty? I don’t want a politics that feels distinctly Mormon or Christian. Maybe this seems like heresy, but I say it out of what I consider pretty deep orthodoxy. I want a politics that is so thoroughly Christian, its commitment to the well-being of all people renders it indistinguishable from common decency.


Mormonism, Cosmology, and Environmental Stewardship
Experience and Understanding
If Truth Were A Child
Why I Am a Mormon, Part III (Missionary Work)
  • DLewis

    “Every religion needs to recognize its own explicit or implicit theory of other religions. Is God only at work among us? Is his inspiration and love and truth available only to us in our understanding and in our historical moment?”

    Important questions that our faith hasn’t fully answered yet. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  • Don Harryman

    I loved your post–thoughtful and thought provoking. I agree that John Lennon’s utopian ideal of no religion isn’t the answer either, but I am in no way convinced that religion does much else but to introduce–with few exceptions–hate, division and oppression. Too much evidence to convince me otherwise. Huckebee is a charlatan–you give anything he says too much credance by even using his name in your excellent essay. He is a paid politician and spokesman and a huckster–nothing more.

    • georgehandley

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful response. I am not one to get overly defensive on behalf of religion. I think it stands on its own better when we don’t get defensive about it, and I would agree that division, hatred, and oppression are some of its worst consequences. But I would say that there is much more evidence that religion does good in the world than you suggest. It seems to be that many of the best developments of freedom in Western civilization have had strong support from with religious tradition–abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, the development of science, and much environmental activism. Sure, those issues have been opposed by religious zealots, sometimes very vocal or powerful ones, but it shouldn’t be assumed that the progressive side of such struggles is by definition outside of religion, because historically it often wasn’t, nor arguably would progress have been made without some foundation in and support of religion principle.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The attitude of exclusivity that is common in many Christian denominations is manifested in their doctrinal assumption that those who do not satisfy their own particular doctrinal standard of salvation and bound for heaven are, therefore, bound for hell. It is an attitude of salvation superiority like the attitude of the Zoramites in the Book of Mormon. The great mass of people who are ignorant of actual Mormon beliefs think that we have that attitude as well, and resent us for that imagined enmity.

    Of course, we Mormons know that Doctrine & Covenants 76 made it clear back in 1832 that the great mass of humanity, that listens to its conscience and seeks to do good as it understands the good, is bound for the Resurrection of the Just with an eternal abode in the Terrestrial Kingdom, enjoying the presence of Christ, and basically fulfilling every hope of heaven their churches teach them to expect. In the studies conducted by Professors Putnam and Campbell for their book, American Grace, the authors found that Mormons have the most positive attitude toward people of other faiths of any religious group in America, even though those other groups generally have negative views of Mormons. The recent University of Pennsylvania study on donations of money and time found that Mormons match or exceed other denominations in their donations to causes outside their own church, and in addition to their contributions to the LDS Church.

    The people who complain about an occasional Mormon baptism in the temple on behalf of a deceased person, seem to not consider that the attitude of many traditional Christian denominations is, NOT that deceased Jews or members of other denominations can be saved through post-mortal ordinances, but rather that nothing can be done to keep Jews and other people from going directly and permanently to hell. American Grace relates how pastors of a major Evangelical denomination were distressed to hear that the large majority of their parishioners, over 60%, believe that people outside their denomination who die can still be saved in heaven, even though that is contrary to the express teaching of their church. Should a Jew be more upset that a Mormon believes his relative might convert to Christianity after death, or that a Southern Baptist feels assured that his relative is already burning in hell?

    The LDS Church teaches that good people of all denominations will be on the earth to greet Jesus Christ at the Second Coming. We teach (as you noted) that there can be divine inspiration given to people even in non-Christian religious traditions. We teach that every person born on earth has a birthright as a child of God, and the right to guidance in choosing good from evil through the illumination of the Light of Christ. The Book of Mormon teaches that one of the most precious gifts of God is the freedom to choose what we will have faith in, and one of the commandments is to respect that freedom among all people. We do not seek to coerce people through government in their religious beliefs or practices.

    A few years back, I was living in Idaho Falls and would write op ed columns for the local daily newspaper a couple of times a month. At one point, the publisher wrote an editorial in which he voiced the Lennon-esque idea that rejection of religion allowed more social tolerance of diverse beliefs and lifestyles. I responded with a column stating that the New Testament taught me to respect people who did not agree with my religious views, the prime example being the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A few days later the newspaper held an open house celebrating its hundredth anniversary and I met the publisher, who was, in confirmation of what one of the editors said, not happy to meet me. In other words, his secularized tolerance was not strong enough to enable him to tolerate my argument that religion can increase tolerance.

    • georgehandley

      Thanks for the comments, Raymond. I think these are some of the less talked about doctrines in our own culture, ones which we should be grateful for but also humbled by. Our challenge is to live up to them. This requires getting out of our Mormon bubble and learning to befriend and work with people of other faiths without always thinking about conversion and more importantly, of course, learning to love even our enemies.