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.