Carrying Christianity Beyond Left and Right: Does A Candidates Faith Matter?

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is an awkward issue for some evangelicals who are uncomfortable with the thought of a Mormon candidate. In response to questions about his involvement in the Mormon Church, Romney famously stated, “I’m not a spokesman for my church.” No doubt the Democrats have been puzzled as the Christian Right offers Romney their full support, despite the evangelical belief that Mormonism is heretical at best, and at worst a religious cult. It has seemed like a savvy political move for Romney to do his best Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” routine, but is it realistic? More importantly, is it desirable? If this were a multiple choice question it might read something like this:

What role should religion play in politics?
A) No role, religion and politics must not be mixed
B) Minor role, I just want to know politicians have some moral structure
C) Major role, you need to be a serious Christian to get my vote
D) Total role, I’m voting for a theocracy

What’s the right answer? The traditional American answer would be: A) religion and politics must not be mixed. If I were grading the test, however, I’d mark that answer wrong. Although Christians must begin any conversation about politics by saying we do not trust in governments to keep us safe and happy, we have to acknowledge government plays a role. Yet the one thing the Christian can never agree with is the notion that religion should simply be about privately held beliefs. To make religion simply a private matter which should not influence the way we organize our communities is to rob the Christian faith of its social nature. Yet this is exactly the move many evangelicals make which allows them to justify their support of Mitt Romney while they vehemently disapprove of his Mormon faith and church. For them, religion is private; government is public. Never the twain shall meet.

The problem with this approach is that is impossible.

Religion and politics are constantly intermingled in our society. If they were not so mingled, nobody would be asking questions about Romney’s religion; nor would we still be reading poll data which says that 17% of the U.S. population still believes that President Obama is secretly a Muslim, despite the fact that he’s shared over and over about his conversion to Christianity. The question is not whether or not religion should play a role in politics – it most certainly will play a role. The question is what should that role be? The end result of choosing any of the four multiple choice options above places the Christian in one of two unworkable contradictions: In answers A. & B. faith is kept personal and private, thus Christianity is robbed of its deeply political nature. In answers C. & D. faith becomes the substantiating civil religion for the empire, and is effectively co-0pted in support of imperial power.

If I had my way, I’d advocate for another option: E) none of the above.

The church cannot become the state, but the church has an obligation to bear witness to the state. In order to fulfill this role, evangelicals must remain stubbornly independent of government or party. Christians must learn once again how to rise above the typical left-right debate and learn to speak with a voice that is truly Christian – not Republican, not Democrat, but Christian. We should never become beholden to a political party. As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we should not even be that concerned with national identity. Christians need to learn to speak with a voice which seriously contends against evil and injustice without pandering to partisan politics or worshiping the flag.

There was a day when a Christian critique of laizzes faire capitalism helped to create child labor laws and basic workplace safety standards. There could be a day again when a Christian critique of war would begin by taking seriously the call to love our enemies. But that day will never come if the first words out of our mouths are boiler plate rhetoric from right wing or left wing political camps.

The Christian faith, with its call to organize our common life in such a way that we image God to all creation, can never be co-opted by a political party, nor can it become conflated with any other ideology be it political, economic, or otherwise. This is especially true of American politics, where the end in mind is no longer to govern well but to win at all costs. Christians must never succumb to that kind of cynicism. Our voice must have the sound of hope, and our tone the tenor of peace, neither of which can materialize with a prior political party attachment. As an evangelical, I have obvious disagreements with liberalism, but I have just as many fundamental disagreements with conservatism. It is a chilling thing to watch evangelical Christians worship the American dream and baptize it with religious language and Christian symbolism.

Evangelical Christians need to work on finding new ways to engage in political debate which transcend the traditional left-right split. If we are deeply committed to Republican, or Democratic Party politics, over and against the gospel as an organizing principle, then we have allowed our faith to be co-opted by a group which does not share Christ’s vision for the world. The Christian faith cannot be conflated with a political ideology, but it must never devolve into something which is merely private. We can never forget that our role in society is to be a different kind of community in the midst of the world and to allow that way of being to find a hopeful and peaceful voice.

 

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

About Tim Suttle

Find out more about Tim at TimSuttle.com

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of RedemptionChurchkc.com. He is the author of several books including his most recent - Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band's most recent album is "Straight Back to Kansas." He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com Bot

    If there had been no Nicene Creed or Emperor Constantine, Catholic and Protestant theology would be quite similar to Mitt Romney’s In fact, there would likely be no need for the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) to restore Jesus Christ’s church. Mormons’ theology is based on New Testament Christianity, not Fourth Century Creeds. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views on Baptism, Lay Ministry, the Trinity, Theosis, Grace vs. Works, the Divinity of Jesus Christ are closer to Early Christianity than any other denomination. And Mormon teenagers have been judged to “top the charts” in Christian Characteristics by a UNC-Chapel Hill study. Read about it here:

    http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com/

    According to a 2012 Pew Forum poll of members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) 98 percent said they believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and 97 percent say their church is a Christian religion. They volunteer 7 times as many hours as does the general population, according to a 2012 University of Pennsylvania study. Mormons have a better understanding of Christianity than any other denomination, according to a 2010 Pew Forum poll.

    11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (including several presidents) were non-Trinitarian Christians, as is Mitt Romney, who is as faithful as the most devout Founder. How long has it been since we had a president who attended church every Sunday?

    Contrast Mitt Romney’s faith to that of Barack Obama: Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was the Obamas’ pastor for twenty years, says “it is hard to tell if Barack Obama converted from Islam to Christianity”. Wright says “church is not Barack’s thing” .

    • http://wordshalfheard.blogspot.com Carol Kuniholm

      No – Mormons are not Christians, and Joseph Smith did not “restore Jesus Christ’s church.” He was a convicted con man interested in money, power, and women, and happy to create a theology that allowed him access to all three. While many Mormons live very moral lives, their motivation appears to be based more in fear than love. Those who have left the church speak of it as a contemporary fraud, and share their experiences of being taught to lie to those outside the faith, in the same way they’re sure their leaders lie to them. ( Check “exmormon.org or themormondelusion.com for more on this).
      I agree that our faith needs to inform our political engagement, and that in evaluating candidates we need to look at the way their faiths inform their actions and ambitions. In the case of Romney, I’m convinced his Mormon faith has shaped his view of leadership (paternalistic, “leave the details to me”) and his view of truth (“say whatever works”).

  • Brett Maltbie

    Tim, I agree with everything you just wrote without reservation. Very well stated. Thanks.

  • http://dennisbarr.blogspot.com Den

    What kind of American would a Christian be? I would suggest that the proper answer would be “a provisional American.” We Christians call Jesus “Lord,” but too often we make a mockery of our own statements by kowtowing to the will of a political entity that has an agenda other than that of the Great Commission.

    We are caught on the horns of a dilemma, though. We’re told to pray for the emperor, to live in peace with all around us insofar as it’s within our power, and to love our G-d and our neighbors. We’re admonished to forgive those who harm us, and to give twice as much to those who take from us. This is not easy. If we do these things, I suspect that many of us fear that we would vanish from the earth. We might be right. And that’s in Scripture as well, if memory serves.

    I fail at these goals all the time. I keep plugging away, though, because there’s a greater forgiveness and grace at work on my behalf. Even as we’re told to be different people than those around us, to BE the kingdom of heaven – or at least to practice being the kingdom of heaven as hard as we can – we try to find ways of being engaged with those around us and to witness to that difference in ways that communicate the good that we believe in. This isn’t easy either.

    Ultimately, the pursuit of the Christian life is bound to have a lot of hard spots, rough patches where everything we believe in fails in some way to make sense. We persevere, though, because of the model we have before us. Rejection didn’t stop him. Willful ignorance didn’t stop him. Death did not stop him. How can we fail to do anything less, with that as our example?

  • oneSTARman

    Does a the CORE BELIEF System of a President MATTER – I think so. MORMONS have not interest or concern about ANY of US ‘Lesser Beings’ – They have been told that if they perform all the RITUALS they will become GODS (Just like Jesus and his Brother LUCIFER) and the god on the Star Kolob (Really) will give them their Own Planet – so who cares about EARTH – and all Non-Mormons can ONLY aspire to be ‘Ministering Angel’ SERVANTS of the Mormon GODS

  • oneSTARman

    Does a the CORE BELIEF System of a President MATTER – I think so. MORMONS have no interest or concern about ANY of US ‘Lesser Beings’ – They have been told that if they perform all the RITUALS they will become GODS (Just like Jesus and his Brother LUCIFER) and the god on the Star Kolob (Really) will give them their Own Planet – so who cares about EARTH – and all Non-Mormons can ONLY aspire to be ‘Ministering Angel’ SERVANTS of the Mormon GODS

    • rich

      @oneSTARman You’re confusing a fictional movie (made by trey parker) with reality. Those are not true statements of the mormon faith. According to the Biblical theology, and scholars both christian and non-christian, The term Lucifer is implemented by King James translators, in place of a word they did not know. While Jerome translated it properly as Morning Star, in reference to an actual person, not a deity, angel, or fallen angel. It was used in reference to the earthly King of Babylon, Lucifer as a name had a similar translation to the actual term used to address the human being that was king of babylon.

      • rich

        In fact, the term day star and morning star were used metaphorically and very commonly to describe people in powerful positions. It was a way to say “guy that makes a big impact” is blah blah blah.

  • scott stone

    Brilliantly written!
    Tim, that is one of the best posts I’ve read on this blog.
    Well done! But how do we transition to kingdom living when we have been so corrupted? The cultural context in which we live is so antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, I’m not sure if we are still capable of the kind of self analysis that is needed to see how far off base we truly are. The boxes in which we all live are becoming smaller and smaller, hence Christ is becoming smaller and smaller.
    The derivations of The Way have been strung out so far, are we even able to see able to see where we’ve ended up?

  • Steven Janiszewski

    To gain an existential understanding of the cult that produced Mitt Romney, and to get your socks scared off, read The Assassination of Spiro Agnew, available in paperback and e-book on Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=The+Assassination+of+Spiro+Agnew
    Its unwilling, part-Mexican Mormon assassin dramatizes the Mormon superiority complex, manifesting it as racism, sexism, jingoism and an anti-federal government temperament. His research in the new library reveals ominous similarities between Islam and Mormonism. The spiritual power behind the cult, which is not the Holy Ghost, acts out.
    “With a clarity of language and vision unsurpassed in contemporary American prose, Steven Janiszewski’s Assassination of Spiro Agnew takes us into a U.S. mazed with madness and Mormonism and all things Utah, a U.S. that was then and still is. Do we need a novel, even as brilliant as this one, about a young man on a divine mission to assassinate the Vice President because he is too liberal? Yes, now more than ever. Readers, welcome to a masterpiece.”
    Tom Whalen
    http://www.tomwhalen.com
    Read The Assassination of Spiro Agnew.

  • John R Huff Jr

    I disagree. I vote a straight Democratic ticket because the Democrtic party best exemplfies my understanding of what the christian gospel messsage is all about. I dislike the use of the word evangelical.
    We all are called to be evangelists. Tacking this on to your resume makes you look intolerant. It is also identified more so with the Republican party and I have no respect for people who claim this affiliation be they christian, atheist , morman, Jewish, you name it ……………….

    • scott stone

      Your posts always make me chuckle. Thanks John for cheering me up. You’re funny.

  • Pingback: 16 October 2012 | MormonVoices

  • jerry lynch

    “As citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we should not even be that concerned with national identity.” I love this line naturally for I have been saying something along the same line for about a decade. As it happened, I woke up one morning suddenly questioning patriotism for one’s country. I say “questioning” because part of me did not want to accept what had become clear: patriotism is “being friends with the world” and we know what that means.

    Ever since that day nearly a decade ago, I have been moved, and sometimes dragged, to more and more what most would consider “radical” stances. The whole worldly practice of labeling ourselves Conservatives or Liberals became a grotesque sticking point. Either one, to me, is not to be centered in Christ. Then I noticed the flag on the altar and the singing of patriotic hymns and saying the Pledge of Allegiance; I felt like I was in a temple of Baal. These were very odd and challenging ideas to me that took a great deal of adjustment. The thought of being a combatant for the state turned from a disputable question to an abomination. (And I had left a scholarship in college many years earlier to volunteer for the draft, infantry all the way. Perhaps I could win the war in Nam as surely as I had as a child crushed Japan and Germany singlehandedly.)

    What gradually emerged was that I needed to be a clear choice in how I lived between godliness and worldliness. I could not wave a flag for the country in which I lived if I was truly a citizen of heaven. I could not love my enemy through a sniperscope. I could not be a partisan party member and advance the kingdom of heaven. To be as Christ was in the world demanded no earthly borders to defend or extend, and this included all ideologies. I submit to the governing authorities by One Rule, as Paul said: Love of neighbor. And my neighbors naturally include my enemies, those who see me as a threat or problem. The only reason for this needs to be that love which transcends taking sides in worldly conflicts, which can be like “heaping hot coals” on someone’s head.

    It is difficult to express how madhatterish I view most of what is taken as acceptable Christian action and ideas. Clearly and utterly preposterous! I would say silly except for the great damage to Christ’s message that I feel these attitudes inflict. It is more difficult to have any hope for change, as you do; this foolishness for the world instead of the foolishness of God seems so blatantly antithetical to what Christ taught, so very blind and proud of it, that getting the eyes to see seems impossible. Which, of course, makes me sound like a raving fundamentalist certain of his particular interpretation of the word and mocking the impoverished thinking of those who do not agree. What to do with that?

    This is how God is dealing with me. This is how I am being led to live my life. By the love that comes through me by the grace of God, I am simply to live as Spirit directs, finding no fight with those who live differently only offering a welcoming gentleness and kindness. The possible “rightness” of my ways and thoughts are not to concern me (although such notions are still a defect in my character). It is to wholly trust that God is doing for me what I could not do on my own, always open to discovering what God one have be this moment.

    • rich

      Not a bad perspective. On the other hand, one can take the outlook that of all the nations on the planet, the USA is doing well for how people should be treated, and that this is not something to be ashamed of. In fact, helping to ensure it remains doing well to this, can be seen as a good thing, as long as you don’t forget where you came from and where you’re going.


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