After the Mormon Moment, What’s Next—the Muslim Moment?

After the Mormon Moment, What’s Next—the Muslim Moment? October 11, 2012

This piece was originally published at The Christian Post on October 11, 2012.

The other day, a colleague asked me if I could ever see myself voting for a Mormon for President. What about a Muslim? My colleague and I are both Evangelical Christians. My colleague is concerned that the LDS Church would influence Presidential candidate Mitt Romney or another Mormon politician’s political decisions, and so is very wary of voting for a Mormon. No longer are we looking at candidates who are Mainline Protestant (President Obama) or Evangelical (President Bush), Roman Catholic (Senator Kerry or Santorum) or Jewish (Senator Lieberman). We are now facing the Mormon Moment in politics, as Governor Romney makes his bid for the White House. A Muslim could very well someday follow in his or her bid for the Oval Office.

I informed my colleague that as far as I am concerned the issue is not about voting for a Mormon, but which Mormon for President. The same thing goes for Evangelical candidates. I would not vote for any Evangelical. I have seen some political candidates call on people to vote for them because they are Christians, or Evangelical Christians. My question: but are they good politicians? Do they know how to work well within their party and with other groups in an effective way that honors the democratic process and that benefits the common good reflected in the golden rule as articulated by Jesus: “do to others what you would have them do to you”? (See Matthew 7:12; of course, this statement is taken by Jesus to sum up the Law and the Prophets; in a democracy {not a theocracy}, the Christian or the Jew or Muslim, etc., must make the case for their views in ways that engage those outside their religious traditions meaningfully and persuasively, showing that they benefit all peoples regardless of their religious convictions for the well-being of a pluralistic society).

My colleague was concerned that the LDS church would influence the Mormon candidate if elected President. To me, the question is not if the church influences the Mormon candidate if elected, but how the Mormon church influences the politician. I remember reading of how many Protestants were concerned that if JFK were elected President he would be a puppet on a string for the Pope. Whether we are talking about a Mormon or Catholic or Protestant Evangelical, I want to know how the church in question influences the politician in question. I for one wish President George W. Bush—an Evangelical—had been more influenced by public faith commitments arising from Evangelical churches committed to the biblical narrative than the reigning narratives of militarism and free market capitalism. I would have wished the same public witness for Senator Kerry if he had been elected in place of President Bush. He saw his faith as personal and private, as articulated during a candidate debate with President Bush. President Bush saw his faith as personal and public. But unfortunately, I don’t think he allowed his faith to influence structurally his domestic and foreign policy in ways that affirmed the common good here and abroad, including building significant coalitions inside and outside the U.S. A gospel-centered faith that took to heart the Sermon on the Mount may very well have influenced President Bush to be less prone to invade Iraq (I also wish President Obama would allow the Sermon on the Mount and related biblical texts to influence him on his policies, including how he approaches humanitarian aid; see my blog post “Humilitarized Aid”). It may also have influenced President Bush to place greater checks on markets to guard against corporate greed. While I believe President Bush was and is a sincere man, I did not find him to be the most discerning Christian. Greater accountability to biblical and ecclesial concerns shaped by Christian Scripture may very well have led him to affirm the common good even more significantly than he did.

Many Christians as well as secularists will be alarmed by my remarks, though likely for different reasons. Many conservative Christians often vote for their own kind of people. So, voting for a Mormon would be viewed as problematic. Many secularists want to keep religion out of the public square. So, calling on people to vote for people who are shaped by their religious traditions would also be seen as problematic. In my estimation, both sides are mistaken.

To the conservative, civil religion is changing. We are no longer under Protestant, Catholic and Jew. It is much more diverse. It is certainly debatable that America was founded as a Christian nation, as many conservative Christians maintain. While it goes beyond the scope of this post, it is much more likely the case that it was a combination of many things, including influences from Puritanism and Deism. Regardless, to call for a cultural hegemony that limits democratic governance to one group of religious affiliates is problematic. Those who would say that democracy is founded on Christian ideals must nuance the claim: which Christian ideals? Christians and churches have supported all kinds of government over the generations. There is not a singular view of government that the Bible affirms. In fact, God has raised up rulers of various nations to govern empires, Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus being two of them. The question is: how did and do they govern?

Now to limit the public domain to secular affairs alone is equally misguided and impossible. Religion plays a significant role in the world for good and for evil. We need to make sure we are engaging it well and drawing from its best tenets or else we will lose out on a vital partnership with a key player as well as create a vacuum for less collaborative and beneficial elements of religion to thrive. Moreover, there is nothing like a neutral and naked public square. Secular humanism is not neutral. It is also a form of religion in my estimation. The idea that one can limit political concerns to procedure alone is mistaken. We need to allow the various religious communities to engage political realities, including secular humanism, and allow the people to vote for the candidate who they think will best promote the common good. It is up to the respective candidates to show how their religious and moral convictions shape them to make good decisions befitting the common good, and for the people to seek that as well.

One Christian friend has been troubled by my reflections, believing they open the door to Mormons gaining ground not only in American politics, but also in American religion. In response, having an Evangelical President in the White House has not always gained ground for Evangelicals. On the occasion of the most outspoken Evangelical President serving in the White House, Evangelicals faced growing resistance nationally; we are still seeking to overcome the appearance of promoting power politics, and failing to promote Jesus’ love and compassion.

If we Evangelicals are best known for Jesus’ love and compassion and the pursuit of the common good, we will make the greatest impact nationally. If we are known for voting for Presidents who we believe will not only champion our deepest civic convictions but those of others, too, we will then be in a position to make the Mormon Moment or Muslim Moment that may arise later momentous for our Christian witness.

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