Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Taking the Candidates' Religious Temperature

There is more news these days about why evangelicals should be wary of voting for Mitt Romney. The basis of this wariness is found in the doctrinal differences between Mormons and Christians (the fact that Mormon’s consider themselves to be Christians notwithstanding).

Clearly there are doctrines and teachings that separate Evangelicals from Mormons, such as, for example, the doctrine of God as Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity. Of course, neither do Jewish people. So does that mean that Evangelicals should not vote for someone who is Jewish? Don’t our divergent views about Jesus cause us problems here?

But a Roman Catholic, like John F. Kennedy or Rick Santorum, would be okay, right? After all, they are committed to Trinitarian theology and the divinity of Jesus. Oh, but wait: There’s all that other stuff about saints and papal authority and transubstantiation. Those are all things that Evangelicals in general do not endorse.

For Evangelical voters, is doctrinal correctness (however that might be defined) the litmus test for presidential suitability? In the USA it is legal to be affiliated with any religious group that one desires. People are free to be Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim (yes, even Muslim) or of any other religious persuasion. We have this whole freedom of religion thing going for us, and I’m glad for that.

This freedom also means that a presidential candidate can be any or none of those things. While the USA probably wouldn’t elect an outspoken atheist to the presidency any time in the near future, it is not illegal for a candidate to disbelieve in God.

I wonder if, rather than asking about how a candidate’s religious faith (or lack of it) lines up with a certain brand of orthodoxy, we should be asking how that faith (or lack of it) informs their view of the world and the way they make decisions. Does a candidate’s religious orientation produce the kind of leadership that serves a huge and diverse nation like the USA? Does the candidate find an ethical and moral basis in a life of faith that gives voters confidence in the way that decisions will be made and how this country will engage with the rest of the world?

While our candidates typically enter office as Democrats or Republicans, once elected they must serve the entire nation and not just members of the party that elected them. Would a Mormon or Catholic or Jewish or Muslim president be able to serve the entire nation, or just adherents to that president’s preferred faith tradition? Would such a president be a leader to all, or just to a select few?

I think that we are often asking the wrong questions. Are we asking about a candidate’s faith because we want to know how our particular interest group will be served, or because we want to know how that nation at large will be served? Are our questions about acquiring a political power base for ourselves, or about the well-being of our neighbor?

The wrong answer to the questions would be that faith doesn’t matter, or that it can be set aside as though it is irrelevant to leadership. Of course it matters, and of course it forms people at a very deep level. How that faith produces a leader who can lead well is what we should try to discover.

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