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Criticism of Mormon candidates misleading

  • Published Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.

In a commentary, Robert Jeffress defended negative comments he made about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith ("A candidate's faith should matter to voters," Oct. 21 Opinion). Specifically, he said Mormons were members of a "cult" and that mainstream Christian voters should be wary of them.

Jeffress suggested in the commentary that in making those comments, he was defending an important principle: that citizens may take into consideration whatever issue they wish, including concerns about a candidate's religious beliefs, as they decide whom to vote for.

I agree that this is an important point. However, draping himself in that principle shouldn't protect his comments from criticism.

Many people are ignorant about what the Constitution says and does not say about religion. (The truth is, it says almost nothing.) This ignorance sometimes leads to nervousness when people such as Jeffress start suggesting connections between a candidate's faith and vote-worthiness. There are also, of course, many committed liberals or secularists who reject the idea that a candidate's religious faith ought to be discussed at all.

But for the majority of Mormons, the complaint with Jeffress is not with the fact that he is saying what he is saying, but rather that what he says about Mormonism is misleading.

When Jeffress talks about Christian candidates in the public arena, he is relying upon well-established rhetorical concepts, usually described under the label "civil religion." America's civil religion — the religious aspect of our political culture — is grounded in the Bible, in fundamental Judeo-Christian ethical principles, and in the general moral aspirations of Christianity.

This is the civil religion of Lincoln's second inaugural address, or of the line "In God We Trust" on our currency. Like it or oppose it, this is what presidents are doing when they conclude their speeches with "God bless the United States of America."

Jeffress has no basis to affirm that there is anything un-Christian, in this civil sense, about Romney's Mormonism. Instead, he is making a claim grounded solely upon narrow issues of sectarian Christian theology: Mormons are a non- Christian cult because of their distinct understanding of the Trinity, because of their particular religious ordinances, etc.

There probably are a tiny number of Republican voters who are likely to think it politically important that their representatives embrace a theologically correct, mainstream Christian notion of God. But if Jeffress wanted to influence those voters, he would speak that theological language. But he also must know that such voters have no practical influence. And so he speaks a civil language, calling Mormonism non-Christian in the broadest possible terms — and that is misleading.

Can someone legitimately speak out against a candidate for sectarian theological reasons? Or course. Citizens may be motivated by all sorts of reasons. But just because an act of reasoning is acceptable doesn't mean it is responsible or wise.

Not too long ago, Catholic beliefs were considered outside of America's civil religion, and "papists" were marginalized in American political life. In time, that was rightly recognized as a distinct theological disagreement among Christians. The same fate awaits Jeffress' judgment of Mormonism, I think.

Jeffress has every right to press his theological case. But when he dresses himself up as one doing his civil duty, he ought to be called on it.

Russell Arben Fox is an associate professor of political science at Friends University.

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