The Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress stirred the political pot last week by saying that Mormon presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is a moral guy, but not a Christian. Furthermore, he said, Mormonism is a cult. John Huntsman, also a Mormon and presidential candidate, said Jeffress is a moron. Neither of those comments is appropriate to the office held or hoped for. They did, however, start me wondering what it is that’s really important when it comes to presidential candidates, or any political candidates for that matter.
Just for the record, in terms of what evangelicals mean by Christianity, Mormon doesn’t fit the bill. But in terms of what Mormons mean, it is a Christian religion. It takes me back to something philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, which is that in order for us to understand each other, we must have the same picture. If you mean something different by a term than I do, then perhaps we are both right. Two parties have to agree on the term or no conclusion can be reached—we’re talking at cross purposes.
So I asked myself, if Romney is a moral guy, isn’t that enough? The question goes to the core of what matters: is it what church you attend, what God you believe in, or how you behave? On what basis should you be judged?
We have used religion as a measure of man’s morality because it’s how many of us measure our own, and someone of our same faith is familiar and reliable. If I’m a good Christian, and if a candidate is a Christian, I know what that means and I believe I can trust him. But we have been disappointed way too often, primarily because a label isn’t enough.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with the Rev. Terry Smith of The Life Christian Church. He told me that to claim to be a Christian and then behave badly doesn’t work—you have to live Christianity, or in current vernacular, you have to walk the walk. He said we shouldn’t accept that to which we should take exception, and so claims that are made about who and what you are don’t tell the story. It’s what you do that matters. And, if it’s what you do that matters, should it really matter to society what you believe?
It is absolutely true that what we believe as individuals matters a great deal, and I don’t mean to suggest that religious belief has no value. Our personal beliefs should be our strength, joy and comfort.
However, though what we believe informs how we behave and how we determine our own morals, the details of our belief systems are not social concerns. Socially, it doesn’t matter to what religion I subscribe if I am a good person and do the right things—if I’m honest, have integrity, and treat people with dignity and respect. And likewise it doesn’t matter to what religion I subscribe if I’m a scoundrel. Religion doesn’t determine who we are, but gives us a path to follow. We choose who we will be and how we will walk the path.
When John F. Kennedy was running for president, the fact that he was a Roman Catholic played large in the conversation about his candidacy, and those who were concerned weren’t always polite about it. People were sure he would bow to the pope when it came to making moral decisions; some claimed the Catholic Church was a cult, and it worried us. But Kennedy recognized that his responsibility as president was to the people, not to the church. His actions were going to affect not just Americans, but the population of the world, and he understood that. He didn’t bring his religion into the race, but what he believed informed his behavior, and it was his behavior that mattered.
Abraham Lincoln was accused of being an atheist as were Thomas Jefferson and William Taft, though it seems there is evidence enough that they were not. Some of our former presidents were rumored to have been deists, which was a popular theology during certain periods. There were several Unitarian presidents, and there was a time when being a Unitarian was tantamount to being an atheist. But these men were elected despite those concerns, and while Taft did not enjoy popularity, both Lincoln and Jefferson are icons.
Any religion can be a support for good or bad, depending on the individual’s interpretation of it and how it manifests in his behavior—it doesn’t matter which religion it is. It’s our job to look at the whole person before making a judgment on his or her ability to lead.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to society if Romney is a Mormon or if his church is defined as Christian. What does matter is what kind of guy we believe Romney to be. He has a record in politics, and as a businessman. We can find his curriculum vitae without much difficulty, and based on his behavior in those positions, we can decide what we think about his actions, morality and ideology. If he has behaved in a way we can respect and support, that should be enough. And if he has not? Don’t vote for him.