And if so, in what ways?
In 2008, Republicans did everything they could to make Barack Obama’s religion an issue. Fox had 30 seconds of Jeremiah Wright on endless loop for ages. This year, with Mitt Romney’s candidacy we’re apparently not supposed to talk about religion at all.
There’s a video making the rounds which purports to have been secretly filmed inside a Mormon temple during the secret ceremonies. I’ve watched the video and it seems entirely consistent with what I’ve heard about those ceremonies. OTOH, I’ve never actually gone through Mormon temple ceremonies so I can’t vouch for its accuracy. As a non-Mormon the rituals certainly seem daffy. A hand comes through a veil, you grasp it a certain way and you answer a question, then grasp it another way and answer another question and so on.
Watching the video, the whole ritual seemed more than a bit daffy to me. But then I’m an inveterate skeptic and am subject to the church giggles at almost given moment in almost any worship service. I recognize that faithful Mormons take these rituals very seriously. The formal language, the gradual initiation into spiritual mysteries, the process by which previous initiates welcome new comers are serious and profound to the faithful. Mormon theology and mysticism seems structured around a similar pattern of advancing through a series of initiation, each leading into deeper knowledge of the spiritual mysteries. On the site I first saw the video, the headline read “Mitt Romney Believes in This.” Which brings me to the question I find myself pondering – is a candidate’s religion relevant? And if so, in what ways?
Andrew Sullivan raises some interesting questions about religion in a recent post:
I raise this because it is a fact that Mitt Romney belonged to a white supremacist church for 31 years of his life, went on a mission to convert Christians and Jews and others to this church, which retained white supremacy as a doctrine until 1978 – decades after Brown vs Board of Education, and a decade after the end of the anti-miscegenation laws.[snip]
Romney’s response to the white supremacism of his church was to point to his mother’s and father’s secular support for civil rights for African-Americans, which ties in with Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s abolitionist convictions. And there is no question that Mitt Romney’s parents were heroic civil rights Republicans in the secular sphere – in a party that had not yet become the South’s racial plaything. And I do not doubt Mitt’s story about weeping upon hearing that the “ongoing revelation” had now changed. But all this evades the key question: what did the Romneys do to confront their own church’s non-secular position on the inherent spiritual inferiority of blacks? Nothing, so far as I can find.[snip]
Notice also the lack of any apparent remorse, or criticism of the church’s previous position. This is a church that can take a position rooted in its own Scripture and just one day say it’s over and let’s move on. Even white supremacism! And people still don’t see how Mormonism – its utilitarian use of truth, its studied mainstream all-American appeal, its refusal to be completely transparent to outsiders, and its insistence on never having to account for itself – isn’t integral to Mitt Romney’s personality and beliefs. Romney will no more let outsiders look at his finances than the LDS church will allow non-Mormons inside their Temples after they have been consecrated.[snip]
Is there a mite of evidence that Mitt Romney ever challenged the white supremacism in his religion and its active racism while it was in existence and he was still a missionary and member for 31 years of his life?
These are questions that should disturb. We’re not going to get an answer because no journalist who is willing to ask such questions would be allowed within a hundred yards of Mittens.
CNN ran an article originally entitled “Obama the ‘wrong’ kind of Christian?”, later retitled “The Gospel according to Obama“. The author of this piece, John Blake, explored Barack Obama’s faith, noting, for example:
Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.[snip]
Obama’s faith showed many of the elements of a liberal Protestant church: an emphasis on the separation of church and state, religious tolerance and the refusal to embrace a literal reading of the Bible.[snip]
In describing the history of the social gospel, Blake wrote:
The Social Gospel and progressive Protestantism dominated the American religious square from the end of the 19th century up to the 1960s. At times, the traditions blended together so seamlessly that it was hard to tell the difference.
The Social Gospel rose out of the excesses of the Gilded Age in the 1880s, when urban poverty spread across America as immigrants crammed into filthy slums to work long hours in unsafe conditions.
Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor in a New York slum, urged the church to take “social sins” as seriously as they took individual vices. Churches began feeding the poor and fighting against other social ills.
Of course, the social gospel movement sparked a strong backlash among religious conservatives:
The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve.
But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.
Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felten, author of “Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.”
The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.
That subculture thrives today, Felten says, and has infiltrated the political arena. It has created an “alternative intellectual universe” that denies science, rational thought – and any beliefs that violate their definition of being a Christian, Felten says.
Ed Kilgore, at Washington Monthly, sums up Obama’s faith:
But in truth, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Barack Obama’s religious convictions other than his occasional eloquence in articulating fairly orthodox insights—such as the need for humility in divining God’s Will, particularly when it comes to questions of secular policy—that are particularly offensive to the revolutionary aspirations of a contemporary cohort of conservative evangelical leaders.
Mainline Protestantism is a public faith. Mainline Protestantism engages in public reasoning, discussion, debate. There are few if any mysteries, and secrets are few and far between. In recent decades, the Mainline churches have faced many challenges and done so in public fora. Institutionally, these denominations have a tradition of public reasoning and discussion which can seem chaotic and disorderly but which can result in powerful public stances, such the United Church of Christ formally apologizing to Hawaiians for the role the Congregational churches played in ending Hawaii’s independence (there were also reparations involved). Such shifts and statements occur through public reasoning and discussions in which topics can be raised and discerned communally precisely because Mainline theology embraces nuance and complexity. Episcopalians talk about the three legged stool – scripture, tradition and reason. The Mainline theology of the UCC can include, as for example, the Black Liberation theology of James Cone and yes Jeremiah Wright as well as the theology of James Nelson which explores sexuality in sometimes radical ways. These theologies are welcomed into the public discussion, neither shunned nor feared.
Sullivan raises of Mormonism’s revelation concerning the role of African Americans in the church. One day, the leader of the church announced he had a revelation and decades of policy changed and almost no one ever brings up the radical change in policy or what came before it. It’s simply gone, never to be mentioned again. Down the memory hole.
Mormonism is authoritarian, rigid, hierarchical, bound by the limits of revelation. Mormonism can turn on a dime based on the latest revelation but its hierarchy weeds out those who would like to see it turn on a dime.
Mainline Protestantism is egalitarian, flexible and contingent open to new information and wanting to preserve tradition as it adapts to new circumstances.
If nothing else, I can see in the candidate’s approaches to public issues a reflection of their faith. Romney tends toward the secretive, telling only the minimum absolutely necessary and defining for the rest of us what is in fact necessary for us to know. In essence his entire campaign amounts to “Trust me. I’m an authority.” By contrast, Barack Obama tends to encourage public discussion, tends to weigh things and offer nuanced approaches to them, trying to weigh the various opinions. The ACA debate is a perfect example.
Ultimately, then, it seems to me the real question is not exactly how does their faith matter as much as how they choose to allow it influence policy. Or more likely how their chosen faith is influenced by their underlying outlook on the world. Mitt Romney is boringly conformist in his orthodox Mormonism. Barack Obama is undogmatic, casual in his faith. He seems like the typically Mainline Protestant about whom you can say, “The reason we print the lyrics is so you read ahead and see if you disagree.”