As for this mortal life, which ends after a few days’ course, what does it matter under whose rule a man lives, being so soon to die, provided that the rulers do not force him to impious and wicked acts.
Augustine’s above words might need a bit of contextualizing—clearly some rulers are better than others—but they do provide a healthy dose of perspective for faithful citizens as the race to chose Caesar’s modern day successor comes to occupy more and more of our airwaves and much of our mental territory as well. The political process itself can become an idol, particularly in the age of cable television and the blogosphere, when off-hand comments by politicians and their supporters are whipped into a froth of headlines, commentary, and spin to feed the never-ending news cycle.
Some of this dynamic—our media addiction to controversy and spin—has been in play over the past several weeks in the brouhaha over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. Talking heads nearly spun with glee when a supporter of one of Romney’s opponents, a Baptist minister, declared that Romney isn’t a Christian. Other candidates and observers were quick to pounce. Time’s Jon Meacham used the opportunity to attack the “religious right” and its “religious bigotry.” Romney had already declared, according to Meacham, that “he would be loyal to the country and the Constitution, not his church.”
I saw an interview with Newt Gingrich in the midst of the controversy, in which he was asked whether Mormons were Christians or not, and he responded that they thought of themselves as Christians—a parry which showed a great deal more theological dexterity than one is accustomed to find on political talk shows. I say parry not to draw attention to the pun, but because, as Speaker Gingrich, a convert to Catholicism, no doubt knows, Mormons are not, in the view of the Catholic Church, Christians. Mormons seeking to become Catholic must receive all three sacraments of initiation.
So there, I’ve said it: Mormons are not Christians. Jon Meacham can call me a bigot if he likes, but I still say: Hurrah for Mormons! I am no expert on Mormon theology, but as best I understand it, the reason Mormons are not considered Christians is because their understanding of the Trinity differs from our own. And (here I go again, authoritarian! dogmatic!), for Catholics, the Trinity is non-negotiable.
But while I certainly disagree with the Mormon faith on many things, including very important things like what it means to be saved, I also find in Mormonism much to be admired. Mormon family life, for example, is particularly strong, as are, consequently, Mormon communities. Mormon divorce rates are admirably low, and Utah boasts both the nation’s highest birth rate and its lowest percentage of out-of-wedlock births. Mormons are generous both financially and in terms of volunteer hours dedicated to church life, helping to build up what Catholic social thought sees as the bedrock of the common good, civil society. In fact, when it comes to Catholic social teaching, I would take a faithful Mormon over a nominal Catholic any day.
And, of course, when it comes to electing a president, it’s social teaching—not soteriology or sacramental theology or eschatology—that matters. (This is also why I tend to roll my eyes when journalists try to trap evangelical candidates with various gotcha questions about Biblical literalism.)
But notice how my reasons for being unbothered by Mitt Romney’s Mormonism are different from Jon Meacham’s. I do think a candidate’s religious beliefs matter; I don’t want a “naked public square” in which religious voices are shut out precisely because they are religious. I think Mitt Romney should be loyal to both the Constitution and his church, just as I think Catholic public servants should be loyal to the country and to the Church’s teachings. I think attempting to exclude religious voices, smugly dismissing them without hearing, is itself a form of bigotry.
As the above quotation from Augustine makes clear, rulers can and often do make decisions that impact upon our moral and religious lives. If we take our faith seriously, if we treat it as part of reality instead of as a fairy tale we tell ourselves for reasons we can’t quite remember, then we must put the ways in which our rulers’ decisions impact our moral and religious lives first when making our own decisions about what sort of rulers to support. Indeed, in this coming election, with religious liberty being threatened in unprecedented ways, we cannot afford to be naïve with regard to the interference government exercises in religious practice. But these threats to the free exercise of our faith come from the religion of secularism—which has no qualms about using the machinery of state to impose its agenda—not from Mormons.
These reflections are not, obviously, meant to be an endorsement of Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman, the other Mormon in the race) or any other politician. But when it comes to evaluating a candidate such as Gov. Romney, I think it’s possible to take his religion seriously, disagree with many of his religious beliefs, and still in good conscience support him for elective office.
There’s not room in this post for a full analysis, but the speech Gov. Romney gave about religion and politics the last time he was running for president (or maybe he never really stopped) is fairly well reasoned, especially so when compared to the rhetorically powerful but logically flawed speech given many decades ago on the same topic by then-candidate John F. Kennedy. In a week or two, I hope to argue for exactly why I think in this case the Mormon candidate has it right and the Catholic candidate had it wrong…