This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume30, number5 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
The campaign for the 2008 U. S. presidency is underway, with perhaps the most intriguing collection of candidates that both major parties have had to offer in quite some time. Among the candidates vying for the Republican nomination is Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts (2003–2007), and a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church).
As has been aptly documented, Mormon foundational beliefs are contrary to those held by the three branches of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Mormon theology denies the great creeds of Christendom and includes in its canon extrabiblical texts such as the Book of Mormon. It offers a doctrine of God that is completely at odds with the understanding that the Christian Church has held for nearly two millennia. The LDS Church claims to be the restoration of original Christianity that had vanished until the arrival in nineteenth-century America of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Jr.
Some of the most well-known Christians in America, including Chuck Colson and Hugh Hewitt,1 have said that there is no reason, at least in principle, why a Christian cannot vote for a Mormon candidate such as Governor Romney. I will set aside my defense of this position for the moment to address two mistakes that can be made in the event that Governor Romney becomes the Republican nominee for President.
The Candidate’s Snare: The Kennedy Mistake. In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was the Democrat Party’s candidate for the U. S. Presidency. He would soon become the first Catholic president in a country whose citizenry had been predominantly Protestant, and anti-Catholic, since its infancy. Many Protestant Christians were concerned that Kennedy’s commitment to the teaching of his church’s magisterium on a variety of social, moral, and political issues would serve as his guide for U. S. domestic and foreign policy. To assuage Protestant fears, Senator Kennedy stated that nothing of his Catholic faith would play any role in his judgments as occupant of the White House:
I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views [i.e., on religious liberty and church-state separation], in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.2
Senator Kennedy’s historic speech that day, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, reads like complete acquiescence to American mainline Protestant notions of privatized faith and to its stereotypical, outdated, and uncharitable ideas about the teachings of the Catholic Church. Senator Kennedy could have argued that his Catholicism informed him of certain theological and moral doctrines that would make him a thoughtful and principled president. He could have consulted and mined from the works of Catholic scholars such as philosopher Jacques Maritain or theologian John Courtney Murray, both of whom were able defenders of liberal democracy and the natural law that grounds it. Most historians, however, “agree that Murray disapproved of the strident separationism that Kennedy championed.”3 Senator Kennedy’s speech was a terrible concession because it played to his audience’s anti-Catholic prejudices while saying that his religious beliefs are so trivial that he would govern exactly the same if they were absent.
To pacify Christians, Governor Romney may be tempted to emulate Senator Kennedy and claim that his theology and church do not influence or shape his politics. There are at least two reasons why this would be a mistake.
First, it would signal to traditional Christians that Governor Romney does not believe that theology could count as knowledge. This is, however, precisely the view of the secularist who believes that religion, like matters of taste, should remain private. If a citizen has good reason, however, to believe that his tradition offers real insights into the nature of humanity and the common good—insights that could be defended on grounds that even a secularist may find persuasive—why should he remain mute simply because the secularist stipulates a definition of religion that requires his silence? If Governor Romney commits the Kennedy mistake, it would give tacit permission to secularists to call into question the political legitimacy of the governor’s natural allies, conservative Catholics and evangelicals.
Second, claiming that his beliefs do not influence his politics could cost Romney the support of those whose very different beliefs influence their politics in the same direction. That LDS theology is, I believe, fundamentally non-Christian does not mean that it does not include beliefs that many secularists and traditional Christians would find defensible or even consistent with their own views. If that is the case, as I believe it is, then Governor Romney may be able to argue that because of his theological beliefs, rather than contrary to them, he is deeply committed to principles of justice and democracy. For instance, in the Doctrine and Covenants (132: 1, 3, 5), part of the LDS canon of scripture, Joseph Smith, Jr., states:
We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man….We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld….We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold their respective governments while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments… and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as their own judgments have best calculated to secure the public interest.
The Christian’s Snare: The Confessional Mistake. This mistake occurs when a Christian citizen believes that the planks of his creed or theological confession are the best standard by which to judge the suitability of a candidate who is running for public office. Suppose, for example, a Presbyterian elder votes for one of Governor Romney’s primary opponents solely on the basis of the governor’s rejection of the Nicene Creed and the Westminster Confession. An elder who did this would not truly understand that the purpose of creeds and confessions is to provide a summary of beliefs that one must embrace in order to be considered an orthodox member of a particular church body, not to measure the qualifications of a political candidate in a liberal democracy. Christendom’s most important creeds and confessions not only pre-date the existence of liberal democracies, their subject matter bears no relation to assessing those attributes that we consider essential to the leadership of a political regime.
Most Christians already grasp this truth. For instance, I know of many evangelicals who in the 1980 presidential election voted for Ronald W. Reagan over Jimmy Carter, even though Carter was clearly more evangelical than Reagan. What was decisive for Reagan’s supporters was his policies and not his theology. These evangelicals likely would have chosen Carter over Reagan to teach Sunday School, but they preferred Reagan in the oval office because they believed that Reagan’s policies best advanced the common good.
Is there Scriptural warrant for the notion that the common good should be the standard by which Christians assess candidates? I believe the answer is yes. We have to be careful how we use Scripture to address this question, however, since the Bible’s authors did not reside in liberal democracies.
The common good presumably is achieved when a political regime treats justly its citizens and the institutions that help develop and sustain their virtue. If that is true, and the Bible instructs individuals and political regimes not only to do justice but how, it seems that the Bible does provide us principles by which we can evaluate those running for public office. Scripture instructs the individual and the state to do justice in the following ways:
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· Love Our Neighbors. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27), and that strangers too are entitled to be treated as our neighbors (Luke 10:29–37).
· Help the Less Fortunate. The Bible commands us to help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the afflicted (Matt. 25:31–46; James 1:26–27). We can accomplish this through our churches or through government programs.
· Be Just. The Old Testament is replete with calls for justice and condemnations of injustice directed to the state (e.g., Isa. 58:6–10; Deut. 24: 19–22; Prov. 31:8–9).
· Follow God’s Plan for Society. The Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2–17) tell us that there is a rightly ordered social fabric and describes something of God’s plan for it. In political terms this can be translated to the government respecting and privileging religious liberty, the right to life, traditional marriage and parenthood, and integrity.
A candidate who embraces these ideals and treats people justly is a candidate whose behavior Scripture supports, even if he or she is not a Christian, and is therefore a candidate that a Christian can support with a clear conscience. So, is it permissible for a Christian to vote for a Mormon? Absolutely. In fact, in some cases a Christian’s conscience may require him or her to support the Mormon candidate if that candidate is the person most likely to advance the common good.
— Francis J. Beckwith
1. See Terry Eastland, “In 2008, Will It Be a Mormon in America?” The Weekly Standard (June 6, 2005): 21; and Hugh Hewitt, A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney (Chicago: Regnery, 2007).
2. John F. Kennedy, “Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association” (September 12, 1960), available at Quote DB, http://www.quotedb.com/speeches/greater-houston-ministerial-association.
3. Colleen Carroll Campbell, “The Enduring Costs of John F. Kennedy’s Compromise,” The Catholic World Report (February 2007), http://www.colleen-campbell.com/ articles/020107JFK.htm.