Saving Candidate Romney
Perry has gotten into trouble, as one of those religious leaders he and other Republicans seek out for endorsements has caused embarrassment by, well, saying what he believes:
“Evangelical Christians should not vote for Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon, therefore not a real Christian,” Jeffress said.
“Historically, evangelical Christianity has never embraced Mormonism as a branch of Christianity. Mormonism has always been treated as a cult. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the world, officially labels Mormonism as a cult. It does not embrace the historic tenets of evangelical Christianity,” he said.
Jeffress added, “Mitt Romney is a good, moral person, but that does not make him a Christian.”
This does not surprise me. Years ago, when I was interviewing candidates to teach a college class in Western Religious Traditions, I asked a candidate–a Southern Baptist Minister with a doctorate in Theology–what religions he would include in the instruction.
“Well, Christianity, of course. And Islam.” Then he stopped.
“How about Judaism?” I asked, noting the other major creed that is naturally a part of the course.
“Not really,” he replied. “Judaism is more of a culture than a religion.”
Taken aback that he would actually dismiss Judaism as a religion, I was tempted to have him go into that more, but decided to get back to that later. I put forward, “How about Mormonism?”
“Oh no,” he answered instantly. “That’s a cult.”
A bit later, I asked him what kind of field trips or personal projects he might have students take part in. Our previous teacher had taken students to some pretty cool places, like those monasteries in the mountains where people sit under streams of cold water while meditating.
“I would recommend they attend a Christian church service,” he said.
At first I saw absolutely nothing wrong with that, but considering his previous replies, decided to dig a little deeper. “Why specifically a Christian one?” I ventured.
“Because,” he said confidently, “this is Japan, and if Japanese young people are going to convert, they are probably going to become Christians.”
By this time, I was already through with the guy, but of course that would have disqualified him even if he hadn’t talked himself out of a position already. It was pretty clear that his intent was not, as the course intended, to objectively study the beliefs and practices of a variety of faiths, but rather to inject his own biases and beliefs into the course, and perhaps even to proselytize.
Having had the experience of that interview, I was completely unsurprised at what this pastor who endorsed Perry said. The only surprising thing is that he either naively felt nobody would see anything wrong with the statement, or he felt that it needed to be said, no matter who it offended. Either one is likely the result of insulation, of feeling so safely ensconced and empowered that one either does not see any other points of view, or feels confident that one can have one’s way, at least where it counts.
This is important to note in light of the significance of separation of church and state. Most people on the religious right hate the concept, or have fooled themselves into believing that the principle only means that government is forbidden to interfere with churches, but that churches are completely free to interfere and impose themselves upon government to their heart’s content–as if the two were different things.
These people tend to believe that those who fight for the separation of church and state are mostly atheists trying to attack religion. The thing is, separation of church and state does as much if not more to protect religion than it does to protect atheists. That is, in fact, its actual purpose–many groups which came to the United States and formed colonies were fleeing religious persecution. Not by atheists, or by Islam, but persecution by their Christian brethren. Sectarian strife is about as old as sectarianism itself.
Jeffress’ statement is an excellent example of this. Imagine if church and state became wedded, and his were the controlling denomination. Of course Muslims would feel the sting very quickly–look at how many right-wingers want to deny Muslims the right to build Mosques even today.
But what about Mormons? What rights would they retain? Probably very few. I’m sure it would begin slowly, with less-applicable restrictions like stronger laws against bigamy, but it would quickly trend towards declassifications–Mormonism cannot call themselves churches/temples, Mormonism is not a religion, they cannot claim tax-exempt status, etc. It would probably not be long before the lack of benefits started to trend toward the imposition of restrictions.
It would likely not be long after that when other edicts–er, laws would start closing in on other sects, like laws concerning fealty to foreign leaders aimed at Catholicism, etc.
Not that this would only happen if Southern Baptists found themselves in the driver’s seat; it would likely happen no matter which religion had influence.
Nor would it necessarily be done out of any ill intention. Such is the danger of religion, that people of a certain belief are convinced that those outside their group are in mortal peril of damnation, and wish to “help” the others by showing them the true way which will lead them to eternal salvation.
The irony is, if those on the religious right really understood the purpose of separation of church and state and the effect it has had, they would embrace it, not resent it. When an atheist files a lawsuit against a religious encroachment, religious people would be wise to go out there and stand behind the atheist all the way–or even be there to file the lawsuit first themselves.
However, it is just as likely that they would not, on the grounds that they would be perfectly fine with such sectarian persecution, confident that it would be their sect that was doing the persecuting. Er, excuse me–doing the “saving.”