Would having a Mormon president end America’s identity as a Christian society?

Jeremy G. writes:

I don’t think you have thought through the implications of Romney’s candidacy and potential presidency on American traditions and the future direction of the Republican party and the country as a whole. The conservative/traditional political party will have supported a Mormon for president. This will represent a profound change from the past 220 years of electing Christians to the presidency. How can the Republican party ever again claim to represent Christian values? Or even again defend America as a Christian country? It will be the liberalization of the Republican party beyond a clear red line that has hitherto been followed. Will millions of Christians be able to identify wholly with the country or party ever again? The overlap between “American” and “Christian”, however tenuous it is, will come to an end just as irrevocably as the overlap between “American” and “white” would come to an end with the presidency of Obama. How can we support this?

So here is the issue in its clearest representation: You, as an American traditionalist, have concluded, by urging us to vote for Romney, that American (Christian) traditions are inadequate to the present challenges and we must elect a non-Christian (i.e. liberalize) if we are to retain America in any recognizable form. Just as previous liberalizations were supposed to be for our benefit but brought with them unforeseen challenges, have you considered what new challenges this liberalization may bring?

Another issue that hasn’t been considered is whether Romney can obtain the votes of traditionalist Christians. How many would just stay home in disgust? Even if those that stay home represent only 2-4% of the electorate, Romney can’t win.

LA replies:

I think you are overstating the impact of Romney’s religion. He doesn’t bring his religion to the fore. If you didn’t know he was a Mormon, you’d think from his manners and personality and the way he talks about religion that he was a Christian. Not all presidents have been Christian. Lincoln was unchurched. Jefferson was openly a non-Christian. Also Madison was only distantly Christian I believe. There were others. Romney is visibly religious and in a way that is entirely in keeping with Christian sensibilities. To my mind, he has a positively Christian glow about him. So, in the way he publicly manifests himself, I don’t see him as being more different from the core American Christian tradition than any other president. I don’t see him as undercutting “Christian values,” at least in so far as Christian values manifest themselves in public society. If, in his actual religion (whatever it is Mormons do when they’re doing their Mormon thing), he thinks differently about Jesus Christ than Nicene Christians do, that aspect of his religion will not be manifesting publicly. At the public level, he manifests as a man who is within the moral-spiritual ambit of Christianity, even though he is not a Christian. That is, Christians say he is not a Christian; Mormons do think of themselves as Christian.

Also, while Mormonism is not Christianity, it is an off-shoot of Christianity. The Book of Mormon lifts entire chapters from the Gospels in their entity. The teachings of Jesus are part of Mormonism.

What if a Christian Scientist were elected president? Christian Scientists are not formally Christian, since they don’t accept the Nicene Creed. But they certainly believe in Jesus Christ and follow him and read the Bible constantly. Would America’s identity as a Christian country be ended if a Christian Scientist were president? So, by the same token, would America’s identity as a Christian country be ended if a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were president?

I repeat that there is nothing conspicuous about Romney in his public life which is noticeably non-Christian. Apparently his Mormonism was completely in the background when he was governor.

Yes, it is ideal that the president of the U.S. be a Christian. But we can’t always have the ideal, and having a president of a religion that is an offshoot of Christianity is not an intolerable deviation.

You write: “… by urging us to vote for Romney…”

I’ve expressed my own views about Romney, that I think he’s the best bet for the Republican party. I don’t think that’s the same as urging anyone to vote for him.

Also, in the recent presidential poll (which I’ve just begun adding up), a great number of readers support Romney and would vote for him.

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Mark K. writes:

By the way, I’ve come across to your point of view concerning Romney, you’ve convinced me. He is my first choice now. As far as his being a Mormon and not a Christian, I prefer a Romney who respects his own family more than a “Christian” like Giuliani who disrespects and shames his family (“by their fruits you shall know them”).

Fifteen years ago (in the month of December) I spent two weeks in Salt Lake City. My company sent me there to pick up some software, learn it and come back to teach others in the company. The company that sold us the software was owned and run by Mormons. Some of the nicest guys I’ve met in the business world.

The president of the company was a Mormon elder in the church. He took us on a tour of the temple in the center of Salt Lake City. We were able to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practice for their Christmas concert—magnificent! After the tour, we walked through the grounds of the temple. What we saw were middle aged couples and teenagers—husbands and wives, boys with their girlfriends—strolling around hand in hand. Very lovely and romantic. No gaudy sexual groping or smooching. A nice family atmosphere hearkening to days of yore.

When I got back home, I told my wife that we should visit Salt Lake City. It is a beautiful city (I didn’t see any bums, drunks or panhandlers on the streets in the middle of town) and I told my wife she would enjoy the sentimental family atmosphere there. Yes, I’d easily vote for Romney.

SN writes:

LA states, “Apparently his Mormonism was completely in the background when he was governor.” This is the perspective that secularists hold as a possibility for the relevance of a leader’s faith. Also of those of a religious persuasion whom have adopted secular persuasions. [LA replies: That is an off-base statement. As has been true since the beginning of the United States, and as Romney himself has cogently reiterated, what brings the different American denominations together and makes it possible for them to have a common culture and common polity is agreement on an ethical basis shared by their religions, leaving aside particularities of theology and liturgy. Office holders in the U.S. government do not get into discussions about the specific beliefs of their religion. That’s not done in the public square in America. It was true in some states into the early 19th century, where there were established religions, but it has never been true of the national government. And Romney is running to be the executive officer of our national government. The position I’ve just described is not a secularist position, it is the position of American society since the ratification of the First Amendment in 1790.] Non-secularists, or faith oriented individuals hold that one’s faith is the defining characteristic of one’s belief system, which determines the individual’s mores, allegiances, sense of justice, etc. These faith oriented individuals can no more say his “Mormonism was completely in the background” than they could say he does not think what he thinks, say what he says, or do what he does. This is why they will not support him as a Mormon. And I think that the percentage of such minded individuals is much higher than 2-4 percent of the electorate.

It is important to realize that American Christianity and Mormonism share a common governance, proximity, historical events, and cultural influences. These do not differentiate the two. Along these defining lines LA has correctly stated that “he manifests as a man who is within the moral-spiritual ambit of Christianity.” Yet it should be clear that what does differentiate the two is that they are different faiths. And along this line Romney is manifestly not Christian.

To equivocate (unintentionally I believe) by stating that “The Book of Mormon lifts entire chapters from the Gospels,” neglects the foundational Mormon belief that God established Mormonism and especially the Book of Mormon to correct the errant scriptures that Christianity adhered to.

The rather large numbers of Protestant evangelicals who believe that the foundation of Mormonism was Satanically influenced (and this is a mainstream understanding in this group) certainly do not view Romney’s faith to be harmless nor Christian. And they will not have a hard time voting for another candidate who “glows” less. [LA replies: it’s really a hard sell to convince people that Mitt Romney is satanic. In fact the attacks on him from liberal and evangelical quarters have been so overwrought that they’ve actually had the effect of making him seem better in my eyes.]

Electing a Mormon would not change America’s identity but would reflect that it has changed. Historically it has been important to American voters that the faith of their leaders embrace Christianity. Of course the embrace (sometimes insincere, forced or even imagined) widely deviated from leader to leader, yet its importance to the identity of the American citizenry is all the more evidenced by this. When this demand is gone it signifies a new America.

LA replies:

As I have said, I myself am not comfortable with Romney’s Mormonism; it remains a strange thing to me and I wish it were otherwise. It is preferable and it is the ideal that an American president be within the orbit of Trinitarian Christianity. But there have been deviations from that norm in our history, and I don’t think that having a well behaved, unassuming, virtuous Mormon like Mitt Romney as president for four or eight years would damage America’s Christian identity.

Also, if I had seen a single sign that Romney has intruded his Mormon beliefs into the public sphere during the course of his public career, I would feel differently about this. But I see no such sign. If he is elected, I don’t think his Mormonism will even be noticed during his presidency, any more than, say, Gerald Ford’s religion was noticed. Does anyone know off-hand what Gerald Ford’s religion was? I suppose he was a watery something or other. Did anyone ever hear Ford say, “Well, I have watery beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus Christ”? No. And neither will we hear anything about Mormonism from Romney. The doctrinal specifics of his religion will remain separate from his conduct of his office.

This seems to be especially the case since Romney is aware that Mormonism is not liked by many Americans and therefore he will keep it entirely private. In other words, he’s aware that his is a minority religion and he respects the sensibilities of the majority. Just the opposite of multiculturalism.

Finally, I don’t criticize people if they believe that a Mormon president is simply too much of a stretch and will damage American identity. That’s a traditionalist argument, so I can’t object to it. But in this instance, based on the evidence I’ve seen, the concern does not rise high enough to convince me that such damage will occur.

Bill Carpenter writes:

Excellent response on Romney. From a Voegelinian perspective, Mormons are more “Christian” than 90 percent of Christians in the sense that matters, of living in a divine order that integrates the individual and political worlds in the presence of the deity. They are more like our Christian forebears than most of us are. They are less assimilated to liberalism than most of us are. The same might be said of Moslems, but their 1,400 year record of killing and enslaving Christians shows they are enemies and not assimilable, even if they live for and in the presence of the deity. With that record, even if they were Arian Christians, we would be unwise to elect them to high office. Similarity is not the criterion for compatibility, but disposition to unity.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Please permit me to start by saying that it is to your blog’s credit that such an important issue as the faith of a given candidate is treated so seriously, and as a matter of such relevance as to justify extended debate.

Just to reiterate my position (with the disclosure that I am a “Romney man” as things stand today): Gov. Romney’s Mormonism is in my opinion an acceptable deviation from the Christian norm because of one key factor, that is, that Mormonism at least makes the claim to being a Christian faith. We may find that claim unconvincing perhaps outrageously so. But Mormons in general, and by confession Romney himself, do treat faith in the divinity and redeeming power of Christ as normative. To the limited extent that the election of a President validates and normalizes his stated religious beliefs, electing Romney would continue to treat self-described Christian faiths as the norm for American society.

Yes, Romney’s Mormonism is disturbing to me. Yes, Mormonism itself is a strange and obviously fraudulent heresy. Yes, it shares this in common with Islam. However, Mormonism does not reject Christianity as such, and selecting Romney as the leader of our country would not set any kind of serious precedent that a person actively hostile to the majority faith of the country could be considered a legitimate choice for its highest office. Romney’s faith is a bizarre deviation from the Christian norm, but Mormonism is not facially hostile to the majority faith of historical America. And that’s what the whole hub-bub boils down to in the end.

Sage M. continues:

I’d like to add that Mormonism is a peculiarly American religious phenomenon, and that has to be considered worth something. A candidate who espoused some kind of Meztiso pagan-Christian shamanism would be entirely outside the bounds of any shared American cultural experience, and would so be unacceptable as a candidate to represent the American people.

Howard Sutherland writes:

I have concerns similar to Jeremy G.’s about the effect on the fraying unity of America of a Mormon’s being elected president, and not out of anti-Mormonism. I confess I haven’t yet quantified them to my own satisfaction. I do wonder what having a president who openly confesses a non-Christian religion might do to what’s left of America’s common ground and inheritance. Those who founded America and established our government were all Christian in heritage, and the overwhelming majority in practice. All considered their states Christian commonwealths, whether or not they personally subscribed to every tenet of their denominations. I’m sure none of them would have considered Mormonism Christianity, had anyone presented it to them.

In rebuttal, Mr. Auster mentions Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln, saying all were not, or may not have been, formally Christian. That may be true; I’m not familiar with their beliefs. But there is an important distinction to make between them and Mitt Romney. What distinguishes those presidents from Romney is that they did not openly profess a faith other than Trinitarian Christianity, as he does—even though he doesn’t say much about its specifics or how its tenets guide his conduct. The presence in the White House of the presidents Mr. Auster cites was not a challenge to the preeminence of Christianity in America’s spiritual life—in each case I suspect we could find acknowledgments of the importance of Christianity to America’s character.

I would have the same reservations about any non-Christian candidate for president or vice-president—the question isn’t about the substance of Mormonism (or Judaism, Hinduism or—God forbid—Islam), it’s about America’s Christian character. I wondered about it briefly when the Democrats nominated Lieberman in 2000, and I noticed that he was free to say God guides him, something no top-tier nominally Christian Democrat would dare say anymore. In both parties, the nominally Christian politicians (Huckabee is an exception) are at pains to say they’ll set their religious beliefs aside in favor of the party platform. If that’s not a sign of the erosion of Christianity as a factor in American public life, I don’t know what is. How much farther do we want this to go?

It is an open question, and probably less of one than how having a non-white president (especially a half-African one) would affect what’s left of the traditional cultural understanding of the American nation, but I don’t think it is a red herring.

On a lighter note, can we ask the world to take America seriously if we elect as president someone who calls himself “Mitt”? Jimmy and Bill were bad enough, but Mitt is a name I might give my pet dog, not a person. Another sign America is on the road back will be when our pols get over calling themselves by nicknames.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 10, 2008 07:39 PM | Send

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