Back in April, I addressed the issue of President Barack Obama’s (D) eligibility to be president and his religion. For the whole story you should head over there and read it, but the short version is that Obama is a natural born U.S. citizen (and thus eligible to be President), he isn’t a Muslim (unless you are basing your opinion on traditional Sharia law), he’s apparently not much of a Christian either (as far as I can tell), and we don’t have a religious litmus test for presidents here anyway so it doesn’t matter all that much.
Even so, religion is a perennial issue in our presidential elections. President Thomas Jefferson’s (Democratic-Republican) opponents excoriated him for his unorthodox beliefs. President John F. Kennedy (D) was criticized in some circles for being a Catholic. President George W. Bush was made out to be some kind of hyper-right-wing evangelical Christian (even though he was, in fact, raised in the Episcopal Church and is now a United Methodist—both center-left ‘mainline’ Protestant denominations). Most presidents and presidential candidates who have held even slightly unorthodox religious views have been forced to discuss their faith in the public sphere.
This is understandable, to a point. The religion that one chooses—and we all do, at some point, choose what we are going to believe—gives us some insight into a person’s character, how they make decisions, and what values they subscribe to. These are valid matters to consider when evaluating a candidate for political office. But nobody is (or should be) automatically disqualified because of what they believe or don’t believe in the abstract, or because of what particular religious body (if any) they claim membership in. We should only consider a candidate’s faith, or lack thereof, insofar as it speaks to their character and informs their public policy decisions.
As such, it is important that we have some basic, honest understanding of a candidate’s personal beliefs, the moral and ethical strictures of their chosen religious body (if they have one), and to what extent the candidate actually subscribes to those strictures. It tells us something about a candidate’s trustworthiness and moral clarity if they claim membership in a particular faith but live and act in contradiction of its teachings. It tells us something about a candidate if he participates in a particularly radical form of a religion, or in a particularly wishy-washy form. It tells us something about a candidate if he lies about his faith or tries to feign beliefs that he clearly doesn’t have. And our news media has a responsibility to report on all of these things in a honest, dispassionate, accurate, and straightforward way so that the voters can weigh these issues, along with all the others, when they make their choices.
As the Republican Primary contest for the 2012 presidential campaign begins to ramp up, the subject of former-Governor Mitt Romney’s (R-MA) religion has already reared its head in a particularly ugly way. Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, lending his endorsement to Governor Rick Perry (R-TX), said that Romney’s Mormon faith is not Christian and that Mormonism is a cult (and because of this, he seems to think Christians can’t vote for him . . . I don’t see that anywhere in my Bible). Jeffress, for the record, has said even worse things about us Catholics before . . . which really just illustrates his stunning ignorance about Scripture, Christian history, and Apostolic Tradition.
Now, I’m not going to blame Perry for Jeffress’s comments. Nobody is responsible for Jeffress’s comments except Jeffress himself. But lobbing insults about another’s deeply held beliefs is not an appropriate thing to do in the public sphere, nor is it an appropriate way for a Christian to behave. I don’t buy into the false moral relativism that claims that all religions are objectively equal, and I have no complaint about civil discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of different faiths. The fact is that some religious belief structures are closer to the truth than others. We can discuss these matters with a certain amount of decorum and respect, even when we disagree with one another.
But we do need to address the elephant in the room here: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), known colloquially as the Mormon church, is not, strictly speaking, a Christian denomination. Calling it a ‘cult’ is an unnecessary and inaccurate insult, and Jeffress did not broach this subject in an appropriate or charitable way. The fact that Mormons are not Christians does not at all disqualify them for public office any more than it should disqualify a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, deist, or atheist. But we shouldn’t respond to Jeffress’s un-Christian (and un-educated) blather by completely dismissing the one small nugget of truth in his statement. On the contrary, we should take the opportunity to educate ourselves about the LDS religion and how it differs from Christianity.
The confusion on this subject arises from the definition of the word ‘Christian.’ Some take a very open-ended view that anybody who believes in Jesus Christ is a Christian. The problem with this definition is that it is so broad that it means nothing. Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a Prophet, and Jews typically acknowledge that Jesus existed but consider him to be a false messiah; they both ‘believe’ in him, at least in a certain sense, but this doesn’t make them Christians. You could narrow the definition to mean that anybody who considers Jesus to be divine is a Christian, and this is closer to the truth, but it is still very open-ended and would encompass a number of views on Christ that are far, far outside of the historic Christian understanding.
All of this conjecture ignores the fact that the Church defined Christianity a long, long time ago. As the early Church struggled with the earliest controversies and disagreements in its ranks, its Bishops gathered regularly in Ecumenical Councils to settle matters and promulgate decisions. The first of these, the Council of Jerusalem, is recorded in Scripture in the Book of Acts. In AD 325 at the Council of Nicaea, the Church promulgated the Nicene Creed—a ‘yardstick’ of basic Christian theology and belief still recognized as normative by all mainstream Christian denominations. Right here in plain Latin (along with the official English translation) is the definitive overview of what Christians believe:
Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem,
Factórem cæli et terræ,
Visibílium ómnium et invisibílium.
Et in unum Dóminum Iesum Christum,
Fílium Dei Unigénitum,
Et ex Patre natum ante ómnia sæcula.
Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine,
Deum verum de Deo vero,
Génitum, non factum, consubstantiálem Patri:
Per quem ómnia facta sunt.
Qui propter nos hómines et propter nostram salútem
Descéndit de cælis.
Et incarnátus est de Spíritu Sancto
Ex María Vírgine, et homo factus est.
Crucifíxus étiam pro nobis sub Póntio Piláto;
Passus, et sepúltus est,
Et resurréxit tértia die,
Et ascéndit in cælum,
sedet ad déxteram Patris.
Et íterum ventúrus est cum glória,
Iudicáre vivos et mórtuos,
Cuius regni non erit finis.
Et in Spíritum Sanctum, Dóminum et vivificántem:
Qui ex Patre Filióque procédit.
Qui cum Patre et Fílio simul adorátur et conglorificátur:
Qui locútus est per prophétas.
Et unam, sanctam, cathólicam et apostólicam Ecclésiam.
Confíteor unum baptísma in remissiónem peccatorum.
Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum,
Et vitam ventúri sæculi. Amen.
(Official English Translation)
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Obviously not every modern Christian body agrees on the proper interpretation of each specific item—particularly that “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” line—but we all agree on the vast majority of the substance and meaning of the Creed. Despite all of our denominations and fracture since the Protestant break in the 1500’s, we still agree on a lot more than we disagree on. Indeed, the Catholic Church recognizes almost all Protestant Baptisms as being perfectly valid in large part because almost all Protestant denominations subscribe to the same basic set of theological beliefs handed down to them by the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church.
But our LDS brothers and sisters don’t subscribe to many of these beliefs, or they subscribe to them in a way that is so far from the traditional Christian understanding that it might as well be an entirely different belief all together. As such, LDS baptisms aren’t recognized as valid by the Catholic Church (or by hardly any other Christian denominations).
Traditional Christian belief describes the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Sprit—as being three ‘persons’ in one God. Despite some claims to the contrary (in the Qur’an, for example), we are a monotheistic faith, which is why the word ‘one’ appears several times in the Creed, and why the Creed reiterates that Jesus is ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. Mormons, however, believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three individual members of a heavenly council—essentially three gods with a united will. This is similar (though not identical) to the Arian heresy that was dismissed by the Church at the Council of Nicaea and prompted the creation of the Nicene Creed.
Because of this, the LDS church explicitly rejects the Nicene Creed—even though it is recognized by almost all Christians as being the normative definition of Christianity, was crafted by direct successors of Christ’s Apostles, and was endorsed by the Church that Christ vested with his authority and protection (cf. Matthew 16:18). Beyond this, Mormons accept the Book of Mormon as scripture though it is not recognized an canonical by any other religious group, and many Mormon practices—like baptisms of the dead—are far, far out of the realm of normal Christian practice.
Does any of this mean Mormons are bad people, or that they can’t be president, or that Christians should be suspicious or insulting toward them? Absolutely not! There are many great and wonderful things about the LDS faith—an orthodox social theology and a strong emphasis on family, for example. The Mormon religion deserves the same respect we give all other world religions. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t just lump them in as ‘Christian’ and go about our business. There are important, substantial theological differences between the LDS church and the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ (no matter how we define it).
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get back to the real issues that matter in next year’s presidential race . . . you know, restoring federalism, balancing the budget, protecting civil liberties, etc.