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Thoughts on Religion and Politics

By Rod Dreher

Herewith, my views on religion and the politics of the present moment, with something to offend just about everyone:

1. Mormons aren't Christians. I don't mean that as a criticism, only as a descriptive phrase. When Mormons claim Jesus Christ as their savior, there's no reason to doubt their sincerity and good will, or even to deny that they are in some way followers of Christ. Yet Mormonism rejects foundational doctrines of traditional Christian orthodoxy, such that it is impossible to reconcile with normative Christianity.

2. Anyway, the Latter-day Saints church teaches that all other Christian churches are apostate. A heretic is someone who rejects one or more doctrines of religion, but an apostate is someone who has rejected the religion entirely. How is it, exactly, that you can get mad when people you regard as apostates consider you to be ... apostate? How does that work?

3. Theologically, this is a big deal. But politically, so what? Mormons vote like Southern Baptists and come down on the same side of most issues of public morality like conservative Christians do. If you're a socially conservative lawmaker, wouldn't you rather have a Mormon in your legislative foxhole than a Kennedy-style cafeteria Catholic or progressive mainline Protestant? I'm no Romney fan, but is there really no meaningful political difference between Good-Mormon Mitt and Bad-Catholic Rudy, to say nothing of Liberal-Protestant Hillary?

4. There are plenty of good reasons for conservative Christians not to vote for Mr. Romney, but his religious beliefs are not among them. Do Christians want to be in the position of rejecting a candidate whose political views and moral values they agree with, solely because they don't like his religion? On what grounds would they condemn secularists for rejecting Christian candidates?

5. "If Mitt Romney believes what Mormonism teaches, no telling what he'll believe," say more than a few conservative Christians. Oh? Non-Christians have to overlook the fact that Christian candidates profess to believe that God became man, was murdered and rose from the dead. They have to ignore the fact that some Christians believe that same God-man mysteriously appears as bread and wine under certain circumstances, and others believe that the universe was created in seven literal days. The content of a religion's doctrinal teaching is not a reliable guide to the overall judgment of one of its adherents.

6. Which isn't to say that doctrine doesn't matter at all. Take Islam, for instance. It would be dangerously naive to assume, as American civil religion does, that all religions are pretty much the same. It's true that most religions share core ethical teachings, but orthodox Islam also teaches unambiguously that there is to be no separation of religion and state and that non-Muslims are to live subservient under law to Muslims. To the extent that a Muslim wishes to preside over our pluralist liberal democracy, he will have had to break radically from his faith's fundamentals.

7. Liberals who insist that religion has no place at all in American politics have to account for the Christian roots of abolitionism and the civil rights movement. When faced with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and other black clergymen explicitly appealing to Christian scripture against Jim Crow, Southern segregationists groused that religion had no business in politics. You can't praise religion's role in political discourse only when it advances causes of which you approve or is practiced by constituencies - African-Americans, say - that vote Democratic.

8. Does freedom require religion, as Mr. Romney asserts? Superficially, no, unless you wish to argue that post-Christian Europe is unfree, which is plainly nuts.

But we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss John Adams' observation that the U.S. Constitution is made "only for a moral and religious people" and will not work for any other. His point was that maintaining political liberty requires a people capable of governing themselves and restraining their passions for the greater good. He might have said "moral" people, and left it at that, because in his day and in ours, one can find morally upright men and women who have no religious faith and believers who are morally corrupt.

9. But the crooked timber of humanity is frail indeed. If God doesn't exist, then by what standard do we decide right from wrong? If a society recognizes no independent, transcendent guardian of the moral order, will it not, over time, lose its self-discipline and decline into barbarism? The eminent sociologist Philip Rieff, who was not a believer, said that man would either live in fear of God or would be condemned to live in fear of the evil in himself.

10. Adams' pronouncement raises the question: "Whose morality, and whose religion?" The American constitutional understanding of the rights of man and human dignity come out of both the Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian tradition. The American constitutional order, and the American civil religion, is inexplicable outside of both, together, in creative tension. Religion is not sufficient for securing liberty, but religion, restricted by boundaries required by a pluralist democracy, is necessary to maintain it.

11. Mr. Romney, as a Mormon, may not be a Christian, but his values are deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christians who judge a candidate's fitness for the presidency based on his particular profession of faith should reflect on the quality of governance our devoutly evangelical president has provided over the last seven years. Martin Luther is supposed to have said that he would rather be governed by a wise Muslim than a foolish Christian.

Smart man, that Luther. For a heretic.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is rdreher@dallasnews.com.

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