Howell Scott and I are friends. We view issues Southern Baptists face, more times than not, very similarly. We've not only chatted via cellphone, we've communicated both digitally and personally face-to-face. Howell is a self-professing Calvinist (an "inconsistent Calvinist" is the way he puts it) while I am a...a...well that is a problem because, theologically speaking, I'm not sure what I am1 >>>
And, one thing I most highly respect about Howell is not only the aura of personal integrity which he seems to project, but also the desirable trait that one is not required to eat his beans when you come to his barbecue. You can if you like, and I'm sure he'd be happy if you did and serve you as much as you could hold. But so far as he is concerned, you can bring your own baked beans and still eat at his table.
If I could capitalize upon that little metaphor a bit, I'd like to sit a spell at Howell's barbecue on Romney's "biggest lie" and nibble on some beans I've baked using my own recipe.
In Howell's post entitled 'Romney's Biggest Lie: "All children of the same God"' he takes the Governor to task for faulty theology and then admonishes evangelicals for not employing both a "political lens" as well as a "theological one" when evaluating a presidential candidate—in this case, Mitt Romney. Howell implores: "For Evangelical Christians — including, but not limited to, Southern Baptists — we should be viewing this election through not only a political lens, but through a theological one as well." And, lest one think Howell is suggesting he favors a religious litmus test, he further desires to "clearly and unequivocally state" his full support for the Constitution's prohibition against "religious tests" for public office. So, one the one hand, evangelicals ought to use both political and religious (i.e. "theological") criteria in judging candidates, but on the other hand, we are not constitutionally required to do so because of clear and unequivocal support for the Constitution's prohibition against religious litmus tests for public office.
For my part, I perceive clear tension in what Howell is suggesting. If I ought to use both political and religious criteria for public office candidates, as an individual, I can do so apart from the constitutional clause prohibiting the religious criteria. Perhaps, for example, if the Bible instructs me to use both criteria, then I might appeal to the apostolic example of obeying God rather than man (Acts 5:29). But I cannot do so while at the same time stating I'm "clearly and unequivocally in full support of the Constitution's prohibition against "religious tests" for public office—at least I can do so with no semblance of consistency.
Howell's answer to obvious tension is to suggest that "just because a religious test is not required to qualify to run for office, that does not mean that voters cannot use their own religious tests when casting their vote for a particular candidate." Granted. We agree. What we do not concede, however, is to suggest one ought to use both political and religious criteria for public office candidates while at the same time stating that one clearly and unequivocally fully supports the Constitution's prohibition against religious tests for public office. I think Howell needs to pour us a little gravy on our potatoes if he doesn't mind.
Howell teases out his point further by offering a few examples. John F. Kennedy's presidency was marked by many who argued his Catholicism could and would be divorced from his politics. Similarly, many evangelicals are arguing Romney's Mormonism can and will be divorced from his politics. Howell writes:
"This election... asks voters — particularly Evangelical Christians — to act as if Mitt Romney's religious beliefs are irrelevant... When entering into the voting booth, some conservative, Bible-believing Christians will not think twice about pulling the lever for Mitt Romney... I do believe that it is a mistake for so-called Evangelical Christians, particularly Southern Baptists, to not think twice about Mr. Romney's Mormonism."
In response, I don't know how one may generalize the 2012 election as Howell has to be an election asking voters, especially evangelical voters, to dismiss Romney's Mormonism. I do not doubt Howell's impression he gets from the general media since I believe him to be an informed Christian. However, I haven't gotten that clear impression especially since it was obvious Mitt Romney was, like it or not, the inevitable nominee who would personify the only electable alternative to the incumbent president. Nor have I changed my view on this since I first addressed the potential Romney candidacy in 2007 (here and here).
What is more, Howell strongly cautions us about our alleged mistake of not "thinking twice" about voting for Romney because of his Mormonism but then proceeds to tell us he is going to cast his vote for Romney despite his Mormonism! I do not understand this. Is the only goal here to stop and think about the one for whom we are casting our ballot before we actually cast our ballot for the one we've just thought about? Admittedly, I am dense at times but I cannot grasp what my friend is driving at.
Howell offers another illustration which he apparently believes demonstrates hypocrisy in evangelicals who are presently dismissing Romney's Mormonism—President Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Writes Howell:
"...it was conservative Christians... who loudly and publicly argued that the President [Clinton] could not separate his "private morality" from his public responsibilities. It was often argued that President Clinton no longer had the moral authority to hold his office because of his actions which gave rise to the scandal."
Howell goes on to agree that any President should have a private moral character consistent with public leadership in the highest office in the world. We agree. On the other hand, we disagree with what Howell seemingly infers from the lesson gleaned from Clinton's scandal:
"For Christians to now argue that a President's morality — indeed his faith and sincerely held religious beliefs — can somehow be divorced from the way he governs is, in a word, hypocritical. Just because folks happen to like Mitt Romney's public policies should not give him a pass on his faith and religious beliefs, especially if those who are tying [sic] to give him such a pass were not inclined to give Southern Baptist Bill Clinton a pass in the 1990′s"
In response, Howell seems to have erroneously conflated morality and general faith beliefs. While it's true moral law is intrinsically wed to a Moral Lawgiver—or, to state it another way, moral law ostensibly requires theism—it remains verifyingly possible that men and women may be moral without necessarily being religious—Christian or otherwise—and certainly without being evangelical. It seems this is precisely why the Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office. Hence, we could have a moral grievance against President Clinton whether or not he was a faithful Southern Baptist which constitutionally was and remains irrelevant to his service as President of the United States.
More significant is whether Mitt Romney's Mormonism—his general faith beliefs—will inform his decisions in the White House. If Romney is a faithful Mormon, I cannot see how his general faith beliefs will not, at least in some ways, inform his administration. Paul Ryan admitted in his debate with Joe Biden that his Catholicism would inform his decisions. I would hope if I were in office my faith would inform mine, and I'm sure Howell would agree that, were he in public office, his faith would inform his policy decisions. However, the question is really not if our religion will influence our decisions (assuming our general faith beliefs are an undeniable, conversionary part of our lives).
Rather the question is, will our faith rule us in a way which discriminates against others, promotes injustice, peddles a culture of death, deconstructs our constitution, negates the public welfare, needlessly puts our troops in harm's way, exploits racism, encourages class warfare, crushes an entrepreneurial spirit, harms freedom of religion, of speech and of the press, expands an oppressive government, bleeds the taxpayer paying an ever increasing debt, institutionalizes poverty, penalizes charity, denigrates healthy family life, among many other things we might list? So, yes, predictably religious belief will affect the public official in office. Our most difficult task, however, is not to focus on whether a candidate for public office is a Christian or non-Christian, nor whether faith beliefs will or will not influence public policy. Rather it is to determine, as discerningly we can, who will best serve the general welfare of all citizens of the United States according to our constitutional republic of laws.
Finally, Howell states the foul for which he must toss Mitt Romney a red flag--"We're a nation that believes that we're all children of the same God" (article here). Consequently, Howell takes special issue with Romney's theological gaffe:
"No, Mr. Romney! Our nation does not believe what you stated. I do not believe what you stated. Most Evangelical Christians — including the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists — do not believe what you stated. And, most importantly, the Word of God... most assuredly does not teach what you stated."
In response to Howell, I would first query, if our nation does not believe what Romney stated as Howell claims, precisely what does the nation believe? Does it believe that there is only one God over all and Jesus Christ is the only way to Him? Good luck with that one. One article in Washington Post suggested that while 92% of Americans believe in "God or a universal spirit" including 20% of those who call themselves atheists, a whopping 70% of those who are affiliated with any religion (including Christianity) believe that many religions can lead to eternal salvation (//link). I'm afraid our nation probably believes a theistic proposition closer to Romney's version than to Howell's, or mine or evangelicals generally.
Second, I wholeheartedly embrace the same negation as Howell if Romney was definitively speaking about all people being the children of the same God in the sense of redemption. Nothing could be clearer in Scripture as Howell rightly pointed out. However, it remains unclear whether Romney was speaking of all being children of God in the sense of redemption or was speaking of all being children of God in the sense of creation, a distinction routinely employed by a wide variety of Christians including evangelicals. For example, Millard Erickson writes:
"One of the great theological debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concerned the extent of the fatherhood of God and hence the extent of humanity's brotherhood. Liberals insisted that there is a universal brotherhood among humans, and conservatives equally emphatically maintained that only those who are in Christ are spiritual siblings. Actually, both were correct. The doctrine of creation and of the descent of the entire human race from one original pair means that we are all related to one another. In a sense, each of us is a distant cousin to everyone on this earth. We are not totally unrelated. The negative side of our common descent is that in the natural state all persons are rebellious children of the heavenly Father and thus are estranged from him and from one another. We are all like the prodigal son" (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998, 512-13).
The point Erickson makes is that there exists a sense in which we are all "Fathered" by God. Texts routinely used to argue this aspect of God's general Fatherhood of His creation are Lk 3:38 and Acts 17:24–29 among others. Warren Wiersbe makes this helpful remark: "As Creator, God is the Father of each man; but as Saviour, He is only the Father of those who believe" (Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary; Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996, Eph 3:14).
Another example would be Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul:
"We often hear about the universal Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man. There is a limited sense in which this is true by creation (Acts 17:28), but, in terms of redemption, only those adopted into God's new family are his children and Jesus' true brothers and sisters" (R.C. Sproul, Before the Face of God: Book 2: A Daily Guide for Living from the Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Ligonier Ministries, 1993).
The point I simply make is there is just not enough evidence to assume Romney was speaking specifically as a Mormon or generally as an American inferring from constitutional language about all being "endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights" the equality of all people. In fact, the story Howell quotes lends credibility to the probability he was speaking in a creation sense rather than a redemptive one.2
In closing, I want to state that when I voted for Mitt Romney on Thursday of last week, I did not vote for Mormonism. Instead I voted for the one candidate I think represents the best candidate among those whom I judge to be electable candidates. In the end, I think that's all one can do in this fallen world. Mary England rightly indicated in a comment thread that while we've put Mr. Romney's Mormonism under the critical microscope judging it to be sub-Christian, we've hardly placed President Obama's purported Christianity under similar scrutiny; but if we did, we may discover our President's faith beliefs are surprisingly just as sub-Christian as we routinely judge Mr. Romney's to be.
Perhaps Martin Luther concluded best:
I would rather be governed by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian
1though I remain dead sure what I am not
2no one should wrongly infer I remotely imagine Mitt Romney holds orthodox views on biblical redemption. If he holds to Mormon teaching on core Christian doctrines he holds to an horrendous, biblically inadequate understanding of the historic Christian faith as revealed in Scripture