NATCHITOCHES, La., September 1, 2012 — There’s been mercifully little open discussion this summer about the religious beliefs of the major party candidates. Once it was clear Mitt Romney was going to be his Party’s nominee, religious conservatives seemed more united by their dislike of President Obama than their dislike of Mormonism. Neither campaign wants to wade into the swamp of religious bigotry, so only extreme voices occasionally erupt like a boil to ask: Are Mitt Romney and Barack Obama Christians?
Romney’s Mormon faith isn’t accepted as Christian by all Christians, and Obama is, according to polls, still widely suspected of being a Muslim. This doesn’t matter to most voters, but it matters on the margins, and if the race is close, the margins are where the outcome will be decided.
What is a Christian? In a religious family as sprawling as Christianity, that isn’t an easy question to answer. In the Bible belt, it isn’t uncommon to view Catholics as non-Christian, and historically Catholics have been reluctant to admit that being raised Baptist qualifies one for admission to Heaven.
Our definition of “Christian” often comes down to a collection of rites, the most important among those – baptism.
If you get the right baptism, you may be a Christian; if you get the wrong one, you’re not. But most Christians understand that there must be more to it than that. Anyone can get baptized with the intention of becoming a wolf among sheep. There must be a conversion; you must be acted upon by the Holy Ghost or the “Spirit of God” to truly become a Christian.
True Christianity, then, is a matter of the heart, an effect of the spirit. Obama might show us a baptismal certificate, but that would mean less to his critics than a Hawaiian short-form certificate of live birth. If we don’t believe he’s a Christian, no papers he presents to the contrary will sway us in our belief. If we believe that in his heart he bows towards Mecca, we’ll dismiss evidence of church attendance as a lie, along with the words of his mouth.
By the same token, Romney may claim that he’s a Christian, but we ask, “What does he mean by that?” He says he believes in Jesus Christ as his savior and the Son of God, but doubters wonder about the nature of the Jesus and the God he believes in. Mormons don’t accept the Nicene Creed, and their doctrine carries with it the odor of henotheism. Mormons use the vocabulary of Christianity differently than do other Christians, and their beliefs about everything from the salvific nature of grace and the efficacy of works to the eternal nature of the human spirit seem sufficiently odd to cast doubt on their Christian bona fides.
To be counted as part of a religious tradition involves a combination of beliefs, behaviors and rites. We might say that the rite of baptism is essential to admission to the Christian family. Whose baptism? Catholic? Presbyterian? Baptist? Mormon? If we accept more than one, then how can we reject any? Christians who reject only Mormon baptisms as valid often argue that Mormon beliefs render their baptisms invalid; Mormons have an incorrect understanding of baptism.
So the issue of rites is secondary to the issue of belief. What must you believe to be a Christian? Most would say, you must believe that Jesus was the son of God, the only man ever born who was also divine, the one who atoned for our sins and whose resurrection made possible the resurrection of all men and women. In short, he was the way, the truth and the light.
Mormons believe all that. So also, he says, does President Obama. Who are we to say that they do not? For me to say that a man doesn’t believe what he says he believes requires either that I understand the way he thinks better than he does, or that I observe in his behavior a contradiction to his stated beliefs.
In Russia, reforms of the Orthodox Church caused a schism between “old believers” and “new believers.” There was bitter contention over matters as seemingly trivial as how many fingers should be used to cross one’s self. Should it be two, or three? These ritual matters are used to create shibboleths that allow groups of Christians to distinguish themselves one from another. Ritual can be used to bind communities of believers, and in that role it can be powerful and powerfully inspiring. But it is also used to divide religious communities, and so is destructive and repellant to outside observers.
The fundamental shibboleth of Christianity is faith, and faith is un-measurable and invisible except through works.
Are Obama and Romney Christians? Only God can know that, and if God is Jewish, it might be better if they weren’t. If there is no god, it hardly matters. What we can know and what should matter to us isn’t the precise nature of the religious faith in their hearts, but the way it is manifest in their lives.
If a man tells me he’s a Christian, I don’t demand to see documentary proof. I only watch the way he behaves to see whether his variety of Christianity is good or bad. Some people who call themselves Christians are awful. One who bragged to me about his love for Jesus Christ clearly loved money and status more than God. He wasn’t unusual. A lot of Christians don’t seem really to take Christ very seriously.
If Obama and Romney say that they’re Christians, that should settle the issue for all but modern-day Pharisees, and we know what Christ thought of them. God will make the determination, not us. The question we should be asking isn’t, “Are they Christians?” but rather, “What kind of Christians are they?” Better yet, “What kind of men are they? Do they exemplify the best that Christ taught, regardless of their religion?”
America will prosper if America’s Christians worry more about electing good men and women into office than they worry about shibboleths.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He’s a Christian who occasionally wonders whether anyone can tell without him saying so. He hopes that they can. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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