What is Mitt Romney’s Goal?

82e75-mitt-romney-021012jpg-791058a812756157

It is becoming more and more common for Republican members of Congress to speak-out against Donald Trump and then fail to act on their words.  (Think Ben Sasse).

Mitt Romney, aka Pierre Delecto, has been slamming Trump of late, but toward what end?  WBUR-Boston reflects on this question:

Mitt Romney, the politically fickle former Massachusetts governor turned U.S. senator from Utah, is mounting an increasingly vocal opposition campaign against President Trump. In recent speeches and press interviews, Romney has staked himself out as an intraparty detractor of the Republican president, taking aim at both his policies and his character. And he’s even left the door open to supporting impeachment.

But open questions remain, among them: Will Romney keep up his steady stream of criticism and put action behind it? And if so, could he convince many other GOP members on Capitol Hill to join him, or would he remain a lone wolf?

So far, the jury is out.

Read the rest here.

Is Robert Jeffress Really a Bigot?

jeffress

On Monday, Robert Jeffress, the controversial pastor of the massive First Baptist Church in Dallas, offered the invocation at the dedication of Donald Trump’s new American embassy in Jerusalem.

When it was revealed that Jeffress would be praying at the event, the pundits pounced. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP candidate for president, led the way.  In a tweet he criticized Jeffress for claiming that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew” and “Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.”

If Romney had more than 280 characters to work with, he could have also noted Jeffress’s belief that Hindus “worship a false God” and Muslims are “evil.”

Indeed, Jeffress is a bombastic, loud-mouthed preacher who likes to peddle his brand of evangelicalism on Fox News and other politically conservative news outlets.  He was one of the few evangelical leaders to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy during the GOP primaries when there were Christian Right candidates in the field—Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, to name three—who did not come with Trump’s immoral baggage.

On Monday evening, Jeffress appeared on Fox News to defend himself against charges of bigotry.  Watch it here:

While Jeffress did not say anything negative about non-Christian religions during this appearance on Fox, he firmly re-asserted his belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion.  This, he proclaimed, has been the teaching of the Christian church for more than two thousand years.

Jeffress is correct. And Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard and a columnist at Bloomsburg News, agrees with me.  Here is a taste of his piece “This Isn’t Bigotry. It’s a Religious Disagreement“:

Do those statements really make Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a bigot? All he is doing is echoing an almost 1,800-year-old doctrine: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It can be traced to St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died in the year 258. The basic idea is that Jesus Christ came to save those who believe in him — and not those who don’t.

This view doesn’t reflect the latest in pluralism. The Catholic Church treated it as dogma for more than a millennium, but has backed away in recent decades. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, expressed skepticism about the view in a 1964 sermon. “We are no longer ready and able,” he said, “to think that our neighbor, who is a decent and respectable man and in many ways better than we are, should be eternally damned simply because he is not a Catholic.”

But plenty of Christians of many different denominations still believe this teaching in one way or another.

Even Mormons have their version. “Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5),” as the official website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts it. That’s one reason Mormons practice posthumous baptism of those who would otherwise be unsaved: so that good people who were not members of the LDS church can achieve salvation.

To be clear, I have no dog in the Christian theological fight about whether good people who aren’t Christians can be saved — much less which version of Christianity is necessary to achieve salvation. That’s because I’m not a Christian.

My point is rather that I can’t, and shouldn’t, feel offended by someone telling me that I won’t be saved because I don’t have the right religious beliefs.

Most religions in the monotheistic tradition think they are right and others are wrong. That’s normal. It isn’t a reason to consider those who hold other beliefs to be bigots.

Read Feldman’s entire piece here.

In age in which the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel are scorned by a culture that celebrates tolerance as one of its highest virtues, Jesus’s claim in John 14:6 that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” seems like bigotry.

But why would we expect Jeffress, a Christian pastor, to believe that there is more than one way to God?  I am sure that Mitt Romney, if pushed to explain his own religious beliefs, would say something similar about the exclusive nature of the Christian faith as understood through his Mormonism.  Let’s face it, Christians are not going away anytime soon.  Thomas Jefferson learned this lesson the hard way.  The great man of the Enlightenment from Monticello predicted in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Woops. So much for Enlightenment progress.

So rather than wishing evangelicals away, I think it is time for Americans to think seriously about how to live together amid what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as our “seemingly irresolvable differences.”  The practical application of Inazu’s vision will not be easy and people like Robert Jeffress will make it even more difficult.

I have been critical of Jeffress’s embrace of Donald Trump.  Just scroll through the blog and you will see what I mean.

As an evangelical and a historian, I have been critical of the Dallas pastor’s attempt to fuse God and country in a desire to “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots.  It is a form idolatry and it is based on bad history.

As I told a writer who interviewed me today, Jeffress’s undying support of Trump and his Christian nationalism weakens the witness of the Christian Gospel–the “good news”–and alienates the very people who may be most in need of it.

Moreover, Jeffress’s extreme dispensationalism makes him insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow evangelicals in Palestine.  He seems completely oblivious to the very real possibility that he and his fellow court evangelicals are being played by a man who may not survive his presidency without their support.  As Thomas Friedman recently put it, the ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Jerusalem embassy was a “Republican mid-term pep rally disguised as a diplomatic event….This was meant to fire-up the far-right religious base of the Republican Party.”

When Jeffress does announce that salvation only lies in Jesus Christ, he may have the history of Christian doctrine on his side, but he makes such pronouncements with a culture warrior spirit that reflects the worst form of fundamentalism.

If secularists need to learn how to live with the millions of evangelicals who believe that salvation lies only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then evangelicals to need to learn how to engage those with whom they differ with “gentleness and reverence” that will cause them to wonder about the “hope that lies within.”

And I could go on.  (Actually, I do go on here).

Robert Jeffress “Endorses” Donald Trump

Here is what Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a 10,000 member megachurch in Dallas, said in 2011 about having a Mormon for President of the United States:

Here is Robert Jeffress the other day in Sioux Center, Iowa:

In 2011 Jeffress would not support a family man, a man of deep faith and morality, and an experienced politician.

But in 2016 he will support a cultural mainline Presbyterian who has been married three times and has made statements on the campaign that do not always conform to the teachings of Jesus or Christianity.  (OK–this is an understatement).

I guess not all Southern Baptists get their advice from Russell Moore.

 

Historians Weigh-In on the Second Presidential Debate

AHA Today has posted a historian’s forum on the Tuesday night’s second presidential debate.  The commentators include Ed Blum, Patricia Limerick, Daniel Rodgers, and Jonathan Zimmerman

Here is a taste of Limerick’s piece:

Nostalgia for an imagined golden age does not enhance a historian’s job performance.

And yet election-year debates pull me off track and into a deep swamp of nostalgia.  Within minutes of a debate’s start, I am lost in yearning for a past era when candidates made their cases in substantive, cogent, and thorough ways. 

By a mysterious numerology, we have, as a society, determined that “two minutes” is the right unit of time for an aspiring office-holder to take an enormously complicated issue and squish it into utterly improbable simplicity.  It does not help that at least thirty seconds of those two-minute units must be devoted to flailing at one’s opponent, since energetic walloping of the rival stands as the key criterion used by pundits, both on camera and on social media, to distinguish winner from loser.

Leaving God Off the Campaign Trail

NPR’s Barbara Brown Hagerty reports on the limited role that religion has played in this year’s presidential campaign.

While many scholars expected Mormonism to be a major issue in the campaign, it has not played a significant role.  I find it interesting that the so-called “Mormon Moment” may have been more a creation of scholars and pundits than an actual political issue in the presidential race.  Romney has, for the most part, kept quiet about his faith and Obama has chosen not to bring it up.

Here is a taste of Hagerty’s story:

Shaun Casey, who teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, says there are several reasons for Romney’s reluctance to emphasize faith.

“The downside for Romney is, first of all, he’s not a natural cultural warrior,” says Casey, who also advised the Obama campaign in 2008.

Second, Casey says, is that every reference to Mormonism “reminds people in his conservative base that he is a Mormon and he is not an evangelical Christian.”
Romney needs those voters to turn out in record numbers, Casey adds, “and the fear is there, that those folks are going to stay at home.”

But despite reservations about Mormon theology, evangelicals immediately snapped into line once Romney became the Republican candidate. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, says that new unity means Romney doesn’t have to spend time or money reaching those religious voters. Instead, Jones says, the GOP candidate needs to focus on voters in the middle.

The GOP’s Moral Creed

One of the most revealing moments of this week’s GOP convention came during Paul Ryan’s speech on Wednesday night:

Our different faiths come together in the same moral creed. We believe that in every life there is goodness; for every person, there is hope. Each one of us was made for a reason, bearing the image and likeness of the Lord of Life.

We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.

Each of these great moral ideas is essential to democratic government – to the rule of law, to life in a humane and decent society. They are the moral creed of our country, as powerful in our time, as on the day of America’s founding. They are self-evident and unchanging, and sometimes, even presidents need reminding, that our rights come from nature and God, not from government.

On paper, I agree with almost everything Ryan said in this excerpt. The Romney campaign did a nice job of handling religion this week. Romney talked about religious liberty.  There were moving speakers who testified to his Mormon faith, but they did so not in terms of doctrine or theology, but in terms of compassion, love, and service.  These kinds of generic religious virtues can be embraced by most religious Americans.

Much of what the GOP had to say about religion this week reflected the ideas of the American Founders.  The Founders believed that religion was good for the Republic. They championed religious liberty and refused to endorse any specific religious creed.  I don’t think I heard anything about a “Christian nation” this week, although it was clear that the “moral creed” Ryan and others espoused was informed by a mix of Protestant evangelicalism, Catholicism, and Mormonism.  (Where is the next Will Herberg or Kevin Schultz to write a book called “Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Mormon“?  The “Mormon Moment” has truly arrived).

Yet it was difficult to mesh all of this rhetoric about a moral nation with what was the most prominent theme of the convention–American individualism.  

Nearly every speaker referenced their roots in either poverty or the working class.  According to his wife Anne, Mitt Romney ate tuna-fish on an ironing board in a basement apartment. Tim Pawlenty’s father was a truck driver.  Chris Christie’s Dad worked at the Breyer’s ice cream plant.  Paul Ryan extolled his humble roots in Janesville, Wisconsin. 

The story that the GOP told this week was informed less by the ideas of the American founding and more by the nineteenth-century myth of the self-made man.

When the Founders thought about a moral or virtuous republic they thought about it not only in terms of individual liberty, but in terms of sacrifice. Their vision was not only about pulling oneself up from poverty and the working class, but about living in a benevolent community in which people will sometimes temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good. 

I think we got a glimpse of this from the members of Mitt Romney’s Mormon congregation who testified to his compassion and pastoral care, but unless you were watching PBS or C-SPAN you did not see these powerful testimonies.  (I am still, however, trying to balance Mitt Romney the loving pastor with Mitt Romney the venture capitalist, but I will leave that for another post)

Ryan’s words about “responsibilities, one to another” were helpful, but if his voting record is any indication, this kind of rhetoric only applies to abortion. What if Ryan applied his commitment to care for the weak and vulnerable to all Americans?  His stand for the life of the unborn is admirable, but his application of Catholic social teaching to public policy is very limited.  (If Joe Biden bones-up on the tenets of Catholic social teaching the VP debate might be very interesting).

The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms.  All of these things are good and deeply American, but a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone.  Moreover, the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream fails to recognize a fundamental fact of history, namely that people–even Americans–have struggled to make this dream a reality.  Certainly people have contingency to direct their lives along the paths they want to go, and this is something that makes America unique, if not exceptional, in the annals of modern history, but we cannot ignore the fact that people are also shaped by the circumstances of their past. We are not autonomous individuals.

I do not think I heard the word “common good” at any point during the GOP convention.  I heard nothing about the cultivation of a civil society in which people learn from their differences and forge a national community.  It was all personal stories of rising from poverty or the working class to “make it” in America.

Of course such rhetoric will work well among people who do not like government intervention.  And it works particularly well when you are trying to unseat a president who believes that the government has an active role to play in people’s lives.  But such a view of America only gets the Founders half-right.  As the grandchild of immigrants, a first-generation college student, a son of the working-class, and a beneficiary of the American Dream, the message I took away from the GOP convention left me hollow.  I think it would have left the Founders hollow as well.

Obama and Romney Talk About Their Religious Faith…

with Cathedral Age, the quarterly magazine of the Washington National Cathedral.  Here is a snippet from each interview (as summarized by CNN):

Obama, when asked how he responds when people question the sincerity of his Christian faith, said:

… (T)here’s not much I can do about it. I have a job to do as president, and that does not involve convincing folks that my faith in Jesus is legitimate and real. I do my best to live out my faith, and to stay in the Word, and to make my life look more like His. I’m not perfect. What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others trying to make folks’ lives a little better using this humbling position that I hold.

Romney, when asked about how his faith plays a role in his life said:

Faith is integral to my life. I have served as a lay pastor in my church. I faithfully follow its precepts. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. My father was committed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s cause of equality, and I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby and in leading national volunteer movements. My faith is grounded in the conviction that a consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God.

Gerson: Obama Has No Right to Complain About the Lack of Civility

According to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, America is on its way to becoming “a nation with the responsibilities of a superpower and the politics of a banana republic.”  We have become so polarized that civility seems impossible.

If I got everyone on my Facebook wall together for a political conversation there is a good chance that Wrestlemania 29 might break out.  (OK–I had to look up that Wrestlemania reference.  Thank you Wikipedia).  Things are that bad.

I had a nice conversation with some of the folks in attendance at a lecture I gave on this subject last weekend at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Ocean City.  We were all pretty skeptical about a sudden cease-fire in the culture wars, but I still held out hope that something along these lines was possible. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills.  I have been known to do this kind of thing.

How can we expect a nation to move forward when we have a Republican member of the House of Representatives (Allen West from Florida) claiming that “about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party” are “members of the Communist Party.”  Or his Democratic colleague in the Florida delegation, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, claiming that all Republicans “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws.”

Obama admits that he has failed to fix the divisive culture of Washington.  He had hoped that he would be able to “change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people.” It has not panned out.  And those of you who think that Obama is to blame for this nasty political climate, let’s remember that things were not much better when George W. Bush was in office.  In fact, they were not much better in the 1790s either.  (Sometimes we need a little history lesson.  It gives us perspective).

But according to Gerson, Obama, at least for now, is part of the problem. His attacks on Mitt Romney in recent weeks have been vicious, especially coming from a president who laments the fact that he has not made Washington a more civil and decent place.

This ad is politically effective, and the message might even be true, but it does nothing to fix the culture of American politics:

If Obama really wants to change the culture of Washington he will have to rise above the kind of negative campaigning that has defined American politics since before the Civil War.  Of course, if history is any barometer, this is not going to happen.  Obama is a product of a corrupt electoral system just like every other national political candidate.  In order to survive politically he must do what he has to do to win re-election.  Any attempt to transcend this system would be an act of morality and political bravery.  But it will also result in electoral losses. 

Gerson is right when he says that “political polarization is the product of democracy that undermines democracy.” 

Mitt Romney’s Disappearing "Evangelical Problem"

John Charles-Duffy, writing at Religion & Politics, traces Mitt Romney’s relationship with evangelicals.  Most pundits have noted that whatever problem Romney had with evangelical voters has disappeared.  It seems this is indeed the case, especially now that Rick Santorum has dropped out of the race.

But I have not heard much from those hard-core conservative evangelicals who met together in Texas in January to endorse Santorum.  I assume that they will vote for Romney in November, but, as Charles-Duffy notes, some of them might sit the election out.

Here is a taste of his piece:

The moral of this story is not that evangelicals are sacrificing their doctrinal objections to Mormonism for political expediency. Romney’s Mormonism per se was never an issue for most evangelicals. A majority were always open to voting for him—if he didn’t insist Mormonism was Christian, and if they judged him sufficiently conservative. By assigning disproportionate weight to the minority of evangelicals in the “Don’t vote for a Mormon!” camp, commentators missed an important shift: by 2012, if not earlier, doubts about Romney’s conservatism replaced concern about blurred theological differences as his greatest evangelical liability. That’s not because politics trumped theology; it’s because Romney learned to respect evangelicals’ theological boundaries.

It remains to be seen whether a minority of evangelical purists might sit out this election rather than vote for a Mormon (although former hard-liner Robert Jeffress has already softened his stance). As in the 2007 “faith speech,” Romney has continued in 2012 to effectively address evangelicals’ concerns about theological compromise. In May, he delivered the commencement address at Liberty University where he managed to extol conservative Christian values without ever explicitly identifying himself as Christian. Afterwards, the provost of Houston Baptist University commended Romney for “not pretend[ing] to agree with the theology of the Liberty University audience.” Romney must continue to walk that line to keep evangelicals’ anxieties about religion safely neutralized. He has enough to do already, handling their doubts about his politics.

Historically Corrected

In anticipation of the 2012 presidential election, The New York Times is running a new web series called “Historically Corrected.”  The columns will be written by Adam Goodheart, the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College and Peter Manseau, a writer who is currently a scholar in residence at the Center.

Goodheart, Manseau, and a team of student researchers at Washington College will be analyzing the historical references made by the candidates over the course of the next few months.

In the first installment in the series, Goodheart and Manseau remind us that many of the nation’s greatest achievements–the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge–“were often products of bitter partisan struggles than of national togetherness.”

Here is a taste:

In fact, history is often the lingua franca of our national politics. And the heroic rhetoric goes beyond just the 18th-century founders. In his campaign addresses, Mr. Obama has deployed a litany of 19th- and 20th-century accomplishments to claim precedent for his own grand initiatives (and grander intentions). “We built this country together,” he said in a stump speech in Miami Beach last week. “We built railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Interstate highway system, the transcontinental railroad — we built those things together…”

It’s strange, then, that Mr. Obama, whose health care legislation was born amid similar bombastic accusations, dire predictions, and back-room dealing, should miss one of the perennial lessons of American history: our national achievements have usually been propelled forward by contention, not consensus.

Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Mormonism?

Noah Feldman, writing at Bloomberg, argues that a Mitt Romney just could be the Mormon ticket into the “Christian Mainstream.”

Here is a taste:

As a deeply believing Mormon, he actually, sincerely (yes, sincerely) believes that his moral values are equivalent to those of evangelicals.

And as a Mormon, Romney is a participant — indeed, he is the most important participant — in the long-term project of convincing mainstream American Protestants that Mormonism is a normal denomination like all the others. Given this historic opportunity to “normalize” Mormonism, Romney is acting not opportunistically but on deeply felt principle. By embracing evangelicals and being embraced by them, he is bringing Mormonism into the denominational scheme that characterizes mainstream American Christianity.

Short-term politics is therefore making a long-term historic difference. Evangelical Protestants who once believed that Mormonism was a deviant sect, not a legitimate denomination, may come to believe something very different as they prepare to cast their votes for a Romney. The practice of pluralism can come first. The beliefs can come later. 

So once again, it will be evangelical Protestants who will decide who is, and who is not, part of mainstream American Christianity.  Does this sound familiar? Feldman seems to be suggesting something similar to what I argued in the first four chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (and what many others have suggested), namely that evangelical Protestants have played a significant role in defining the religious identity of this country.

For some evangelicals, this is a great thing.  But I am not so sure.

HT: Jon Rowe

Can a Businessman Run the Country?

Alec MacGillis of The New Republic thinks that Barack Obama is “not only attacking Romney for the infelicitous particulars of private equity, he is more broadly suggesting that Romney’s background as a businessman–the chief asset Romney is running on-does not necessarily translate into being a good president.”  He quotes from a recent Obama speech in Des Moines, Iowa:

“The main goal of a financial firm like Gov. Romney’s is not to create jobs…. Their main goal is to create wealth for themselves and their investors,” Obama told a crowd of nearly 2000 on the fairgrounds.

“Now that may be the job of someone who’s engaged in corporate buyouts. That’s fine. But that’s not the job of a president. That’s not the president’s job. There may be value for that kind of experience but it’s not in the White House.”

Obama continues in his populist strain.  But will it work?