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?

Romney and Obama: Religion is Off Limits

Obama’s campaign says that they will not play the Mormon card.  Romney will not bring up Jeremiah Wright (despite what Axelrod says in the video below). Here is a taste from CNN:

Washington (CNN)– A political truce may be brewing between the Obama and Romney campaigns on the issue of the candidates’ faith and religious practice.  An all-out war over such issues nearly erupted last week, but neither campaign would take up arms.
The controversy began after word got out of a Republican Super PAC’s proposal to try to put a spotlight on President Barack Obama’s fiery former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., just like in 2008. But Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, slapped the effort down before it even got off the ground (and the Super PAC’s leaders insisted the Wright campaign was just one of several ideas).

“I repudiate that effort,” Romney told reporters on Thursday. “I think it’s the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign. I hope that our campaigns can respectfully be about the future and about issues and about a vision for America.”

Romney’s lifelong membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is seen by some as a major liability, especially among evangelical voters and voters who don’t know much about Mormonism.

After word of the proposed Wright campaign, Democratic pundits argued that if Obama’s old pastor was back on the table, Romney’s Mormonism should be, too, including the church’s checkered history on the issue of race.

Read the rest here. Let’s see how long this so-called “truce” lasts.

Maybe I Was Wrong About Romney and Evangelicals

Earlier today I suggested that evangelicals would forget about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism because the apparent GOP nominee is their only hope to derail the prospects of a second Obama term.  Perhaps I was wrong.

The students at Liberty University are very upset about the university’s decision to invite Mitt Romney to be their commencement speaker.  CNN reports:

Washington (CNN) – Liberty University students and alumni are accusing the Christian school of violating its own teachings by asking Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose adherents are called Mormons, to deliver its 2012 commencement address.

By Friday morning, more than 700 comments had been posted on the school’s Facebook page about the Thursday announcement – a majority of them decidedly against the Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.’s invitation, citing that the school had taught them Mormonism isn’t part of the Christian faith.

“I can’t support Romney and I am happy I decided not to walk (in the commencement) this year,” wrote student Josh Bergmann. “Liberty University should have gotten a Christian to speak not someone who practices a cult. Shame on you Liberty University.”

Janet Loeffler, a 53-year-old freshman at Liberty, expressed her anger at the decision when contacted by CNN. She also sent a copy of the page of the freshman textbook “The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics” which includes the passage, “Mormon doctrine stands in stark contrast to Jewish and Christian monotheism, which teaches that there is only one true God and that every other ‘God’ is a false god….”

What I find interesting about all of this is that it was Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University, who regularly teamed with Mormons and other non-fundamentalists in his Moral Majority days in the 1980s.

Christian Right Backs Romney.–Of Course

Why is this such a major news story?  Did anyone expect the members of the Christian Right to turn their backs on Mitt Romney now that he is the only candidate still standing?  The Christian Right’s desire to remove Barack Obama from office is stronger than its concern over Romney’s Mormonism. Conservative Christians will gladly vote for the leader of a “cult” over a self-professed Christian.

Unless Barack Obama decides to bring up Romney’s Mormonism, it does not appear that religion will play a significant factor in this year’s presidential election.  The Romney camp must be rejoicing.  The anti-Mormon lobby (or at least most of them) will be voting for him in November.

Even Robert Jeffress, the Dallas mega-church pastor who said that no Christian should ever support a non-Christian (especially a member of a “cult”) for president, has endorsed Romney.

But here is my question:  What is Jeffress doing endorsing candidates in the first place? So many of these Christian Right pastors (and I am sure pastors on the left do the same thing) believe that they are somehow King-makers.  They all believe that they can advance the kingdom of God through politics. Why doesn’t Jeffress (and all clergymen) just stop the political endorsements and devote more time to the care of his flock?  He needs to read James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World.