In my day job I spend an inordinate amount of time battling academics who feel that because they have expertise in one area (like, say, gender confusion and cross-dressing in post-colonial Uruguay) that they can opine with authority on virtually any other matter. So English professors condemn George Bush’s military strategy, history professors hyperventilate over climate change, and Baptist theologians deliver lectures on political science.
Baptist Press reports on the comments of R. Phillip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Roberts, a student of Mormon theology and author of Mormonism Unmasked, stepped out of his area of expertise to opine on the likely evangelical response to Governor Romney. Now, I freely grant that Dr. Roberts has studied Mormonism more than I have. But when it comes to recent evangelical political history (and the spiritual responsibilities of evangelicals engaged in the political process), I’m not sure that he’s on solid ground.
I wish that I could have attended his breakout session at the annual conference of the International Society of Christian Apologetics (it was entitled: “Mitt Romney: Should Evangelicals Vote for a Mormon President?”). But I didn’t, so I have to rely on Baptist Press’s account. While I don’t have the time to deal with all of his reported comments, a few things stood out:
For evangelicals to consider a Romney candidacy more seriously, Roberts said the candidate must be more open about his faith; he must do more than say that he is proud of his religion, then divert questions about it. Evangelical voters “ought to be uncomfortable with a candidate who’s not more expressive about his religion,” Roberts said.
This is a puzzling statement. The two most recent candidates who have been most outspoken and transparent in discussing their faith have been Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. For Republicans Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George W. Bush, comprehensive discussions of their relgious views came at great political cost. While the media smiles and winks at Clinton’s frequent Biblical quotations, any public religiosity from our current president brings on cries of “theocracy!” from the hysterical left. As a Mormon, there is no doubt that Governor Romney is particularly sensitive to any attempt by the hostile media to use public religious expression to prey on old and misguided fears about “Mormon influence.”
I have a quick question for Dr. Roberts: Did you call upon Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush to be “more expressive” about their religious beliefs? If you did, my hat’s off to you for consistency. If you did not, then why not? Is it a particular Mormon responsibility to be “expressive?”
Roberts then moved on to an express an idea that is common to evangelical objectors to the Romney candidacy but that has virtually no empirical or experiential support:
One of those implications, Roberts said, is that a Mormon president would, in essence, “give every LDS missionary the calling card of legitimacy anywhere in the world.”
So the fastest-growing religious movement in the world (by some measures) is now REALLY going to take off because a missionary in Brazil can say, “and our President’s Mormon too!” Where is the evidence for that? Do Mormons missionaries typically ride the coattails of the secular success of their fellow congregants? “Don’t slam the door in my face, ma’am, the Senate Majority Leader, and the founders of JetBlue and Marriott are Mormons! Are you a 49ers fan? Well, Steve Young’s Mormon!”
Roberts’ comment is particularly maddening coming from a seminary president. Is that really how religious faith works? Did Christianity flourish more in the catacombs or in Constantine’s court? Are various truth claims buttressed or refuted by the prominence of their supporters? If that’s true, why have the Southern Baptists grown even as “establishment” mainline denominations (where the political elite was born and raised) shrunk? Quick, aside from John Ashcroft name one prominent Assemblies of God leader. Yet the Assemblies of God is enjoying explosive growth nationally and worldwide. Come on, Dr. Roberts, you can do better than that.
Finally, he sends a shot across the bow of evangelicals (like me) who dare support Governor Romney:
Concerning evangelicals who might publicly embrace Romney’s candidacy, Roberts said, “When we endorse a candidate, that [endorsement] carries with it enormous implications, and if Mitt Romney is elected as president of the United States, there’s a great [spiritual] responsibility on the part of those who have advocated his candidacy.”
He goes on:
“As believers and followers of Jesus Christ, a candidate’s spiritual values are not the only criteria, by any means, for public office, but as voters, exercising our rights as citizens, to ignore altogether candidates’ religious perspectives would be potentially unwise, irresponsible and possible disloyal to our allegiance to Jesus Christ, Lord of lords and King of kings.”
No serious evangelical supporter of Governor Romney has ever suggested that we “ignore altogether” his “religous perspectives” (quite the contrary). This is a straw man, and one wonders why Dr. Roberts would even make this comment. In reality, our argument in favor of the Governor owes quite a bit to his “religious perspectives.” To the extent that his beliefs will play out in the world of public policy and in the moral example of his conduct in the Oval Office, we not only have nothing to fear but every reason to expect that he will be a credit to the office of the Presidency.
Yes, there is great spiritual responsiblity in endorsing a candidate. And I am proud to endorse a man of integrity, a man who is faithful to his family, a man who has defended the unborn, a man who has defended marriage, and a man who understands the ferocious and deadly challenge of radical Islam.
Now, I eagerly look forward to the next breakout session at the apologetics conference: “Should Evangelicals Vote for Multiply-Divorced Members of Mainstream Churches Who Haven’t Regularly Attended in Decades?”