The EFM Feature

I’m exaggerating slightly. But not much. In his latest blog post, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that political candidates should talk about “how religious conviction might influence public policy,” but not “the beliefs that govern the church’s internal life.”
He was spurred to discuss this, apparently, by Michael Kinsley’s recent article in TIME. Dr. Mohler appears to agree with this portion:

God is a personal adviser and inspiration to all of them. They all pray relentlessly. Or so they say. If that’s not true, I want to know it. And if it is true, I want to know more about it. I want to know what God is telling them–just as I would want to know what Karl Rove was telling them if they claimed him for an adviser. If religion is central to their lives and moral systems, then it cannot be the candidates’ “own private affair.” To evaluate them, we need to know in some detail the doctrines of their faith and the extent to which they accept these doctrines. “Worry about whether I’m going to reform health care, not whether I’m going to hell” is not sufficient.

Of course, Kinsley’s column also included an attack on Governor Romney, whom he accuses of “want[ing] the J.F.K. deal with voters: If you don’t hold my religion against me, I won’t impose my religion on you.” But his analysis is off target. Governor Romney does not shy away from talking about his values on issues such as the sanctity of marriage and abortion; when he says he’s not willing to talk about religion, it’s when he starts getting quizzed about his underwear or why Mormon temples are governed in a certain way. (Hey, maybe the next topic is why Mormons might let someone who doesn’t agree with their doctrine teach Sunday School–something my church definitely wouldn’t do.)
All along, we have said all along that evangelicals should look at the ways in which Governor Romney’s faith informs his public life (which results in positions and actions we agree with), not the aspects that only matter if he’s your pastor (which we emphatically disagree with). Giving Governor Romney credit for the leadership he’s exerted on the issues we care about–in the most hostile environment imaginable–will get us the right president, but that’s not the only reason we espouse this approach. The other side is that if we subject him to a doctrinal inquisition, we’re liable to face the same. Just ask Kinsley:

Some church doctrines give offense even though they don’t constrain an outsider’s behavior in any way. They can imply a more general worldview, and voters have a right to know if a presidential candidate shares that perspective. Until recently, just about all religions had a built-in patriarchal worldview–God the Father, male priests and so on–that many today find offensive. To what extent has the candidate’s church moved with the times, and what has the candidate done to push his or her church in the right direction? I say the right direction, but many voters, of course, believe that this kind of modernization is the wrong direction. They also are entitled to know where the candidate stands and to vote on that basis.

I don’t know about you all, but my church doesn’t allow female elders or pastors and it definitely believes God is the Father and Jesus is the Son–which to Klein, and many like him, is a bridge too far. We must not set the precedent that beliefs like that–innocuous to many, if not most, evangelicals–can be disqualifying. Dr. Mohler responds to that, and the larger issue, in just the right way:

With these words, Kinsley launches into dangerous territory. He is no longer talking about how religious conviction might influence public policy, he is talking about the beliefs that govern the church’s internal life.
It is important that Christians look carefully at Michael Kinsley’s argument. Some United States senators have begun grilling presidential nominees on matters internal to their churches. Are Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, and many conservative evangelicals now to be excluded from public office, just because these three groups limit the rabbinate/priesthood/pastorate to men?
Kinsley is right to argue that the privatized argument of Kennedy and Cuomo will not stand close scrutiny. He is also right to call for candidates to share how they struggle with these questions. He needs to struggle a bit more himself, and think carefully about the distinction between doctrines that relate directly to public policy and those that do not.

Amen. And we evangelicals would do well to make sure we get it straight, too.
CORRECTION: For some reason, I had Joe Klein’s name here a couple times in place of that of Michael Kinsley, the actual author of the TIME piece. Not sure how that happened. My apologies.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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