Today Mitt Romney delivered a speech billed as his "JFK moment"--when he spoke to the American people about his religion in a way intended to clear barriers that could otherwise stand between him and the presidency.
I'd like to do a detailed response to his speech, but I don't have time at the moment, so allow me to make a few brief comments.
1) I'm not impressed with what Romney said, but before I go further, allow me to add that I'm not impressed with what John Kennedy did, either. Kennedy ran away from his religion in his speech to Protestant pastors in Houston, and while I understand the political expedience of what he did, I am fundamentally a person of faith and what I care about most is fidelity to one's beliefs and not the political expediency of the moment.
2) A lot of what Romney said--in fact the whole first part of the speech--was simply wrapping himself in the flag and picking up the tacit endorsement of the first George Bush.
3) At one point in the speech, Romney states:
There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.
Romney needs a lesson in constitutional law. This is flatly false.
Or let me rephrase: Romney either needs a lesson in constitutional law or he is deliberately misusing what the Constitution says in an effort to pull a fast one on voters. Your choice.
The prohibition on a religious test for office that the Constitution contains is a prohibition on a particular creed being a legal requirement for office. In other words, it prevents Congress from passing a law that says, "To hold this federal office, you are legally required to be an Episcopalian" or "you are legally required not be a Catholic."
It has absolutely nothing to do with what decisions voters choose to make based on a candidate's religion. To cite an extreme example for purposes of illustrating a principle, if I don't want a Satanist in office, I don't have to vote for one. And if I as a voter have questions about a candidate's religion, I am perfectly entitled--without violating the intent of the founders--to withhold my vote from a candidate until I have those questions answered to my satisfaction.
Suppose, for example, that a particular candidate for the presidency is a Quaker who takes his religion seriously. One of the distinctive doctrines of Quakerism--often times--is pacifism. I'm going to want to know whether this Quaker is one who feels that war under all circumstances is immoral and therefore he will never be willing to go to war to defend the nation's interests.
So--contra Romney--questions about a candidate's distinctive beliefs can be quite relevant to his fitness for office, and asking these questions does not enable the religious test proscribed in the Consitution.
4) In the speech, Romney appears to want to have it both ways. On the one hand, he says that the authorities in his church will not influence his decisions as president. On the other hand, he stresses that the values he holds on the basis of his religion will.
This might be an intelligible position if he were an Evangelical Protestant, given what Evangelicalism claims about the nature of church leaders, but Mormonism holds that its highest leaders--its prophet and apostles--speak directly for God in a way that not even the pope is capable of doing. (The pope is held by Catholics to be capable of infallibly clarifying something that God has already revealed, but he is not held to serve as a channel of new divine revelation.)
Further, the Mormon prophet has a history of weighing in on social and political issues, such as whether polygamy should be allowed or disallowed and whether black people should have the same rights or not as white people, and the prophets have gone different ways at different times.
How can Romney intelligibly claim that values but not leaders will influence his decisions when the values flow from the leaders via new divine revelation?
And isn't it legitimate, since Romney says values from his Mormon faith will influence his decisions, to ask about the precise details of those values. If the Mormon church is softer on abortion than it should be (and it is), what does that say about Romney. Isn't it legitimate to ask follow-up questions of Romney about the extent to which he shares his church's position on abortion and what he would do on this question in office?
And this is just an example of a particular issue. There is also a larger issue that goes right to the heart of his Mormon faith:
5) To bend a phrase from Bill Clinton, "It's the Polytheism, Stupid."
Something conspicuously absent from almost all press reporting on the controversy over Romney's religion is the fact that Mormons are polytheists. That is, they believe in multiple gods. They also believe that men can become gods (and women can become goddesses).
This is a radically different vision of God and man than that taught by the Christian faith. It cuts out and replaces the central doctrine of Christianity--its understanding of God and man--and replaces it with an alien one. This means that Mormons are simply not Christians.
Yet they claim to be Christian.
And thus Mormonism is subversive of the Christian faith in a way that other polytheistic faiths, such as Hinduism or Shintoism, are not.
One of the things that is undoubtedly fueling Romney's campaign is a desire on the part of Mormons to have a Mormon president. That's understandable. It's a human desire for any group of people to see one of its own achieve the highest office in the land. It doesn't have anything to do with wanting to impose their religion on others, but it does have to do--among other things--with achieving a level of social prestige and acceptance as a group.
And this is not to be discounted. No doubt the social acceptance Catholics found in America in recent decades was in part due to the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
And now Mormons want their own Kennedy, and the social acceptance for their religion that will come along with that.
Which is precisely why Christians should be concerned with the idea of a Mormon president.
It would be one thing to elect a polytheist who makes no pretensions of being a Christian, but to elect a polytheist who claims to be a Christian--and, indeed, whose religion claims to be the true form of Christianity--would create enormous confusion about what Christianity is and what it teaches.
For anyone who holds to the historic Christian view of God and man, that alone is reason to feel very, very uncomfortable with the idea of electing a polytheist who claims to be Christian to our nation's highest office.