Our leaders and the faith factor

Cal Thomas's picture

Atheists are the only people who appear to have been offended by Mitt Romney’s speech about his Mormon faith. Judging by the reaction contained in some newspaper columns, editorials and letters to the editor, atheists are said to have felt “excluded” by Romney’s failure to acknowledge that tolerance of the anti-religious is part of America’s tradition.

Most everyone else thought it a good speech and that Romney had the correct view of the proper roles of church and state while refusing to compromise his personal convictions.

What no one mentioned (so I will) is the curious practice by a substantial number of voters who require our presidential candidates to acknowledge faith in God. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits a “religious test” for office, but that hasn’t stopped many, especially in Iowa, from requiring statements of evangelical faith before deciding for whom to vote.

Does one expect to know the spiritual bona fides of an individual, other than pastor or religious worker, for any other job?

In the 1970s, a curiosity called the “Christian Yellow Pages” made the rounds of churches and certain businesses run by evangelicals. It contained names of professions one finds in the regular Yellow Pages — plumbers, taxi drivers, auto mechanics, dry cleaners — except these were owned and operated by certified, God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians.

The clear implication was that businesses found in the Christian Yellow Pages would do a better job at a better price than the presumed “heathen” who advertised in the bigger yellow book.

I never saw any data that proved a connection between faith in Jesus and the ability to repair a car at a reasonable cost, so I usually went with the shop that did the best job at the lowest price and didn’t bother to ask if the repairman went to church.

Voters who require statements of faith from presidential candidates risk disappointment. Many evangelicals who voted for Jimmy Carter regretted having done so when they saw his post-election policies and what they regarded as his incompetence as president. Bill Clinton could quote Scripture, but not many would hold him up as an evangelical icon, given his roving eye and impeachment for lying under oath.

Much of this fixation on audible faith has to do with evangelicals having been ignored by culture following the embarrassment associated with the Scopes Trial 82 years ago. Emerging from their political catacombs in the late 1970s, these Christians basked, if not in new respect, then in the intoxication that comes with public attention.

They were told they were now players in the kingdom of this world and in presidential politics. Their leaders were invited into the corridors of political power. They exchanged real power and its ability to transform lives for temporal power, which changes little of lasting importance.

While requiring politicians to express belief in Jesus and the Bible, many evangelical voters ignore Christ’s statements about the source of genuine power. They also conveniently forget what Christ said about how they would be regarded and treated by a world that had rejected Him (and still does as the best-selling atheistic works of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins attest).

It was Jesus, in whom Mitt Romney said he believed, who warned, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18) and “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).

Those warnings are not the creed of contemporary evangelicals who think persecution is a negative newspaper editorial or a disparaging remark by a skeptic on a cable TV show. Too many contemporary evangelicals want the blessing without obeying their real commander in chief, who said doing things His way would bring real persecution.

This election should be more about competence and less about ideology, or even faith. It shouldn’t matter where — or if — a candidate goes to church, but whether he (or she) can run the country well, according to the principles in which the voter believes. And, if those principles include a person of faith, so much the better. God can be the ultimate check and balance on earthly power.

If a car hits me, I care more about whether the ambulance driver knows the way to the nearest hospital and the skills of the emergency room doctor than where they stand with God. That’s the attitude we should have toward those who desire to be president of the United States in a fallen world.

[Email Cal Thomas at tmseditors@tribune.com.] ©2007 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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muddle's picture
Submitted by muddle on Wed, 12/12/2007 - 9:36am.

I'm trying to discern where Cal Thomas is coming from in this editorial. Thomas has identified himself as an evangelical in the tradition of Francis Schaeffer. When people think of the entrance of evangelicals into the political arena in the late 70s and early 80s, they usually think of Falwell and his "Moral Majority." What they seldom realize is that Schaeffer--whether intentionally or not-- provided the intellectual foundation that made this possible--particularly regarding the sanctity of life. I had always thought of Thomas as bivouaced with the camp of that same religious right. So what's going on in this editorial?

Now, clearly, the immediate backdrop of his piece is Romney's "Mormon speech" and the recent rise of Huckabee--particularly his Iowa campaign with its perhaps tasteless assurance that he is a CHRISTIAN LEADER. Iowans, Thomas says, required assurances of evangelical faith before deciding on whom to vote, and they did this despite Article VI of the Constitution prohibits any religious test for presidential candidates.

But this is misapplied here: no government official or agency is holding up a religious shibboleth for Romney or anyone else. The issue involves the private conscience of the voter in the booth.

Thomas compares the presidential "faith factor" to the so-called "Christian yellow pages." The latter are ripe for parody. A devout Christian is no more likely to do a better job at re-upholstering your LaZBoy than is his free-thinking competitor across town. And, indeed, when I was diagnosed with cancer and sought the best possible treatment, the question of whether the doctor was a "man of faith" just never came up. (On the operating table: "Before you put me under, just tell me this: Do you love Jesus?") I wanted to know whether he was competent.

Apparently, we are to draw a similar conclusion about potential occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But Thomas goes on to note the relevance of voting for candidates who stand for "the principles in which the voter believes." And here is where his analogy potentially breaks down.

There is no connection between religious faith and quality upholstery. Neither is there a connection between the latter and one's stance on the abortion issue. But there may well be an intimate connection between a presidential candidate's worldview and the principles that matter to a voter.

Now, in an attempt to explain the evangelical desire for a "Christian Leader," Thomas offers this bit of a social science explanation:

Much of this fixation on audible faith has to do with evangelicals having been ignored by culture following the embarrassment associated with the Scopes Trial 82 years ago. Emerging from their political catacombs in the late 1970s, these Christians basked, if not in new respect, then in the intoxication that comes with public attention.

I think the better explanation of the rise of the religious right is found elsewhere. As Thomas's mentor, Francis Schaeffer, observed, differences at the surface on issues such as abortion, euthanasia or the nature of the family can and often do reflect deeper divisions at the level of worldview. Schaeffer argued that the faultline runs right down the middle of the churches, as many--perhaps for the most part in mainline denominations--have mingled their theology with an essentially "humanistic" worldview. Schaeffer and others alerted evangelicals to the fact that we were engaged in a culture war, and that the fault lines that separated our nation ran deep.

Right or wrong, the continued evangelical desire for a person of faith in office is best explained by the perceived connection between one's fundamental worldview and where one comes out on issues such as abortion. Thomas's "Scopes Trial" explanation is out of left field.

Perhaps Thomas is only thinking about the difference between a Mitt Romney and a Mike Huckabee. Both claim to be pro-life. And they take similar stands on other issues dear to the evangelical heart. (Never mind the fact that Romney only recently--some time around when he turned his eye to the White House--seems to have "seen the light.")

So perhaps the point is that it is cutting too close to the bone to insist that a candidate who aligns with the desired principles also back up those principles with a religious orthodoxy. Perhaps, too, Thomas backs Romney, though he is not saying so in this piece.

Clearly, if a candidate is not competent to run the affairs of state, his or her incompetence is not somehow compensated by the fact that he loves his mom and Jesus. (You have but to return to the doctor analogy to think this one through.) But should a candidate prove to have what it takes, and should his principles and faith form a seamless whole that corresponds to that of the voter, then what can be the objection to an evangelical voter's allowing a shared faith to tip the scale?


My Opie impression: circa 1963.

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