Niedner: We say religion doesn’t matter for candidates, but we sure talk about it
January 6, 2012 4:22PM
Updated: February 8, 2012 8:03AM
The shakeout from this week’s Iowa caucus voting includes the end of several fascinating conversations but heightened attention to others. For now, whatever transpires in the Christian counseling centers Michele Bachmann’s husband owns won’t get much attention outside Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District. Alternatively, we can expect to hear plenty about Mitt Romney’s lifelong membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For a supposedly secular, tolerant society, this country’s electorate has proved notoriously cautious about its leaders’ religious leanings. In 1960, skittish voters wondered if electing John Kennedy, the first Catholic president, meant the pope would dictate national policy.
We’ve had a dozen Episcopalian presidents, a handful of Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, even a couple Quakers and Unitarians. However, no Jewish person has ever appeared on a presidential ballot, and our current president, an evangelical Christian, has endured repeated claims that he is a closet Muslim and therefore, the logic seems to go, not trustworthy. No sign outside the White House says, “Non-Christians need not apply,” but history suggests we heed an unwritten version of that directive.
Although “Jesus Christ” appears in the official name of the group commonly known as Mormons, mainline Christian theologians generally hold that Mormonism has ventured far enough from certain critical teachings about God, Jesus and human nature that it does not represent a form of historic Christianity. Indeed, the movement began as a rebuke of traditional Christian teachings and practices.
According to official Latter-day Saints sources, God appeared in 1820 to Joseph Smith, a pious, 14-year-old boy confused by the multiplicity of Christian denominations, and told him that no Christian group up to then had the fullness of truth. Moreover, God chose Smith to establish the true church of Jesus Christ on Earth, partly on the basis of the ancient, hitherto unknown Book of Mormon that God enabled Smith to translate.
Unlikely as this story sounds to outsiders, even a vague acquaintance with the history of the world’s great religions prompts recognition of a familiar pattern. Thirteen centuries before Jesus’ time, a bewildered young man raised among Egyptian royalty but descended from Hebrew slaves received a revelation from a strangely named deity who spoke through a burning bush. Seven centuries later, a quirky prophet named Ezekiel had a vision that revealed the God of Moses owned a flying chariot that made every locale on Earth’s vast platform a place God could visit.
Eventually Jesus’ followers, trusting in a new revelation, reinterpreted Moses and other Jewish scriptures and claimed to understand them better than the Jews themselves. After six more centuries, another young man, perplexed by all the religious warfare he witnessed, had a revelation that led him to found the religion called Islam, which means “way of peace.”
Following each reported revelation, some believed and others scoffed, but ultimately a new or substantially altered tradition formed alongside the old one. Even casual study of these various religions shows that each of them has produced saintly, wise and trustworthy people, but each has also bred its share of crackpots and violent fanatics.
While our presidents generally take their oath of office with one hand on a Bible, they swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, not the law of Moses or the teachings of St. Paul as they understand them. Accordingly, those of us who vote may well pay attention to candidates’ deeply held convictions, but the most important of them have to do with establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our children.