Religion, Presidential Politics and Morality, Part I

June 15th, 2011

By Dan Miller

Religion has political components and politics has religious components.

Attorney General Holder once called for an “honest discussion” of race, apparently having in mind instead a dishonest one way communication about White “racism.” That hasn’t turned out well. I would like to see a rather more candid discussion of the intersection of religion and politics and that obviously involves discussion of both. I have tried to limit the articles in this series to the more religious of the declared presidential candidates and the maybe-candidates who now seem as though they might have a chance. Before getting into that, however, a bit of disclosure:  I like some of them more than others but hope for many reasons that Governor Palin seeks and gets the Republican nomination and wins; I think she can do it and I’d vote for her in a flash.  I’d probably vote for many of the others were one of them the Republican choice, some with more enthusiasm than others; still, the Buckley Rule applies: Support the most conservative candidate who is electable.

Once upon a time, it was not considered polite to discuss religion with those holding different views. During an address at Digital Biota, Douglas Adams observed that religion

has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions.’

Mr. Adams’ perceptions of the openness of political discussion seems a bid odd these days. Now,  it can be more frustrating to discuss social and political matters with those adhering to different views than to discuss religious matters.  Whether due to the decline of traditional religion or something else I don’t know, but politics has in many ways become a secular religion.  It has its own dogmas and creeds which, as expedient, surpass in importance and influence more traditional religious dogmas and creeds. “Belief” has become a political as well as religious phenomenon: people believe in President Obama’s Change we can Believe in; people believe in anthropomorphic global warming and people believe in all sorts of stuff much as young children believe in Santa Claus; objective and verifiable facts have little to do with those beliefs. Through faith, anything is credible, regardless of whether it is true or possible. There is no apparent reason to assume that any discussion of religion and politics will bring unity as to either, nor should it. We have had diverse views as to both since long before the country began and that has worked pretty well.  Still, better understandings of what we are saying and mean would be beneficial in both politics and religion.

Religion has been an important if not central part of American life since the beginning.  There are Librul as well as liberal and conservative religious organizations and President Obama has his avid supporters among the irreligious as well as on the religious left.  The Washington Post observed in 2006,

Long overshadowed by the Christian right, religious liberals across a wide swath of denominations are engaged today in their most intensive bout of political organizing and alliance-building since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, according to scholars, politicians and clergy members.

In large part, the revival of the religious left is a reaction against conservatives’ success in the 2004 elections in equating moral values with opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Religious liberals say their faith compels them to emphasize such issues as poverty, affordable health care and global warming. Disillusionment with the war in Iraq and opposition to Bush administration policies on secret prisons and torture have also fueled the movement.

Right or left, few politicians in the United States claim not to be religious, as Christians or as Jews. Within both there are wide divisions of doctrine and preference as to social issues.  Most likely, neither an acknowledged Agnostic nor an acknowledged Muslim would have much chance of becoming the President of the United States and I don’t view that as a bad thing. President Obama claims to be a Christian and occasionally attends religious services. However, many suspect him of being a closet Muslim; I think he is more likely to be irreligious, perhaps a closet Agnostic. If he is, I don’t want him to come out of the closet because that would give the rest of us a bad odor. I think he has been the worst “man caused” disaster to befall the United States for a very long time, certainly within my memory and I will turn seventy in a couple of days.   Many good things have come and gone over the years but vestiges of the good remain and can perhaps be revived. But not under President Obama.

Some, principally on the left, apparently feel/hope/believe that all religions, particularly non-Christian, non-Jewish religions, are similar in their essential moral values, and that the evil behavior of many religious adherents is merely aberrational if not delusional. Hence, Islam is touted by some as the Religion of Peace and to the extent that the violent activities of Islamic Jihadists, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and others can’t be ignored they are shunted aside as simply inconsistent with real Islamic belief and behavior; those who take this view apparently consider themselves capable of defining “real” Islam. The proponents of Islam have already done that. Multicultural, multi-religious rejection of reality leads many to want to believe — and hence to believe — that all people everywhere actively desire the same sorts of democracy and freedom — religious and otherwise — that we hold dear.  These problems are exacerbated by tenaciously held religious beliefs in some countries with which the United States is an ally, is in conflict or is sometimes both simultaneously and with which she must in any event deal.  These beliefs have religious as well as political implications and they are inseparable; they must be considered in tandem. Many Islamic countries are practically as well as officially theocratic and far from free and democratic; they oppose, loudly, Israel as a free and democratic but Jewish state. The opposition may well be to freedom and democracy as well as to the idea of a Jewish state, particularly one sharing borders with Islamic states.

There is very real evil — I don’t know any other name for it — in the world; it’s dangerous and until we recognize it for what it is the situation will remain dire and get worse.  Islam incorporates far more than its share of evil; its adherents deem that evil good as mandated by their God.  The problem goes far beyond the perception, in Iran and elsewhere, that Israel must be “wiped off the face of the earth.” Are the religious heritage of the United States and her remaining commonly accepted religious and moral beliefs relevant to how the United States responds to these and other foreign and domestic situations? Should they be? I think the answer to these questions has to be “Yes.”

What is a Christian? Is the concept somewhat exclusive or can anybody who wishes to do so legitimately claim to be one? Are Mormons Christian? Adherents to Black Liberation Theology? How about Unitarians? How significantly are the basic tenets of those religions pertinent to politics and social policy?

It may well be presumptuous for a non-Christian to attempt to define Christianity, but here goes. As I understand it, Christianity involves belief in only one God, that Jesus, His only son, died to atone for our sins, was resurrected and ascended to Heaven to sit on the right side of God, the Father Almighty, the maker of Heaven and Earth. Some Christians believe that Jesus took a three day detour into Hell between His crucifixion and ascent into Heaven to give those who had died and gone to Hell before He came on the scene an opportunity for redemption; some don’t or at least it’s not in some of their versions of the Apostles Creed. Christianity also involves belief in the Bible as the (literal or at least metaphoric) Word of God and in the Holy Trinity — God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Blessed Trinity, “which wert and art and evermore shall be.” There are also many morality based concepts which most Christians share — for example,  do not steal, do not bear false witness, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, turn the other cheek and do not covet your neighbor’s wife; some substantially predate Christianity, believed to have been given to Moses as the Ten Commandments or thought to have been taught by pre-Christian priests and philosophers; so they can’t be claimed as exclusively Christian. Presumably, Deists, Pantheists and Polytheists could not legitimately claim to be Christians even though some share these moral imperatives.

Unitarians? Those of the Unitarian religion, as the name suggests, do not accept the central Christian notion of the Trinity or often the divinity of Jesus. Comparing a Unitarian and a Methodist hymnal will reveal many of the same hymns, sung to the same music but with quite different words. The Unitarian-Universalist version of the Doxology became,

From all that dwell below the skies
Let faith and hope with love arise.
Let beauty, truth and good be sung
Through every land by every tongue.

That’s the one I remember, but there are slightly different versions. Faith in whom or what is not clear, but it can probably mean faith in man, in a supreme being or both. Even some Agnostics consider themselves, and are considered by their coreligionists, to be Unitarians. I should perhaps note that I attended Unitarian services for about a year as a young man but found the Librul social views generally pushed there to be repugnant so I stopped. Are Unitarians Christians? Through perhaps interesting definitions of Christianity some would say that they are or at least that some Unitarians are.

Black Liberation Theology? President Obama for many years attended the Reverend Mr. Wright’s Trinity United Church in Chicago where Black Liberation Theology, said to be a subset of Christianity, was preached; the Reverend Mr. Wright was his principal religious adviser and mentor; one of his most memorable expressions was “God damn America.”

Most voters in the United States were put off by that and other expressions of his religious/social beliefs. Only when the rantings of the good reverend became public knowledge did Senator Obama “throw him under the bus,” much to the Reverend Mr. Wright’s displeasure.  It would have been inexpedient for Senator Obama to have remained steadfast because his election would have been substantially in doubt.

To what extent did Senator Obama adhere to the Reverend Mr. Wright’s beliefs and to what extent does President Obama? Candid explanations from Senator Obama back then would be useful in understanding President Obama now.  This article at Huffington Post (yes, Huff ‘n Puff) suggests that

Perhaps the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Israel preachings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., who was Obama’s pastor for nearly 20 years, officiated at his wedding, baptized his children, gave him the title of his book, The Audacity of Hope, and served as his “sounding board” and spiritual mentor, have had more of an influence on Obama’s world view than people realize.

Mormons? Mormonism is important because Governor Romney, the current leader of the pack for the Republican nomination, is one and Jon Huntsman isn’t sure whether he still is.  Here are the thirteen Mormon Articles of Faith and an introduction to them:


Two years before he died, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote them in a letter to a newspaper editor, John Wentworth, who had asked for information about the Church.

Ever since the Articles of Faith were written, they’ve inspired and directed us in the basic principles of our gospel. They enhance our understanding of certain doctrines and help us commit to living them. They invite further thought. And they’re a good tool for explaining our beliefs to people unfamiliar with them.

Articles of Faith

1. We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

2. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.

3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.

4. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

5. We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.

6. We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.

7. We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.

8. We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

9. We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

10. We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

11. We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

12.We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

13. We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul-We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

Some appear to be consistent with more or less traditional Christian beliefs, some not. It is argued here that Mormonism is a false religion because it is inconsistent with Christian doctrine and that, therefore, a Mormon should not become the President of the United States. The author claims,

Even if a Mormon social teaching happens to concur with orthodox Christianity at this point in time, it is unreliable and subject to alteration. It’s tempting to say that “continuing revelation” has defined Romney’s career, who has changed his positions on same-sex marriage and abortion and just about every major “culture war” issue.

For evangelical Christians, Romney has some additional explaining to do. On such essential doctrines as the Trinity and the role of Jesus in salvation, there are major differences between orthodox (biblical) Christianity and Mormonism. But the real problem is that Mormons believe and teach an American history that is in many particulars completely unsubstantiated and in others demonstrably false. Mormons believe that the “lost tribes” of Israel actually ended up in America, and that Jesus visited America and these tribes during his incarnation. These are just a few of Mormonism’s highly idiosyncratic views of history. …

Placing a Mormon in … [the Presidential bully] pulpit would be a source of pride and a shot of adrenaline for the LDS church. It would serve to normalize the false teachings of Mormonism the world over. It would also provide an opening to Mormon missionaries around the world, who could start every conversation: “Let me tell you about the American president.” To elect a Mormon President is to advance the cause of the Mormon Church. …

A Romney presidency would have the effect of actively promoting a false religion in the world. If you have any regard for the Gospel of Christ, you should care. A false religion should not prosper with the support of Christians. The salvation of souls is at stake.

For me, that alone disqualifies him from my vote. Because Mormons believe in continuing revelation, it is possible that in the future the LDS church will renounce its heretical beliefs and come fully into the fold of orthodox Christianity. Many theologians and church historians believe the church is on such a trajectory. But if that happens, it is an event still well in the future. The Mormon Church of today is, by the lights of biblical evangelical Christianity, a false religion. If Mitt Romney believes what the Mormon Church teaches about the world and how it operates, then he is unfit to serve. We make him our President at great peril to the intellectual and spiritual health of our nation.

The essential premises of the article are (1) that Christianity is the one true religion and (2) that a principal function of the presidency is to advance the theological precepts of that religion.  If one accepts both premises, the article is logical, far from a rant and makes good sense. Not accepting its essential premises, and I don’t, it makes no sense whatever. It would impose upon the President an additional principal obligation, that of Defender of the one true Faith. The title of the English monarch has long included the phrase Defender of the Faith and, by prohibiting the establishment of a government religion, the United States Constitution rejected that sort of thing. The President should defend, not reject, the basic principles upon which the country is based; that’s enough.

More to come in Part II.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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4 Responses to “Religion, Presidential Politics and Morality, Part I”

  1. Tom Carter |

    It’s ironic that a nation founded on the explicit principle that there is no state religion and that government and religion must be completely separate nonetheless will never elect someone to the presidency who is not religious. More specifically, no one will be elected who doesn’t at least profess to be Christian or, maybe, Jewish (that might happen sometime in the distant future).

    If Romney becomes the Republican nominee, his Mormon beliefs might well result in the re-election of Obama. It’s not that the religious right (and not just more extreme evangelicals) would vote for Obama; they might just stay home on election day.

    The issue of whether Mormons are Christians may be an arcane debate of little import for most of us, but for Mormons and some Christians it’s a big deal. When reading the Articles of Faith listed here, it isn’t obvious what the problem is. Digging deeper into finer points of theology, some serious problems quickly arise. To name a few, Mormonism is not monotheistic; the nature of the Trinity is conceived differently than in orthodox Christianity; the redemptive nature of Christ’s sacrifice is very different in Mormon belief; the path to heaven and the nature of heaven and hell are very different; and salvation is not wholly dependent on the acceptance of Christ as Savior.

    Perhaps it comes down to a simple issue of self-definition — anyone who claims to be Christian is a Christian. That’s fine with me. But if one knows enough about the finer points of theology and is an orthodox Christian believer, then that person may be highly reluctant to vote for a Mormon as president. Sad, but true.

  2. Dan Miller |


    I must confess that I do not understand the theological bases of the Christian Trinity doctrine; it’s a complete mystery to me. Father, Son and to some extent Holy Ghost I can conceptualize, as three but not as one unitary entity. However, the Holy Ghost apparently impregnated, in immaculate fashion, the Virgin Mary who nevertheless remained a virgin. Yet Jesus is revered as the Son of God and rarely if ever referred to as the Son of the Holy Ghost instead.

    In the United States, politics principally deals with questions of common morality and the relation of the government to it. We generally accept the prohibitions of theft, rape and murder and agree that those who commit those crimes should be punished. We have shifting definitions of “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Old Testament directive that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” while adhered to in Christian societies long after Christianity became common, is now quite generally rejected. That may be because they were all killed, but that seems an inadequate explanation.

    A point I tried to make in the article was that matters of purely theological Christian doctrine, of which the Trinity is perhaps the most significant for definitional purposes, have little to do with current Christian morality or, indeed, with the way in which Christians currently go about their lives.

  3. Tom Carter |

    No logical, rational thinker understands the concept of the Trinity. It depends on the idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (or Spirit) are three spiritual entities residing in one essence. Ergo, one Godhead in which all three reside co-equally. The Nicene Creed (and the earlier, much less specific Apostle’s Creed) establishes this, and it’s hard to be a Christian in a theological sense without subscribing to it. However, Mormons notably and some Christian denominations don’t.

    An interesting bit of nonsense is the age-old controversy over the procession of the Holy Ghost — does it proceed from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son? That’s apparently important because if the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father only, then the Son is a lesser figure, and that’s unacceptable to some. In fact, that’s the basis of the controversy that resulted in the big meeting at Nicea in 325 in the first place. This was also a major contributor to the Great Schism which still divides the world to some extent.

    All of this is highly googlable and has consumed innumerable trees in the publication of books. Read as much about it as you wish, and it still makes no sense.

    Few Christians understand even this much. They sit in their pews on Sunday and sing the words “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” without a clue as to what that means. That’s understandable, considering that it means nothing at all.

    I agree that all of this has nothing to do with morality and moral behavior. One doesn’t have to be religious to behave in a moral way. What does bother me is presidents and other politicians professing to be Christians in order to get elected, whether they believe all the silliness or not. In fact, I’m much more comfortable with the non-religious politician who hypocritically claims to be a Christian because it shows he/she is at least to some degree a rational thinker. The idea of a president praying to God about issues like war and peace and then making a decision on what he thinks God tells him is scary.

  4. Part II — Religious doctrine and politics | danmillerinpanama |

    […] Several Mormons have sought the presidency. Governor Romney currently does, as does Ambassador Huntsman […]

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