Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Doctrine takes a back seat in politics
Ryan Summerlin January 13, 2013
Evangelical icon Billy Graham placed full-page ads in leading newspapers prior to the presidential election. His portrait exuded steely resolve. It reminded readers of presidential figures carved into Mount Rushmore.
Graham didn’t endorse Mitt Romney by name in the ads, but he didn’t veil his presidential choice, either. “I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms,” Graham declared in the advertisements.
For decades, Billy Graham has been synonymous with evangelical faith which regarded Mormonism as a cult. How, then, could he endorse Mitt Romney for president without compromising evangelical identity?
Graham’s preference shows a shift in how evangelicals define themselves. Prior to this endorsement, Graham preached a gospel that identified key non-negotiable Christian doctrines. By aligning with Romney, Graham signaled that doctrines are negotiable, fluid and evolving. By endorsing Romney, he appears to say shared moral principles dictate political allegiances. Doctrine, at best, plays a secondary role.
Prior to the past presidential campaign, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s website listed Mormonism as a cult, along with Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and Moonies in the Unification Church.
Romney visited Graham in his North Carolina home last Oct. 11, had a photo op with the then almost 94-year-old evangelist and enlisted his support. Such camaraderie piggybacked on Romney’s much heralded speech last May at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a citadel of evangelical Christianity.
Receiving Graham’s blessing convinced some evangelicals to join Romney’s voting bloc.
Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a tea party favorite, reported that the strength of Romney’s presidential support came from evangelicals who make up almost half of the tea party membership.
“Conservative evangelicals are arguably the largest single constituency in the electorate,” wrote Reed after Romney’s failed presidential bid. “According to a post-election survey by Public Opinion Strategies, self-identified conservative evangelicals made up 27 percent of the voters in 2012, voting 80 percent for Mitt Romney compared with 19 percent for Barack Obama. This represented a net swing of 14 points toward the GOP ticket since 2008 and made up 48 percent of the entire Romney vote. Romney, a lifelong Mormon, actually received more evangelical votes than George W. Bush did in 2004” (The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 26, 2012, p. A17).
Graham preached that the biblical God is infinite, not limited by physical characteristics. When the Bible reveals God’s heart is bent toward humankind’s needs, this metaphorical language doesn’t mean God has a physical, beating heart. Christians who trust in a merciful God know the Bible uses anthropomorphic language – picture words – to suggest divine care.
Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, in contrast, conceived of his god as having an actual physical frame, being finite. In his famous “King Follett Discourse” of 1844, which marks the apex of his religious insights, Smith declared, “I am going to tell you how God came to be God. God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man. … If you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form – like yourselves, in all the person, image and very form as a man …”
Americans find appealing this peculiar belief of Smith that God is a supersized person. Remember the church sign welcoming Americans. It notes the last four letters of “American” are: I CAN. This epitomizes the Mormon spirit. According to their founder, we can perfect ourselves on Earth and become gods in eternity. Our hands, faces and hearts are the same stuff as divine organs. There’s continuity between us and God.
Graham, however, preached that the biblical God isn’t humanity deified. Certainly, God doesn’t possess an actual body. What did Jesus teach a woman he met drawing water at a well? “God is spirit,” he declared, “and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Those who diverge from this truth, preached Graham, are doctrinally lax, if not heretical in their erroneous notions about God. The doctrine about God that the evangelist espoused didn’t allow for superstition, false opinion, inadequate theories or superficial, distorted and incredible interpretations of God’s make-up.
Curiously, Graham and his evangelical followers pushed their doctrine of God on the back burner and voted for Romney. Political expediency steered their ballot preference. After Romney’s visit, Graham said he was impressed by Romney’s business savvy and “strong moral convictions.” Not a whisper about doctrinal differences.
Endorsing a losing presidential candidate makes the evangelical voting bloc less powerful. Does a moral political agenda replace Christian doctrine as the major impulse steering evangelicals and shaping their identity?
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.