Van Ens: No religion test for candidates
Who is Jesus whose birth Christians celebrate?
Those investigating Jesus reach different conclusions regarding his identity. Orthodox Christians confess he is God in human form. Humanitarians who greatly admire Jesus believe he’s godly. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints profess Jesus is godlike.
Though the Constitution in Article VI wisely forbids any religious test for political office seekers, citizens do inquire how a candidate’s faith, or lack of it, shapes his or her political leadership and influences public policy.
Presidential contender Mitt Romney offered an eloquent, stirring defense for not allowing religious qualifications to define political candidacy. Moreover, he expertly traced how pervasively religion and government intersect in our national history.
Romney unapologetically voiced what he believes. Though Mormons don’t recognize ordained clergy in their religious government, they have elevated Romney to leadership positions roughly equivalent to those a Roman Catholic bishop holds. Though he only mentioned the word “Mormon” once in his speech, Romney is deeply grounded in the theology this religion espouses.
Advisors debated the night before he gave his speech on religion whether Romney should affirm theological beliefs he considers non-negotiable. He charged ahead, declaring: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.”
This confession converted the former dean of speechwriters in the Reagan presidency, Peggy Noonan. As a Roman Catholic, she ranks Romney’s confession within acceptable Christian faith. “I’d rather be governed by Donny and Marie [Osmond] than the Washington establishment,” she gushed. “Mormons have been, in American history, hardworking, family loving citizens whose civic impulses have tended toward the constructive. Good enough for me. He’s running for president, not pastor. In any case his faith is one thing about Mr. Romney I haven’t questioned” (The Wall Street Journal, December 8-9). Because Romney sounds Christian and practices Christ’s morality, he must be in the Christian camp according to Noonan and others who equate faith with morals.
What listeners to Romney overlook is how Mormon theology uses Christian terminology but dumps its own peculiar meanings into it. Whereas the orthodox Christian “Nicene Creed” speaks of God as an entity, Mormon theology recognizes three divine entities. They claim God actually possesses a tangible flesh-and-bones body. Mormons believe Christ has a divine heavenly mother, another sign of pre-Christian roots when pagans equated their nurturing god with a feminine deity. Though Romney’s faith in Christ sounds similar to what orthodox Christians confess, it’s outside what the ecumenical creeds teach. Mormons don’t believe in a triune God; they are tri-theists.
Running for president in 1800, Thomas Jefferson ranked Jesus a moral exemplar, a good, godly guy. Jesus epitomized humanity’s ethical creme-de-la-creme. Jefferson dismissed the Trinity and Christ’s divinity as “holy mysticisms,” kooky superstitious nonsense.
Evangelical Christians in the opposition Federalist Party branded Jefferson an atheist, which meant for them anyone who diverged from Christian orthodoxy.
Leading Federalist newspapers slung mud at Jefferson. Vitriolic broadsides ran poisonous headlines: “At the present solemn and momentous epoch the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to God ” and a religious president; or impiously declare for Jefferson ” and no God!'”
Jefferson’s Jesus represents the apex of Christian morality. Believing he had reached a purer, higher form of Christianity, Jefferson rejected superstitions he believed evangelical Christians espoused.
Early Christians believed divine forgiveness comes from God. Consequently, if this task were given to baby Jesus, he must be divine, at one with God. In Christian tradition, the incarnation ” an infinite God entering into finite humanity ” is a mystery of faith. Christians peer into this mystery and know something of it, but we can’t fully understand this miracle. That a human being is God defies what we comprehend. It leaps beyond reason and rests in the confidence that when we look into the eyes of Jesus we see the very eyes of God. His voice reverberates with divine overtones.
Whether Americans believe Jesus is God, godlike or godly, such widely differing faiths don’t prohibit a presidential candidacy. In this season of Christ’s birth, Americans of various faiths rejoice.
Religions jostle with each other in the marketplace of ideas regarding Jesus’ identity. When political thought police don’t rule, our Republic prospers.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the CREATIVE GROWTH Ministries. E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.