While I wish conservatives had raised the alarm over Rick Perry's manipulation of religious identity earlier, it is refreshing and notable to see that alarm being raised now. These commentators recognize that Perry's campaign is not "more of the same" and that criticism of it is not simply "secular paranoia", but can be due to profound concerns about the constitutional order and the integrity of the Christian community.
I want to say this to every Christian listening to my voice: Let’s stop criticizing candidates for their religious convictions.
And let me make a few things, as my former boss used to say, perfectly clear.
First, there is no religious test for public office. If you don’t believe me, check out the Constitution of the United States, Article VI, Paragraph 3. The public statements of some evangelicals that they wouldn’t vote for Romney because of his Mormonism would cause the Founding Fathers to spin in their graves.
Second, as voters we are to choose the most competent people to be God’s magistrates to do justice, restrain evil and preserve order. That’s what the Bible calls for. And in our country, where we have the precious liberty of choosing our leaders, we are responsible for picking competent men and women. …To sum up, I’m with Luther, who reportedly said that he would rather be governed by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian... Come on: Stop talking about the candidates’ religion. It’s distracting and it marginalizes Christianity in the public debate. Let’s continue instead to work to advance the Kingdom of God and pick, to the best of our ability, a candidate of competence and sound character who will preserve order and promote justice in our land.
When Robert Jeffress endorsed a presidential candidate on the grounds of the candidate's faith and theology, he departed from the intent of the Founders and from the essence of the Baptist tradition and its experience of religious persecution…Madison did not mean to remove every vestige of faith from the public square. Rather, he intended for the diffusion of power among political leaders to prevent "the establishment of a national religion that could breed spiritual coercion and hypocrisy."
I blame the Rick Perry campaign. If you believe that they had no idea what Dr Jeffress intended to say, then you must not follow politics much. This was calculated, and executed as intended. Whether Perry himself knew what was coming, of course I cannot say. But you can be confident his campaign knew. With their support in free-fall, and anxious to reestablish themselves as the Romney-Alternative for evangelicals, they used a pastor proxy to say that Mitt’s a “cult” member and that no Christian, given a good Christian alternative candidate, should vote for him. You can also be sure that the Perry campaign is, even as we speak, speaking with evangelical luminaries and trying to line up their support and keep the Mormonism critique going. They want Perry to be The Evangelical Candidate, and they’re doing so by posing themselves over against The Mormon Candidate.
Make no mistake. ”Cult” is an explosive term, and they knew what they were doing. Some have tried to walk that language back and say that Mormonism is a “cult” in the theological but not sociological sense. That’s nonsense. James Emery White, for instance, defines a “cult” as “a religious group that denies the biblical nature of God, the full divinity of Jesus Christ, and that we are only saved through His atoning death on the cross through grace.” By that definition, anything other than Christianity, and arguably anything other than Protestant evangelicalism, is a cult. Richard Land argues that “cult” has a specialized sense in Baptist circles, referring to sects that claim to be Christian but are not Christian. Yet the point is: the Perry/Jeffress camp were not addressing the Southern Baptist Convention. They knew full well that the American people associate “cult” with poisoned Koolaid and the Branch Davidians and Charles Manson. The implication is that Mitt Romney is a cult member, and we all know cultists are unstable, weird, irrational and subject to control.
This, in my view, was a shameful slander of a good man on the basis of his religious beliefs, and a shameful manipulation of religious language and religious sentiments for the advancement of a political campaign. It was divisive, destructive, and misleading. I’m sorry that it was self-proclaimed evangelicals who did this. There was nothing gracious about it. It harmed the witness of the church, not because the world hates it when we “speak the truth boldly” but because it showed evangelicals with partisan political commitments stooping to personal religious attacks in order to help their guy.
I warned in an earlier post about a ”subtle blurring of the lines between the church and the state amongst Perry and his devotees” — and took a lot of grief for it — but this is what I was talking about. When one candidate becomes The Evangelical Candidate, then the witness of the evangelical church becomes tied, for better or worse, to the actions of that candidate. That is not in the interest of the kingdom of God. Just as Romney does not present himself as a representative of Mormonism, Perry should not present himself as a representative of Evangelicalism. But he’s doing so in order to attract the support, votes and money of evangelical conservatives.