Perhaps the simplest explanation for the ongoing, seemingly unending political debate in the U.S. is our country’s set of founding documents. Written at a time when the colonies were both large and small, urban and substantially rural, industrializing or persistently agricultural, consensus was achieved through compromise. The Founders’ concessions gave us a Constitution with such elasticity as to be downright squishy on occasion. Forget about the “Elastic Clause” that we all studied in Seventh Grade “Civics.” [By the way and not incidentally, Congress needs to revisit those days before 1789 and rediscover the idea of government by consensus.]
The Constitution and Bill of Rights are bold yet open-ended statements reinterpreted with the arrival of each new generation–none of them more so than the First and Second amendments. Of late, I have been devoted to a consideration of the first:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is generally agreed that the Founders were, in general, of the Deist persuasion. But the god of Deism is hardly the grey-haired, bearded, fault-finding father figure of Messrs. Falwell, Robertson or Graham. As uncomfortable as it may be for them to admit, the Christianity of political and social conservatives would hardly be recognized by the signers of the Declaration of Independence. It has been refreshing (but hardly reassuring) to find a facebook presence for The Christian Left; for me, it is the “left” portion of their name that entices me to read their postings, not the “christian” (which I have not considered myself for some years).
One of my long term, apparently never-ending projects has been a study of the Social Gospel, a post-Civil War theology conceived in the throes of massive European immigration, unregulated industrialization and abusive urbanism. Theologists like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden read the Gospels anew; understanding Jesus’s mediating role in a horizontal way, as the Brother of Mankind, rather than vertically as the Son of God. It just so happens that, from my standpoint as an historian of architecture, there were enormous consequences for the size, shape and organization of church buildings responding to the Social Gospel. Oddly enough, the Social Gospel gave us late 19th and early 20th century examples of what today would be called 24/7 religious service centers, though their purpose was almost entirely opposite the function of such megachurches today: the so-called Institutional Church of 1900 was intent on social service to its total community, while the megachurch of 2000 seems to be intent on the isolation of its membership from the secular world and making a clear distinction between God and Mammon [viz. Matthew 6:24]. If there is yet any vestige of Christianity remaining from my halting youthful experience with religion, it is the left-leaning theology of the Social Gospel.
So, what of the role of religion in the current presidential campaign?
My reading of the First Amendment suggests that freedom of religion incorporates freedom from religion. Congress, in fact, has already violated the opening clause of the First Amendment: the so-called Wall of Separation between Church and State does not exist in practice, simply because the tax code and all other revenue-generating aspects of government have given religion a unique previleged place, tax exempt and free to preach whatever Truths or Heresies, whatever definitions of Love or Hate might suit the moment. When interviewed recently, an officer in the Australian segment of the Salvation Army stated that his understanding of Christianity allowed, perhaps even required, the death of homosexuals. I suspect the Christmas-season red buckets in San Francisco (alias Bagdad-by-the-Bay) will be significantly less full this year. But would such a statement from a U.S. pulpit have put its congregation’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy? Under the current Supreme Court, I suspect not.
Now, consider the religious faiths of the two leading candidates for the presidency (since I am frankly unaware of Ron Paul’s religious inclinations). Barack Hussein Obama was, for many years, a member of the Southside Chicago congregation of Rev Jeremiah Wright, whose name or theology were unknown to me until the good reverend made statements that, as an African American clergyperson, offended the White community. While I have made no in-depth study of Rev Wright, his position in the African-American religious tradition make perfect if unconvincing sense to me. What seems important here is the ongoing burden on President Obama of a theology called into question by White Christian conservatives: the President is guilty by his association with a clergyman with whom he no longer has ties.
Willard Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a 19th century revelation through Joseph Smith, Jr., begun in Upstate New York but migrating through misunderstanding and persecution to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, form whence it has thrived and grown into a worldwide religious and economic phenomenon. For at least the past twenty-five years, I have been fascinated with the LDS (or more popularly, the Mormon) church, having a large number of books both by and about them. [I have read, for example, both the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price.] What amazes me in the present circumstance is the enormous support given to candidate Romney by the ultra-conservative branches of Christianity—the same forces that disdain the orthodoxy of a Jeremiah Wright, appear to welcome the faith of a candidate who, by their own definition, is not Christian.
Regardless of denomination (unless you’re a Unitarian, of course), a central tenet of Christianity is the existence of one God who exists in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Ghost/Spirit—a bit of metaphysical legerdemain that probably mystifies anyone outside the Christian tradition and, with equal probability, a few who are within it. With this in mind, consider the belief of mainstream Mormons concerning the Godhead:
- God or Heavenly Father has a physical body and lives on the planet Kolob, from whence he watches and guides from time to time affairs here on Earth.
- Heavenly Father is the god of Earth, but he is only one of an infinite number of gods, each of whom has jurisdiction over their own respective planet.
- Heavenly Father was, at one time, a human being much like you or me; he worshipped another god on another planet and, through a life well lived, attained his own divinity and planet (Earth) for governance.
- Heavenly Father and his consort Heavenly Mother conceive an endless supply of spirit babies who join with the physical offspring of earthly humans (hence the need for large families).
- Each virtuous Mormon who lives a proper life, fulfills all the requirements of his church, performs all the appropriate Temple Ordinances and is sealed for time and all eternity with his spouse, will become a god and be given, in turn, his own planet, over whose affairs he will preside and offer the selfsame benefit to the inhabitants thereof—this includes Willard Mitt Romney, who is destined some day to become a god of his own planet.
I pass no judgment here on the beliefs of the LDS Church, as curious and interesting as I find them to be. These are questions to be worked out between and among Mormons and what they believe to be a corruption of the true Church founded by Jesus two thousand years ago. Search the web and you will find that you Christians have already done that in large measure. What I simply suggest is that you weigh these beliefs against the decidedly more orthodox core faith of someone like Jeremiah Wright. Two things seem obvious: 1) by most definitions of Christianity, Mormons are not Christian, and 2) by Mormon definition, most Christians are not Christian.
The bottom line, at least as far as the 2012 presidential campaign is concerned, is that the vast majority of Christian conservatives, who would condemn me to eternal damnation as a gay agnostic, will also vote for Willard Mitt Romney as their standard bearer. Go figure.
Lest you think that no candidates pass my religious litmus test—mine is downright flimsy compared to Pat Robertson’s, by the way—I would happily vote for any of the following candidates:
- Congressman Keith Ellison, who is a Muslim and to whose campaigns I have made financial contribution;
- Senator Harry Reid, who is himself a Mormon;
- the late great Senator Barry Goldwater, whose family converted from Judaism to become Presbyterians; the radical pronouncements of Goldwater in the 1964 campaign seem sagely tame and prescient when compared to the profoundly lunatic, bat-shit-crazy utterances of Michele Bachmann, who I believe to be seriously mentally ill.
On the other hand, I could never, in good conscience, offer support to the likes of Joe Lieberman, not because he is a Jew, but because he is a sleazy opportunist. Or Allan West, whose name I can never recall until I have googled “crazy florida congressman” and refreshed my memory. [I have, incidentally, contributed to the campaign of the other “crazy florida congressman” Alan Grayson, so wonderfully out of control that you have to admire him.]
Religion, in these peculiar times, does indeed make strange bedfellows. It just happens to be a bed I prefer to avoid.