For months pundits have argued that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney must deliver a Kennedy-esque speech on his Mormonism. What journalists could not provoke, rival Mike Huckabee's surge in the polls apparently required. With Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist preacher, touting himself in ads as a "Christian leader," Romney saw fit to explain how his Mormon faith would affect his presidency. The former Massachusetts governor vowed that as President, he would serve no one religion but rather the common cause of the people of the United States.

His speech echoed some issues he raised in an earlier interview with Christianity Today. "It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions," Romney said on Thursday. "And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter—on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people."

David Neff, editor-in-chief of the Christianity Today Media Group, says evangelicals can affirm much of what Romney said about religion in the public square. But Neff also observed what Romney did not say—namely, what does the candidate believe about the controversial aspects of Mormon history? And what does he think about the worrisome particulars of Mormon theology? These particulars include the Book of Mormon, belief that God is both male and female, and baptism for the dead, according to Randall Balmer. The Columbia University professor doesn't miss the chance to rip President Bush as he observes that Mormons believe God divinely inspired the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines," Romney said. "To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."

But didn't Romney himself raise matters of theology in the speech? It is a theological statement to say, "I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God." He raised the question, "What do I believe about Jesus Christ?" And he answered, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind." David Frum sees problems for the Romney campaign. "Once Romney answered any question about the content of his religious faith, he opened the door to every question about the content of his religious faith," Frum said on the National Review website. "This speech for all its eloquence will not stanch the flow of such questions."

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In fact, the speech opens a whole set of new questions about the influence of theology in American culture. "In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand," David Brooks wrote in The New York Times. "In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics."

Particularly problematic for Christians, identity politics blurs pesky distinctions such as theology in a pragmatic power grab. "In Romney's account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism," Brooks wrote. "In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?"

To be fair to Romney, he is hardly the first politician to invoke this America religion. Even after another round of Religious Right obituaries, it seems that religion matters more in this election than any other. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan remembers with fondness when voters didn't care about a candidate's beliefs. She fears all this theology talk encourages hypocrisy. So she's had enough. So has Jim Geraghty. This week alone in The Washington Post, two high-profile columnists lambasted Huckabee for campaigning as an outspoken Christian. From the Right, George Will accused Huckabee of attacking Romney's beliefs and raising a religious test for the presidency. From the Left, Richard Cohen attributed Huckabee's Iowa popularity to his "obdurate and narrow-minded religious beliefs."

"Religion does not belong in the political arena," Cohen concluded. "It does not lend itself to compromise. It is about belief, not reason, and is ordinarily immutable. Romney is a shifty fellow, but he will always be a Mormon, and it will never make a difference. Should he become President, he will still light the national Christmas tree and pardon the Thanksgiving turkey and host the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn."

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You see, that's the trouble with politics and theology. Meaningful beliefs make a difference. They manifest themselves in more than cute ceremonies. This is especially true in a nation founded on the theological statement "all men are created equal."

Glaring Gaffes

From the moment National Geographic went public with supposed revelations from the Gospel of Judas, evangelical scholars responded with well-informed skepticism. Darrell Bock from Dallas Theological Seminary explained that this redacted document emerged from a peculiar group of Gnostics who flipped biblical stories upside down. As scholars such as Bock made immediately clear, this gospel proved nothing except the existence of early heretics.

In case you dropped the story at that point, you missed some interesting developments, detailed in The New York Times on December 1. Rice University biblical studies professor April D. DeConick took another look at the Coptic text and noticed some glaring mistakes in the original translation. As any first-year Greek student knows, daimon means demon, not spirit. In another instance, DeConick says the scholars deliberately dropped a negative, leaving the impression that Judas ascended to the "holy generation." Glaring, indeed. At least National Geographic has admitted this mistake.

"My word to you when you hear about scholars revealing new things about Jesus is simply to check it out," Bock writes in the December issue of Christianity Today. "Make sure you get the rest of the story when the 'new, industrial-strength' Jesus is presented."

Quick Takes
  • T.F. Torrance, renowned Reformed theologian, died December 2 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was 94. Torrance won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1978 and earned wide acclaim for The Trinitarian Faith, in which he exposits the Nicene Creed. Princeton Theological Seminary professor George Hunsinger eulogized Torrance as "arguably the greatest Reformed theologian since Karl Barth, with whom he studied."

  • The Wall Street Journal finds a backlash against tithing. But Andreas Köstenberger, professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor, objects to being quoted saying pastors preach tithing out of "pragmatism, tradition and ignorance, quite frankly."

  • Trevin Wax interviewed N.T. Wright for the Said at Southern podcast. The bishop "takes a Pauline angle" and defines the gospel as "the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world." There is much to chew on in this substantive interview. Many will take note of Wright's response to his critics.

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Verse for the Fortnight

"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way."
1 Timothy 2:1

Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns include:

Good News from a Bad World | Hopeful signs in American culture could precede theological shifts. (November 21, 2007
State of the Society | Acting president of Evangelical Theological Society talks about 'momentary crisis,' previews annual meeting. (November 9, 2007)
The Crisis of Modern Fundamentalism | Defections threaten a proud movement. (October 26, 2007)
Itchy Ears and Tongues of Fire | Gay-rights group employs Scripture. Also: Pentecostal success invites new challenges. (October 12, 2007)
Immersed in a Baptism Brouhaha | Changes of heart renew centuries-old divisions. (September 28, 2007)
What's Not Coming to a Bookstore Near You | How competition to publish celebrity Christians crowds out theology. (September 14, 2007)
From the Seminaries to the Pews | The 'new perspective on Paul' gets the popular treatment. (August 31, 2007)