No Perfect Options
To view the world through a Christian lens is to see a truth about life that is otherwise often papered over with happy faces and motivational slogans: The world is fallen, cracked, and flawed. Sin has deformed everything. It has made everybody a bit crazy.
It means that we never make choices between the perfect and its opposite. Every choice—whether for a spouse or a car or a pastor—is a choice for some brand of imperfection. Nowhere is this certainty more starkly revealed than in politics. The Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck made this point with his famous saying, "Laws are like sausages: It is better not to see them being made." Politics and the processes of government are usually ugly affairs that only occasionally produce satisfying results. The start of those processes rarely closely resembles the result. Usually a voter has to choose between "hold your nose" and "hold your nose tighter." Then he or she sits back and hopes for the best.
For American Christians, it is helpful to remember this as the November presidential election approaches. They face a choice between a politically and theologically liberal Christian and a politically conservative Mormon. Those who prefer Barack Obama, the left-leaning Christian, likely solved their dilemma in the last presidential election. Millions of voters are now confronting a new moral question: "Is there anything wrong with voting for a Mormon President?"
The answer is "No." In the 2012 election, voting for Mitt Romney—yes, a Mormon former bishop—is certainly a moral option for followers of Jesus Christ. For those who want a pro-life, pro-free market, pro-business, pro-defense, and "America first" champion, Mitt Romney is their man. It is no sin or dishonor of God to vote for him, even though his Latter-day Saint religion is far from orthodox Christianity.
To believe otherwise is to commit to a perfectionism that would make it nearly impossible to live in this world. If a candidate must be precisely aligned with our religion before we can vote for him, biblically faithful Christians will not be able to vote for either man in the upcoming election. Nor could they have voted for Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Reagan. Washington and Reagan seldom attended church. Jefferson and Lincoln had disqualifying doubts about who Jesus Christ was.
This demand for a perfect candidate would cause Christians to eliminate most presidential candidates in every election. There will be a price to voting for Romney, of course. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will enjoy heightened visibility and influence with a Romney candidacy and much more with a Romney presidency. Pastors will have to ensure congregations know right doctrine—a desperate need for this generation of Christians in any case. Individual Christian voters will need to distinguish, perhaps publicly, between their vote for the politician and their fierce disagreement with that politician's beliefs.
We did not create the limited possibilities of this fallen world. We must, though, make the most righteous choices possible within this fallen world.
Luther Would Know
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is married to a former Mormon and blogs at GetReligion.com.
There is nothing inherently wrong with voting for a candidate who largely shares your political aims, no matter his or her religious views. It's perfectly fine to consider a candidate's religion, particularly to ensure that there are no beliefs with alarming implications for government policy.
It's good to heed the apocryphal quote summing up Martin Luther's understanding of civil governance: "I'd rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian." For some voters, though, there is still danger in casting such a vote. That's because they confuse the role of a President with the role of a pastor. While both are positions of leadership, they serve very different functions.
Mitt Romney fully acknowledged the many distinctions between his Mormon beliefs and traditional Christianity in his May commencement address at Liberty University. "People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology," he said, going on to make the case that the different religions share enough moral convictions to meet in shared service.
Voters should remember that support for any political candidate is support for the exertion of authority in the earthly realm and not leadership in the spiritual realm.
Luther explained that every Christian is a citizen in two kingdoms—a spiritual realm and an earthly realm—but even non-believers are citizens of the earthly kingdom. In one, God's Word is preached, the sacraments are administered, and sins are forgiven. God works through other means, such as natural laws, physical causes, and history, in the earthly realm.
Luther said that while reason cannot fathom the mind of God, it's a tool given by God for managing civic affairs. "Christians are not needed for secular authority. Thus it is not necessary for the emperor to be a saint. It is not necessary for him to be a Christian to rule. It is sufficient for the emperor to possess reason," he wrote.
In the spiritual realm, the gospel—the free forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus—prevails. By contrast, the earthly kingdom runs on compulsion, law, and force. That contrast between gracious forgiveness and law is the reason that, in Luther's mind, Christians should not seek to put the church in charge of the temporal government or otherwise work through compulsion.
That's not to say that the two realms must be or are in conflict. In fact, they should serve each other. The spiritual realm informs and supports the civil realm by preaching the gospel. Secular rulers serve the spiritual realm by preventing chaos.
It is entirely possible that in the next few months, the country will have its first Mormon President. No matter which man wins the office, it's vitally important that Christians understand that his authority is limited to the secular realm and he should not be viewed as a spiritual leader.
No worries, just vote
Richard Mouw is the author of Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Eerdmans, 2012) and numerous articles on Mormonism, and president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He announced he would retire in 2013.
The United States Constitution stipulates that a person's religious affiliation should not be grounds for barring that person from running for public office: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." The drafters of that clause showed much wisdom. But we should be clear about the fact that the stipulation applies to a person's right to seek election. It does not tell us as citizens that we cannot think about religious affiliation in deciding whether or not to vote for a given candidate.
A Scientologist or a Jehovah's Witness has every right to file for candidacy. But given what I know about the beliefs of those two religious groups, I could not in good conscience vote for such a candidate.
As evangelicals, we should always take seriously what a candidate believes about important matters bearing on public life. It is a legitimate question, then, whether anything about Mitt Romney's Mormon identity should concern us as we decide how to vote.
I have no worries on that count. I have spent much time in dialogue with Mormon scholars and church leaders during the past dozen years and engaged in serious explorations of basic Mormon beliefs and practices. I have found nothing in those discussions, or in my extensive reading of Mormon literature, that would keep me from voting for Romney.
That does not mean that he automatically has my vote. I care deeply about public policy issues that he has addressed, and disagree with some of his stances. I worry, for example, about his expressed views on immigration matters—views which, as a matter of fact, are less humane than those endorsed by Latter-day Saint church leadership.
The prophet Jeremiah urged the exiled people of Israel, then captive in ancient Babylon, to "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jer. 29:7, ESV). That is good advice to us today as well.
We must think as clearly as we can about what promotes the welfare—the biblical word is shalom, which includes the notions of justice and peace—of the land in which we live during our own time of exile as we await the Lord's return.
As a resident of Illinois in the 1960s, I voted for Charles Percy, a Republican U.S. senator who was a Christian Scientist. When I moved to Michigan, George Romney, a Mormon like his son Mitt, was our governor, and if he had run for re-election (he was appointed to the presidential cabinet instead), I would have voted for him.
Those two public servants—members of religious groups with whom I have serious disagreements, were—as I still see it—solid agents of shalom. That is, to me, the primary consideration in deciding how to vote in this presidential election.
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