The Culture Wars, and all of the single-issue politics that form the component campaigns, battles, and skirmishes, are orphans of the First Amendment. The remnants of Constitutional compromise, along with the battles fought over the Bill of Rights, are with us today. As much as economics, education, infrastructure, and defense provide the structure for American prosperity, the expression of our democracy is dominated by short statements that involve none of the above:
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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Think for a moment how positive many liberals are for an expansive interpretation of the clause leading the First Amendment, and how equally expansive conservative interpretations are for the clause in the middle of the Second Amendment. All Constitutional interpretation is correct, if said interpretation favors one’s individual needs and preferences. At the recent Values Voters Forum, the question of interpretation regarding the First came to a head in the form of a very particular insult hurled by one Christian at another.
Politics, the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows. For the last 30 years, Libertarians have found their economic cause championed by individuals with whom they have stark differences on issues of civil liberties, the Religious Right. During that time, one of the most steadfast champions for the Religious Right, especially in the nation’s mountainous West, has been the Mormon Church. The 2012 presidential election cycle promises to blow apart, once and for all, those tenuous alliances. For years, the battle over the separation of church and state was thought of as a battle of left and right, but today’s conflict is crystallized by the open hostility on the right alone.
Ron Paul has positioned himself as a champion of libertarian policies and leadership. His chances of winning the Presidency however, are remote. Despite his broad populist appeal, he would have to win Republican primaries, an impossible task given the impossible relationship between values voters and real libertarian ideals. But the strength and legitimacy of his cause is leading many Republicans to wonder if they are missing the train. The question Mr. Paul is forcing primary voters to ask themselves; “Can I demand and vote for limited government on economic issues while I demand and vote for intrusive government on social issues?” Questions of that sort are dangerous, because the disconnect is obvious and inescapable. Similar questions were asked by starving Russians in the bread lines of the “workers utopia”, the Soviet Union.
Mormon Utah is the reddest of the red states; a place where faith-based governance is real and unavoidable. The Mormon Church has stepped in, successfully, to political causes outside of Utah as well (most notably with Proposition 8 in California). The Mormon Church, officially the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, identifies with Christian political causes in overt, well-organized, and well-funded ways. A member of that church, Mitt Romney, is perhaps the best-equipped candidate for President on the Republican side. And yet, when Pastor Robert Jeffress proclaimed that Mormonism is a cult, and that Romney is not a Christian, he was only dropping a media bombshell; the real ordinance had already been expended.
On a person to person, pastor to pastor, and congregational basis, the majority of evangelical Christians consider Mormonism a cult, and consider Mormons as something other than Christians. Many smaller groups extend this description to members of the Catholic faith as well. Of course, if you were to ask an old-school Catholic about “other faiths”, they might remind you that there is “only one faith”. The notion itself is echoed in many faiths around the country and the world; “There is only one God and his name is Allah.” But this religious snobbery; “My God is better than yours…”, is meant to exist without political consequence in the land of the free, the home of the brave. If only that were true…
Romney’s Mormon problem does have the positive consequence of bringing a murky problem into specific relief. Many good Americans, proud of their faith and devoted to the belief that it’s expression in our democracy would make it better, vote for folks that are devoted to making this a “Bible-based nation”. Romney’s Mormon problem brings the important question to the table; which group of people who believe themselves to be the ultimate expression of Christianity get to interpret the Bible? For myself, if Rick Perry and his supporters, and Michelle Bachmann and her supporters, were ready to stipulate that the Mormons could interpret the Bible used for “Bible-based law”, then I would vote for the Republican slate in 2012.
I am waiting…
Should I change my voter registration card?
Are those crickets I hear?
OK, maybe the Mormons are a bridge too far; how about we let the Catholics interpret the will of God and translate it into public law? Catholics are, after all, the original Christians. They went to the lions in Rome; they kept the faith alive through the Dark Ages. Is America a Catholic State?
Maybe not. Changing the religion doesn’t change the problem, and the problem isn’t new. The framers didn’t anticipate the problem at the end of the 18th Century, they lived the problem. Deists, Lutherans, Puritans, Catholics, Anglicans, and more…the Founding Fathers were, if not multi-cultural, certainly diverse in their practice of religion. Thomas Jefferson followed a path throughout his life that we might call a “journey of faith”. He had periods of attendance with various congregations, and periods of non-attendance dominated by Deist and other non-traditional thoughts. He was stung by accusations of atheism in his campaign for President, and committed to the idea that one’s relationship with God was a subject of absolute privacy. He championed the division of church and state, even as he was damaged by the confluence of faith and politics. The struggles of Jefferson and others are on display today, taking the form of diverse self-identified Christians trying to measure each other’s Chrisitianity.
Personal faith, behavioral norms rooted in a religious upbringing, and concepts of Judeo-Christian ethics can not, and should not (in most cases), be divorced from the democracy where a majority express the beliefs. But our system of liberties is built on protecting the rights of those who do not possess the fiscal or political wherewithal to protect themselves. Our system of liberties allows Baptists to go into Mormon neighborhoods, should they desire, and preach. Our system of liberties allows Mormons in those neighborhoods to keep the door closed. In a nation so concerned about slippery slopes that we refuse to deny people on terrorist no-fly lists their constitutional right to purchase firearms and explosives, does it make sense to build the specific interpretations of one or more groups of Christians into the public law? Does it make sense to write into law so imposing a threat as one that attacks our freedom to practice our faith?
In other words, does Mitt Romney have a place in the America of Robert Jeffress?
The Rational Middle is listening…