Religious name-calling has no place in political arena

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared Oct. 10 on The Washington Post’s website. Reprinted by permission.

For anyone familiar with U.S. history, it’s hard to miss the irony of a Baptist leader calling the Mormon Church a “cult” — which is what Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress told the press last week moments after introducing Rick Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.

After all, Baptists were themselves widely viewed as members of a dangerous, heretical “sect” (another not-so-nice label) in 18th century America. So much so that Baptist preachers were persecuted and jailed in Virginia for various illegal acts such as “unlawful preaching.”

Jeffress professed surprise that anyone was surprised by his statements that Mitt Romney belongs to a cult and “is not a Christian.” As Jeffress explained to The New York Times, “this idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news either. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time.”

Without getting into the theological weeds (suffice it to say, Christians differ about who is and isn’t a “Christian”), I think Jeffress was naïve, at best, if he thought describing the Republican presidential front-runner as a non-Christian member of a cult wouldn’t make headlines.

Surely Jeffress knows that the word “cult” is commonly used by people to denigrate religious groups that they find bizarre, offensive and even dangerous. Or, as someone once quipped, the definition of a cult is a religion you don’t like.

Jeffress isn’t alone in applying a religious test to the Republican field.  Speaking at the same gathering two days later, Brian Fischer of the American Family Association took another swipe at Romney (whom Fischer has repeatedly described as a non-Christian), declaring that the next president needs to be a man of “sincere authentic genuine Christian faith.”

On his radio program recently, Fischer went even further, suggesting that Mormons don’t deserve First Amendment protection because they “have a completely different definition of Christ” than the Founding Fathers.

“My argument all along,” said Fischer, “has been that the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion.”

Like Jeffress, Fischer has also forgotten our history (if he ever knew it). Not only did the framers of the Constitution understand that “no religious test” under Article VI would mean that people of any faith or no faith were eligible for office, they had to answer critics of the Constitution bitterly opposed to religious freedom for people they viewed as outside the Christian faith.

Of particular concern to many Protestants at the time of the founding was the threat of Roman Catholicism — widely viewed as a vile cult under the leadership of the anti-Christ.

Attacking Article VI, one Massachusetts delegate warned that “Roman Catholics, Papists, and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.”

With six Roman Catholics currently on the Supreme Court and many others serving in Congress, I assume we have finally retired the Catholicism-is-a-cult scare tactic common in political campaigns until the mid-20th century.

Mormons running for president, however, still face name-calling and bigotry from those who believe putting a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the White House will somehow threaten their vision of America as a “Christian nation.”

Theological differences, of course, matter to people of faith — and there is a time and place for open and honest dialogue about competing definitions of the “true church.” But that debate has no place in the political arena, especially when inflammatory labels are employed that deepen our divisions and fears.

The other Republican presidential candidates, including Perry, have mildly distanced themselves from the c-word, with the strongest statement coming from Newt Gingrich (calling Jeffress remarks “unwise and inappropriate”). None, as far as I can tell, has said anything about Brian Fischer’s extreme and a-historical interpretation of the First Amendment.

Only Mitt Romney has called Fischer to account (and, by extension, Pastor Jeffress). “Poisonous language,” he said, “does not advance our cause. It has never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind. The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate.”

Romney is right, but it shouldn’t be only the Mormon who says it.

Baptists, Catholics and others — who should recall what it was like to be in the hatches — need to speak out against those who promote the politics of prejudice in the name of God.

Also see: The Mormon elephant in the presidential arena

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