By John Snyder
With the apparent front-runner status of Mitt Romney as the Republican Candidate for President, Bible- believing Americans are returning again to the same question that confronted them four years ago: does Mormonism constitute a chasm which Christians cannot bridge in good faith.
Let me begin by saying that the question is one that deserves lengthy and thoughtful consideration. A clear Christian analysis is wanting. It is exactly at this point of convergence in faith and political thought that Christians today are most in need of reflection and soul searching. I promise to develop what I surmise to be a thoughtful Christian answer to this complicated and troubling subject. American Christians, despite the pejoratives hurled at them by the political left, are largely non-ideological, and in some troubling ways, utterly unconcerned with employing theological or ecclesiastical suppositions when it comes to discussing politics.
The “wall of separation” that American culture has so successfully constructed around the sphere of religious thought has resulted, almost uniformly and for the most part, in a better America. It has resulted in an invisible boundary that limits the “acceptable” discourse of politics. As a country, therefore, we do not divide by religion, as has so often be the tragic case in the history of nations, but rather by the practical issues of governance. As a people, we try to build political platforms not on the framework of faith, but on commonly agreed upon moral principles which, without defining or explain their origins, provide the planks of our political parties—which is to say, the “wheres”, “whats” and “hows,” of navigating the ship of state. Insolating, to some degree, religion dogmas and theological creeds from the discourse of public affairs is necessary to the ordering of a heterogeneous community. We do not live in a uniform religious society.
I hold complex thoughts on this subject. Indeed, I will require more than a few superficial lines to develop my reasoning. I struggle in my desire to understand the proper relationship of church and state. Be that as it may, it is my knowledge of history that forces me to this conclusion. I am intimately aware, having been, as it were, a witness through the oracles of history, of the tragedy of political power co-opting religion for the secular purpose of unifying national power and providing legitimacy to state action. The threat to liberty, which vigilant Americans are always wary of, comes even more from the abuse of religion by secular power than the abuse of secular power by the Church. The common idea that religion poses a threat to the state is, while always a possibility, not what history shows. Rather history is a record of Caesar becoming Pontius Maximus. It is Montezuma ruling by the powers of superstition, Hitler synthesizing religion from racial theory, Lenin justifying the total state by appeal to quasi-religious eschatological Marxism. It is the shogunates of Japan ruling in the divine name of emperors and Pharaohs ruling Egypt as secular princes in the name of religion. In the case of Christendom, it is brutal Princes receiving the imprimatur of the medieval, Tridentine and Erastian churches in return for secular favor. The story is almost always the same. The wall of separation is erected to keep the state from co-opting the church primarily, not the other way around. For those who distrust this assessment, it is important to remember that the state wields the power to coerce religion in a direct way that the Church never has possessed. Hence, most abuses, not all, are abuses of the state absorbing the Church for its own purposes. This is the lesson of history.
Religion is the institutional door through which men and states reach to the invisible world of abstract and eternal things. It is a threshold and natural entrance to meaning, continuity and purpose. That door—that bridge (to use a pontifical phrase)—provides unremitting temptation to secular power in its ceaseless yearning for legitimacy in something other than existential assertion. Conversely, the state provides a corrupting temptation to the earthly appetites of religious men whose hearts are envious of the coercive power of secular princes to command conformity to law. The Church has shown itself too often (shamefully) willing to sanction unjust government, because it receives in return a quid pro quo, a monopoly over the conscience of the Kingdom of God. It is a marriage of whores. And the effect has been and remains a deep abiding distrust of any flirtation between these two institutions.
Our American distrust of any tête-à-tête between Church and state is fully and absolutely warranted.
This is because brute power has never been a sufficient basis for secular power. All governments, everywhere and at all times, are constructed—whether we are aware of it or not—upon a foundation of some invisible justification rooted in abstract and eternal things. Those things may be nationalism, a theory of history, a race, cultural mandates, traditions, prophecies, abstract moral dictates or Godly commands. There is no state even now, secular or otherwise, that does not rely upon some invisible and “religious” justification other than mere self-protection and existence. This is why every reasonable person, no matter where he is born, generally loves his country. Patriotism does not arise because we celebrate the state's police power or its authority to raise armies. Rather we are instinctively aware that God made the nations—all of them—for good purposes and that intrinsic goodness is something worthy of our love.
In short, while we may legally and politically separate these two institutions, we cannot—and never will—separate them in the synergy that secular power must hold in the injunctions of moral purpose. States are rooted in things abstract and things abstract move through the corporal agencies of things physical. There is no escaping the nature of this political reality.
Now to Romney’s Mormonism: is it appropriate, therefore, for a Christian to scrutinize a candidate in the light of personal faith? And what personal faith do we mean? His or ours? What is the appropriate lens through which we may view, in this religiously heterodox society, the qualifications of our political leaders? Should we fear that Romney might co-opt the state for the purposes of advancing Mormonism? I am not persuaded by such an argument. In truth, I have heard no reputable Christian make such a claim.
On the other hand, will Romney’s faith render him more—or less—vulnerable to the temptations of worldly power such that he might capitulate before the cultural tide of secularism? Is he inclined by his faith to allow Mormonism and/or Christianity, which he professes to belong to, to be consumed into a total state wherein the “church” is co-regent or servant of the secular prince? I do not think so. I believe that Romney is an earnest Mormon and has no desire to surrender Mormonism or Christianity to the cultural or political power of secularism.
Then are there other objections that could be made to Romney’s candidacy within the ambit of religious scrutiny?
Let me put to rest one canard advanced by a nationally syndicated talk-show pundit, Hugh Hewitt—the “Catholic-Presbyterian” who wrote A Mormon in the White House nearly four years ago. Professor Hewitt, who teaches Constitutional Law at Chapman Law School in Orange County California, has repeatedly asserted that any scrutiny of Romney’s faith by the American electorate constitutes a de facto and possibly de jure violation of the No Religious Test Clause of Article 6 of the United States Constitution.
Here Professor Hewitt is being a trial lawyer and not a constitutional scholar. In making this claim, Hewitt is attempting to persuade the jury of his listening audience by an emphatic claim unsupported by any good-faith analysis of the law. As Hewitt knows, the Constitution limits the power and scope of government and delimits the powers of state action by a system that defines to various degrees the boundaries of state and federal power. Many of these defining limits are found in Article 1, Sections 9 and 10 of the Constitution, and in the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights. However, in preponderance, most Constitutional limitations on state action arise in the 14th Amendment, which has been, through various Supreme Court cases, “incorporated” to apply against state action, not private action.
For the most part, 14th Amendment jurisprudence has been unable to touch private conduct. Most Constitutional limitations on private conduct have been made not through the 14th Amendment, but rather through the Commerce Clause. More than a century of effort by social reformers to employ the 14th Amendment to curb discriminatory action has been unsuccessful. While the 14th Amendment has been read to mean that governments may not apply religious tests, I am utterly unaware of any Supreme Court decision or mainstream interpretation of the Constitution that expressly or by implication places the No Religious Test Clause within the interpretive scope of the Commerce Clause or allows the state to touch private opinions. The No Religious Test Clause is an integral part of our federal system and our political freedom, but it is not—and cannot properly be—interpreted as a limitation on private action. Professor Hewitt’s argument is complete nonsense.
So having said, even if the Constitution allows the electorate to stand in judgment of Romney’s Mormonism, is it fitting and proper—and moreover, is it “Christian”—to assay Romney’s beliefs by the touchstone of religious scrutiny?
Part II of this article can be found here: Leap of Faith to the White House Part II