I have to confess, I’m a news junkie! Much to my wife’s chagrin, all I want to do when I am home and have any TV time is to watch news reports and political talk shows. These are only occasionally interrupted by something nonpolitical on National Geographic or Animal Planet. But these days, even nature and animals have been politicized by the right and left! More than usual, I am especially addicted to politics during election years.
Perceptions of America
When I am overseas, I am always fascinated by the opportunity to view America through the lenses of other countries and cultures – most of which view us very differently than we view ourselves. Depending upon what country I am in, America is variously portrayed as: a Christian nation; a city set on a hill; the land of opportunity; the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; a military bully; a capitalist exploiter; a colonialist country; or the Great Satan.
It seems every American traveling abroad is seen through different eyes than they see themselves. That’s why “political conflict” and “culture shock” are very real issues to which American tourists, military personnel, businessmen, and missionaries need to be sensitive. Sadly, most are not, and thus, the concept of the “ugly American” is unnecessarily perpetrated.
Obviously, presidential election years in America are watched increasingly closely – especially in this media age of cell phones, computers, iPods and TVs. While most envy our freedoms and democratic process, most only have a superficial understanding of our political process.
Faith and the Public Forum
This political year is especially significant because it is supercharged by the “faith factor.” In addition to the economy, jobs, education, energy, foreign affairs – especially the potential of a “nuclear Iran” – religion’s impact on the “social agenda” has become a dominant issue. There is constant debate over how a politician’s personal faith impacts things like traditional marriage, contraceptives, abortion, divorce, gay rights, the environment, etc.
In the past, our concept of separation of Church and State has built a firewall between private belief and public performance – a concept that is completely abhorred in Islam. But in this current election process, the issue of faith is being constantly brought to the forefront. How does private character impact public conduct?
A popular maxim says: “Politics and religion make strange bed-bellows!” One thing’s for sure, they are in bed together during this election year as never before – especially in the Republican caucuses and primaries. The on-going Republican presidential debates have now surpassed the 19 mark and counting. While it is an opportunity for the candidates to be “vetted,” or thoroughly examined down to the moral, marital and monetary minutia, there is a lot of mud-slinging in the process. To date it has been a very negative campaign fueled by millions of dollars of Super Pac money. Sadly, all of these negative ads have dirtied all of the candidates involved since it is impossible to sling mud without getting morally muddy in the process!
As is usually the case, these on-going campaign debates are generating a bit more heat than light. This vetting process has become something of a political demolition derby with each candidate fighting to lead the pack and cross the finish line with their party nomination in hand by winning the necessary 1,144 delegates.
The Final Four
Already the Republican candidates have been cut in half from an original pack of 8 major contenders. The first four political fatalities were: Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry. Like the NCAA, the Final Four who are still battling it out are Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. While Romney is the presumed front-runner, he has not yet galvanized and energized the political and religious conservatives. This is seen by the fact that a majority of the voters are still in the “undecided” category.
Evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics
Regardless of their past political records, present financial status, or future campaign stumping, conservative groups like the Tea Party and evangelical Christians will play a deciding role in who wins first place on the Republican ticket. So like it or not – and liberals don’t like it – Christians and politicians are in bed together! Republicans, in general, and evangelical Christians in particular, have to decide between:
• Mitt Romney: a proud and professing Mormon elder
• Newt Gingrich: a recent convert to Catholicism
• Rick Santorum: a life-long Catholic of deep conviction
• Ron Paul: a libertarian who plays his religious cards close to his chest
Since Mormons are the 4th largest denomination in America, they represent one of the largest conservative voting blocks. They are generally very pro-family, pro-life, pro-free enterprise, pro-military, pro-America. Politically, then, a good Mormon can be a good governor or president. Certainly a potential government official should not be totally judged by his faith, or lack thereof.
But, on the other hand, neither can a political candidate be totally separated from their religious beliefs. These elections remind us again that we are voting for a president, not a preacher, priest, or prophet to occupy the White House.
My Political Cup of Tea
However, both political conservatives and evangelical Christians have to decide which candidate best deserves to claim and carry the mantles of “conservative” and “Christian.” Right now, Mitt, Newt and Rick are vying for both of those titles – with Ron claiming to be the only “true conservative.”
The political wars continue. So do the cultural wars. And beneath both of them, the religious wars fuel the other battles. Questions like these continue to be catalytic in people’s thinking and voting:
• Are we a Judeo-Christian nation?
• Are we an Islamic-Christian nation?
• Do the Bible and 10 Commandments have an historical connection with our Constitution and Bill of Rights?
• What does separation of church and state really mean?
• Are we now a secular nation void of a religious foundation?
• Does a politician’s faith matter in governance?
• Is private morality irrelevant to public performance?
• Can a Catholic, Mormon, atheist or born-again Christian make an equally good President?
While most European nations have answered these questions with a resounding “NO,” they keep being recycled in America during election years. And this year, Romney’s Mormon Faith, Santorum and Gingrich’s Catholic Faith and Paul’s Libertarian “faith” continue to be a factor at the polling booth and ballot box. And many, if not most, evangelical Christians, have a great concern about the strong Mormon faith of Mitt Romney. The question persists: Does Mormonism represent mainline Christianity? Or more pointedly: Is Mormonism a cult? However we answer these, it will be offensive to one side or the other.
Pro or Protest Vote?
To date, most political pundits keep saying that Romney has not really captured the minds and hearts of the political conservatives and evangelical Christians. As a result, we have seen the so-called “Santorum surge” and “Gingrich gain” in recent weeks. The nagging question is whether their persistent presence and popularity is really a “positive vote” for them – or a “protest vote” against Romney? Only time will tell. And Governor Romney’s Mormon faith will be a deciding factor in that debate.
Therefore, to help you make that decision so that you can vote more intelligently, I have updated and reprinted my book on Mormonism. I wrote it back in the early 1970s. For those of you who want to dig more deeply into this subject as you decide how the doctrines of Mormonism should impact your voting, click here for a free copy of my book in PDF format.
This issue of religion and politics is not just a Republican issue. Democrats face their own version of this politico-religious dynamic. There is still an uncertain religious aura hanging over President Obama. While he has tried, he still has never been able to fully distance himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his fiery spiritual-political-racial-cultural rhetoric that often had strong anti-American overtones.
Couple this liberal leftist “Christian” influence with president Obama’s early up-bringing under a Muslim father and subsequent education in Koranic schools – and there is a lingering dark cloud of spiritual suspicion about the reality or sincerity of his professed Christian faith. At this year’s annual National Prayer Breakfast on February 2nd (which I have attended many times), President Obama again spoke openly of “My Christian Faith…” and how it has impacted his political positions.
But formal and informal polls continue to show that many Americans still fear that he is really a “closet Muslim” who has not fully come clean about his Islamic sympathies. He has made many statements and speeches negating our American and Judeo-Christian heritage. President Obama has made some very positive statements about Islam. In many of his speeches, he praises Islam and enumerates its virtues and the debt civilization owes that religion. He speaks of Islam as a “revealed religion” from God. He reveres Mohammed as an authentic prophet from God. He always refers to the “Holy Koran” when he speaks of the writings of Mohammed. He calls the morning Muslim call to prayer one of the most beautiful sounds in the world – and can recite it in perfect Arabic.
But does this make him a secret Muslim? Not necessarily. Only God knows his heart. However, we do need to carefully look at the “religious fruit” of his life (a topic for a future article which can be read on my journal blog).
I began this political op-ed with the popular maxim: “Politics and Religion make strange bed-fellows.” Let me end this brief excursion through the current political minefield with another maxim: “Let your conscience be your guide.” In the final analysis, each of us as Americans and Christians must “vote our conscience.”
However, if our conscience is going to be a trustworthy guide in the voting booth, it must not be driven by blind passion to any person or party. Our conscience can only be a trustworthy guide when it is historically educated and politically informed. But most of all, it needs to have been educated by the Word of God and sensitized by the Spirit of God. To that end, I trust that e-book on Mormonism will be a helpful resource in your voting.
Dr. J. L. Williams is primarily an evangelist and teacher who travels around the world in apostolic ministry as God leads and enables through the nonprofit ministry JL, Patt & Friends (JLPF), which he co-founded with his wife, Patt. JLPF is dedicated to evangelism and edification through the love of Jesus Christ. Their mission statement is: “Leadership Through Partnership.” Williams says of the ministry, “For four decades we have partnered with strategic national leaders with whom God has sovereignly networked us. Our purpose is to do all we can to “encourage, equip and empower” them to be as influential, catalytic and effective as possible as they lead their indigenous churches and ministries. Our special passion is to help reach the unreached, under-reached and out-of-reach people groups of the world, especially in the Two-Thirds World, where there is the highest density of spiritual and physical poverty.”