The Religious Test Clause Revisited: Violating Its Spirit If Not Its Letter

In a selection appearing in the Christina Newswire, April 12, 2012, Bill Keller, characterized as “the world’s leading Internet Evangelist,” queries the title asks:  Why Would Christians Vote for Romney and Listen to Beck, Both Cult Members?  In a prior entry to this blog, we took up the subject of the Religious Test Clause—the provision that explicitly forbids making any “religious Test” a “Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  U.S. Const. art. VI.   Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and the Spirit of the Religious Test Clause of Article VI

We then noted that the clause does not “legally prohibit citizens from basing their vote on a candidate’s religion.”  This is undeniable.  But the clause reflects that “liberty of conscience” was most central to the founders, and the consequence is that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, guaranteeing the “free exercise” of religion and prohibiting the creation of “an establishment of religion,” combine with the Religious Test Clause to show the founders’ deep commitment to religious pluralism—which meant respecting the conscientious beliefs even of those with whom was holds fundamental theological disagreements. In that blog entry, we underscored that at least one candidate for the republican nomination for president had stated views about Mitt Romney’s religious perspective that ran starkly against the grain of the Religious Test Clause.

 So a fundamental issue is whether opposing a candidacy for no other reason than the content of the religious faith of a candidate—and not, for example, based on a religious perspective’s implications for important public policy issues to be addressed politically—can be reconciled with any genuine commitment to religious freedom or the Religious Test Clause.

Bill Keller is a decided opponent of, and critic of, the teachings of the Mormon Church to which Mitt Romney belongs.  One of his tasks is to sharply criticize various features of Mormon teaching.  And, of course, that is his perfect free speech right under the First Amendment.  But Keller does not stop at criticizing Mormonism.  Rather, he finds “most appalling” that various “prominent Christians” would sell out “the faith” by helping Romney “perpetuate the lie that they [the Mormons] are Christians,” and thereby “aiding that cult to lead ignorant souls to hell for eternity.”  Taken at his word, Keller would apparently view even Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, as just such a “sell out,” even though Jeffress has reaffirmed a long-held view that Mormons aren’t even Christian, because Jeffress has now endorsed Romney “because President Obama does not believe in ‘biblical principles.’” (USA Today, April 18, 2012)  What Keller must find especially disturbing is that a recent poll showed that evangelical Christians in Virginia would have voted for Romney over Obama by a nearly 2-1 margin.  The same poll said that 83 % of such Christians said that Romney’s religion would make no difference in their vote, with only 13 % stating it would make them less likely to vote for Romney.

Keller’s expressions raise the following questions:  Why in the world would supporting Mitt Romney’s candidacy constitute selling out one’s own Christian faith and helping “perpetuate the lie that [Mormons] are Christians”?  Is the idea that supporting, or “voting for,” Romney leads “ignorant souls to hell for eternity” a religious idea that receives any support in the Bible—Keller’s purported source of true religious doctrine?  If supporting a Mormon sells out Christianity, wouldn’t this mean that supporting anyone other than an evangelical Christian is itself a selling out of true religion?  (I lived in the South for fifteen years of my life, and it was hard to determine whether the most strong-willed envangelical Christians I encountered were more anti-Catholic or anti-Mormon.  Considering that the three leading candidates for the Republican nomination are either Catholic or Mormon, one might wonder how one might avoid “selling out” the Christian faith.)

Keller was in the national news in 2007 for his now infamous quote, “a vote for Romney is a vote for Satan,” and he continues to demand that Mitt Romney quit lying to people that he is a Christian.  This raises a couple of additional questions:  Even if Romney adheres to a wrong-headed religious faith, why would a vote for him be a vote for Satan?   Does the Bible teach that giving political support to one who one agrees with politically, but who holds “false religious beliefs”—as Keller at least clearly believes about Romney’s Mormonism--amount to supporting   Satan?   In the April 12 article, Keller said that he is not worried about “being politically correct or being labeled as a 'bigot' by those whose only concern is politics, since at stake are the eternal souls of men!”  So now the question becomes:  Why does the decision in favor of voting for a presidential candidate place the “eternal souls of men” at stake?  Keller said, "According to the Bible, not Bill Keller, those who believe in a false gospel like the Mormons’ teach, will die and be in hell for all eternity.”  So then:  Why would supporting, or voting for, Mitt Romney amount to believing “in a false gospel”?   If you think that voting for one to whom you ascribe false religious beliefs undermines true religion, doesn’t this amount to simply contending against, and rejecting, the principle embodied in the Religious Test Clause?

As astonishing as almost anything, after ranting against various purported false doctrines and wrongful acts of Mormon leadership for at least several paragraphs in the April article, Keller still insisted that “I could care less what fantasies Romney, Beck and those in their cult choose to believe.”  Really?  Doesn’t everything else he asserts defy this very claim—not to mention the choice of the word “fantasies”?  He purportedly only cares that they lie about being Christian.  Beyond the Religious Test Clause issue, the unequivocal “lying” assertion raises its own questions:   Does Keller offer a single reason to believe that Romney does not think he is a Christian?  If not, why would he attribute the most despicable motive to such a figure—namely, an intention to “lie” to the American people about his status as a Christian?  (One is compelled to wonder if Keller has ever read the Sermon on the Mount, which instructs us against “judging” others.)  How could Keller possibly know whether Romney is completely insincere or dishonest in believing that he is not only Christian, but belongs to Christ’s Restored Church?

Even if you assumed that Mormonism’s claims about its status are unsupportable, how would this offer any insight into the sincerity or honesty of  one of  its true believers?  Romney has been a lay leader of a Mormon congregation—he was the “bishop” of a local Mormon “ward.”   His tax returns revealed that Romney is a generous donor to the Church to which he is committed.  These sorts of actions, engaged in over many years, present at least prima facie evidence of sincere faith.  Does doctrinal disagreement have much to say about Romney’s sincerity?  It is hard to see why it would.  Would it be a legitimate move, politically or intellectually, to argue that Mike Huckabee (a former Baptist minister) is a liar simply because he holds radically different religious views than one’s own?  When one commentator encountered Keller’s anti-Mormon rants, he inquired whether Keller “has not read his own holy book, in which the son of God is born to a virgin, walks on water, raises the dead, turns water into wine, is crucified and resurrected, and ascends bodily into heaven.”  Doesn’t this reflect a simple fact:  the novel beliefs of virtually any religion may well sound wide-eyed and preposterous to an outsider.  This is precisely why we have gone to such lengths to secure freedom of religion and embraced a political system committed to religious pluralism.

Keller even goes on to assert that prominent Mormons, like Romney and political pundit Glenn Beck, are also ill motivated, as in Beck’s use of “ignorant Christians” to “fund his multi-million dollar empire.”  Keller equates this with Romney’s deceptive claims to foster political support.  Yet all kinds of non-Mormons have come forward to assert that they have known a great many LDS church members who are good, solid people and citizens—and many people, even a bunch of evangelical Christians, have voted for Romney in republican primaries, in part because he shares many of their political beliefs and they trust that he is a basically good and honest individual.   Doesn’t Keller himself believe something at least analogous about a bunch of other Christian faiths that many perceive as “cults”?  Is such fundamental disagreement any sort of evidence of the insincerity or dishonesty of either religious group or its members?  Does one who claims to believe in the biblical teachings who still acts to judge others’ motivations act truly as an honest Christian?  Should such a soul join a cult, or has he already?

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