Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
I have a lot of respect for Chuck Colson. I have ever since I was an Evangelical and learned of his work with Prison Fellowship. I listened to his radio appearances, read his writings, and admired his sincere conversion to Christ following the events of Watergate.
To my mind, he’s a good guy.
But I flat out disagree with a recent opinion piece he wrote.
Here’s what he has to say:
Presidential Religion: Enough, Already!
A few days ago I was on the air with Los Angeles’s outstanding drive-time host, Frank Pastore - a keen worldview thinker. Frank told me his phone lines have been burning up over the comments made by a prominent evangelical pastor who said that presidential candidate Mitt Romney belongs to a cult.
Should Christians vote for a Mormon? Is Mormonism a cult? Let me say right off: These questions are an enormous distraction in an important presidential campaign. The secular media is using the pastor’s comments to paint evangelicals as bigots. The Chicago Tribune is calling this “hate speech.”
I want to say this to every Christian listening to my voice: Let’s stop criticizing candidates for their religious convictions.
Where to begin with this?
I heard about the remarks that the pastor made regarding Mormonism being a cult, and I agree with Colson that this is not helpful.
But the idea that we should stop criticizing political candidates for their religious convictions? What is Colson thinking?
Suppose a candidate was a Quaker of a particularly traditional sort and a complete pacifist. He might say, “This is my sincere religious conviction,” but we would rightly criticize the idea of electing a commander in chief who was fundamentally morally opposed to the use of military force. Or name any number of other issues that a person might claim to hold as a religious conviction that would have an impact on American society should he be elected. Whether he is to be praised or criticized for that is something that not only could but should be part of political discussions.
“But,” Colson might object, “that’s not the same as talking about his basic religious affiliation.”
True, but one’s basic religious affiliation is a guide to more particular views—or at least it should be. And if it’s not, if a politician says, “I belong to this group, but I reject its fundamental teachings” then that tells us that the politician is a hypocrite, which itself tells us something about his worthiness for office. (Yes, I know it’s tempting to say, “They’re all hypocrites,” but there are degrees of hypocrisy, and the more brazen a hypocrite is, the more that says.)
But before we get too far down the road, let’s hear from Colson again:
And let me make a few things, as my former boss used to say, perfectly clear.
First, there is no religious test for public office. If you don’t believe me, check out the Constitution of the United States, Article VI, Paragraph 3. The public statements of some evangelicals that they wouldn’t vote for Romney because of his Mormonism would cause the Founding Fathers to spin in their graves.
I admire that Colson is willing to make a Nixon reference (“my former boss”) in this context. That’s a bit gutsy. But what he follows it with is complete nonsense, and—having worked as much in government and politics as he has—Colson ought to know better.
It’s true that the Constitution provides that there is not to be any religious test for public office. What that means is this: The government cannot declare you to ineligible for office on the basis of your religion.
This says nothing about whether voters may take your religion into account when determining how they would cast their votes.
Voters can take into account whatever they want in determining how to vote. That is a fundamental democratic right that the Founders wanted to protect. They would be spinning in their graves at the idea that voters should not be free to vote however they want, including according to the moral and religious values they may have.
So what’s with Colson sounding like a 1980s liberal saying that voters must not vote their faith? Back then the pretext for this claim was “separation of Church and State” (a phrase that nowhere appears in the Constitution). Colson’s “there is no religious test” is no different. Both are gross misunderstandings that discourage voters from voting their faith.
Second, as voters we are to choose the most competent people to be God’s magistrates to do justice, restrain evil, and preserve order. That’s what the Bible calls for. And in our country, where we have the precious liberty of choosing our leaders, we are responsible for picking competent men and women. See Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18. While choosing men to help him judge the people, Moses was to select first of all competent men. Those men were also to be godly - that is, men of good moral standing and character.
Here I think Colson’s Evangelical tie to sola scriptura is hindering his thought a little. The Bible doesn’t “call for” us to elect any particular sort of people to political office—not in any direct way. It doesn’t say anything about electing people to political office one way or another, because the Bible was written in a context that did not include modern representative democracies.
That’s not to say that there are not moral principles that are to be applied in electing officials. There most definitely are, and these are in various way and to varying degrees expressed and reflected in Scripture, but Colson overclaims what the Bible actually says regarding the popular vote.
He’s right, though, that we are “to choose the most competent people to be God’s magistrates to do justice, restrain evil, and preserve order,” but technical competence is not enough. Elected officials also must not have a corrosive effect on society in other ways.
Colson’s appeal to Jethro’s advice to Moses in picking assistant judges is also odd. Colson summarizes that these assistants “were also to be godly—that is, men of good moral standing and character.”
This flattens out the definition of what “godly” means. The text of Exodus 18 says that they are to be “men who fear God.” The true God, that is. Not goat idols or other pagan conceptions of divinities that were around in their day. These men were not to be polytheists.
Yet Mormonism’s polytheism is precisely what Colson is asking us to overlook in this case.
What effect would it have had if Moses had chosen the worshippers of goat idols to assist him in his judging duties—however otherwise of “good moral standing and character” they were?
It would have a corrosive effect on the faith of the children of Israel and would have further damaged their relationship with the true God.
Third, let me answer the question that is causing so much angst. Is the Mormon faith Christian? No. It is not. There are significant and un-reconciled doctrinal differences between Mormonism and Christianity, like the sole sufficiency of Christ and the exclusivity of the Bible.
For me to say there are such differences is not “hate speech.” To deny that there are differences would be disrespectful of the truth claims made by Mormons and degrades my own truth claims. No one in good conscience can do that.
Okay, good for Colson that he recognizes Mormons (or “the Mormon faith”) is not Christian. And while he’s right that they do not acknowledge “the sole sufficiency of Christ” or “the exclusivity of the Bible” (awkward phrases Colson is using to avoid rejecting Catholics as Christians—he’s prepared to say that we recognize Christ’s sufficiency and the Bible’s uniqueness in a way that Mormons do not), he’s missing the big one.
Chuck: Mormons are polytheists. They believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three different gods, that there are countless other gods besides, and that somewhere there is a “God the Mother” with whom the Father celestio-biologically reproduced Jesus.
Further, they believe that we are the same species as the gods and that by being a good Mormon you can grow up to be a divinity with your own planet of billions of people worshipping you.
Worse, they claim that actual Christianity is a false and degraded, apostate Christianity. That they are the true, restored Christianity.
They are therefore polytheists of a type that goes way beyond ancient paganism. Back then apotheosis was reserved for the emperor or the pharaoh, but more importantly polytheists did not claim to be Christians, much less to be the only true expression of Christianity with actual Christianity being a theological perversion.
Mormonism thus subverts the core doctrine of Christianity (the doctrine of God), passes off true Christianity as a counterfeit, and holds itself out to the public to be the genuine article.
Having said that, there may be no other group of people I appreciate more as co-belligerents than the Mormons. They are stalwarts on life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty issues.
So let them be co-belligerents. That doesn’t mean making one of them commander in chief, or that it’s wrong or a “distraction” to question whether it’s wise to make one commander in chief.
To sum up, I’m with Luther, who reportedly said that he would rather be governed by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian.
Now I’ve never publicly endorsed a candidate, and I’m not doing it now. But I would personally vote for a competent nonbeliever who would protect life, liberty, and marriage, before I would vote for an incompetent Christian—or even a competent one—who would not stand for those overriding moral issues.
Our ultimate decision has to be based on what Augustine taught. We must live obediently in the City of Man as the best of citizens, doing our civic duty, which includes voting responsibly, as a reflection of our primary citizenship in the City of God.
Where does this leave us? Come on: Stop talking about the candidates’ religion. It’s distracting and it marginalizes Christianity in the public debate. Let’s continue instead to work to advance the Kingdom of God and pick, to the best of our ability, a candidate of competence and sound character who will preserve order and promote justice in our land.
I appreciate that Mormons share many social and moral values that make it possible for us to stand with them on many issues, such as abortion, marriage, and others. And I’m happy to work with them on that basis.
But there are other candidates who also share those values, and some of those other candidates would not have the corrosive effect on American religious life that an election of a Mormon to the highest office in the land would.
Remember: Mormonism is a faith that rejects the central doctrine of the Christian faith while passing itself off as the true Christian faith, to the exclusion of all actual Christians.
Electing a Mormon president would further confuse and already deeply confused American public about what Christianity is. It would do enormous disservice to the cause of Christ in America, and that must be added to the scales in weighing other issues, whether they are abortion, marriage, taxes, the economy, or whatever else.
If you don’t believe me about the mainstreamizing effect electing a Mormon would have, look at what has happened to the social situation of Catholics since 1960, when John Kennedy was elected. Catholics are vastly more socially and politically accepted now than they were then. Electing a Catholic president had an effect on how Americans perceived Catholics. There are vastly fewer Americans today who claim that Catholics aren’t Christians than there were in 1960. The difference is that Catholics are Christians, together with their Protestant brethren.
Mormons are not, and it does neither them nor the American public a favor to offer the legitimization that comes with the presidency.
Public opinion is impacted by the law. Making abortion legal made people look more favorably on abortion than they did before.
It is also impacted by who gets elected. People rally around their leaders, and if a Mormon were elected president it would confer a new legitimacy on Mormonism that would even further confuse the American public about what Christianity is.
That’s not a “distraction” from the political debate. It’s an item that must be part of it.
What do you think?