Saturday, December 29, 2007

Religion in Politics: Who's a Christian?

On the Christian right, it's common to question or reject the True Christianity of "liberals" and members of other suspect sects or "cults". In this interminable presidential campaign, the candidacy of Willard Mitt Romney has made the issue of "I'm a Christian and You're Not" an important, though carefully and slyly handled, one.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Hucklebee blandly, with seeming naivete, inserted a Mormon doctrinal issue into an interview with a New York Times reporter. It's reasonable to assume that it was a calculated dig intended to raise the hackles of the Faithful Christian against Strange Unchristian Mormon Beliefs. Similarly, it's reasonable to assume the bookcase cross-effect in a Huckabee tv ad was a consciously crafted effect, suitable for a candidate whose fliers describe him as a "Christian Leader", differentiating himself particularly from the Mormon Romney, as well as from other less than evangelical Republican candidates.

So I've been reading up on Mormonism lately. Long ago, I lived in Salt Lake City for three years and got to know a bit of the basics. I've occasionally read some more about it (out of anthropological and comparative religion interests) and now, with Romney's candidacy, I've been taking another look. With Christianity so much in the public square, the question of who is and who isn't a Christian has taken on heightened political importance.

The arguments are always based on doctrinal differences. But since there are so many differences within Christianity, with doctrines changing throughout its history and with many doctrinal divides of greater or lesser importance existing today, it's difficult for an ordinary person to decide what doctrines should be considered out of bounds and what doctrines are genuinely normative for all who want to be recognized as Christian.

Looking at the problem in purely ideological terms, you see incompatible definitions. How to choose among them?

My suggestion is to chuck all the doctrinal discussions and look at physical behavior, not verbal behavior. The simplest first cut is to look at what books are being used in rituals and in training ritual leaders. We can call them "scriptures". What they contain isn't important to this analysis. It's just necessary to be able to identify the labels on the books.

Using this approach, at the elementary level it's clear that Judaism and Christianity are different religions because they use different scriptures. The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, is incorporated into Christian practice, but another book, the New Testament, is added. New scripture, new religion.

Islam, while acknowledging and giving some respect to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, has the Qur'an. New scripture, definitely a new religion.

Consider, then, Christian Science -- with Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures being a necessary adjunct to the Christian scriptures. Christian Science ritual focuses on a Bible Lesson, composed of citations from both the Bible and Science and Health. Without the new book, there's no Christian Science practice and no Sunday and Wednesday ritual gatherings. Therefore, although Christian Science is an offshoot of Christianity, it's not Christianity.

With three new scriptures added to the Christian Bible, the Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), make the decision easy. The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price define a new religion, not just a new wrinkle within an old religion.

So, without doctrinal considerations or theological bias of any kind, it's possible to come to a completely objective classification of the LDS as a separate religion distinct from Christianity.

This approach saves the time and trouble that would come with having to read a lot of theological arguments. Of course, one can always go further into it and define a variety of Judaisms, Christianities, Islams, and Mormonisms by looking at the use of other books (like the Talmud in Judaism) and by observing other behaviors. In Christianity, for example, it's informative to see who can take communion with whom.

Considerations of doctrines can then follow later, if one is so inclined. What I find helpful is to be able to make objective distinctions first, without having to ponder imponderables or dealing with charges of heresy or apostasy. Discussions of variant theological ideas, like Huckabee's idea of the Trinity vs. Romney's, can then be descriptive and comparative, without requiring the reader to adopt any particular doctrinal or judgmental stance. Establishing a "value-free" definition of differences might enable people to look at these things more calmly and rationally. (But I don't count on it.)

At the very least, though, it allows people to cut to the chase more quickly -- and, if they're going to discuss religion in politics, have their discussions focus on the impact, if any, of candidates' religious doctrines on policy.

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