Tomorrow, Mitt Romney gives his speech articulating his view on the intersection of faith and politics.
The issue has prompted a lot of thought on the role of faith and politics.  Two of the best comments came from Ross Douthat and Matthew Yglesias at The Atlantic.
Ross Douthat: 

I’ve spent a perhaps-inordinate amount of time defending the idea that it’s reasonable to vote against a candidate because of his religious beliefs, and with that in mind I think it’s perfectly understandable that evangelical Christians would feel more comfortable voting for Huckabee than for Romney because they share a theological bedrock with the one and not the other. (In this vein, I like Matt’s comments about how he wouldn’t vote for a Jew for Jesus if there were other candidates on offer.) But these sort of choices, however understandable on an individual level, are problematic when they start defining a political coalition: The more religious conservatives appear to be treating theological issues, rather than the political issues they inform, as crucial election-season litmus tests, the more they’ll shrink their tent (there are a lot more Mormons than Jews for Jesus in the United States), alienate potential friends, and provide ammunition to the theocracy-shouters.

Matthew Yglesias:

Like most Jewish Americans, I’m perfectly reconciled to the fact that there are all these Christians running around and I think I harbor no prejudice against them. But I really don’t care for “Jews for Jesus.” The problem isn’t that Jews for Jesus aren’t real Jews; the problem is that they aren’t real Jews but insist on saying they are. Now if faced with the choice between a Democratic Jew for Jesus promising universal health care (yes! even via a mandate), fully auctioned carbon permits, an end to the war in Iraq, a grand bargain with Iran, etc. and a conservative Republican or Joe Lieberman or what have you, sure, I’d cast a ballot for someone who’s religious views bug me. But given the choice between a Jew for Jesus and a plausible alternative candidate, I think I’d go for the plausible alternative. Insofar as there are orthodox Christians out there thinking they’d rather not vote for a Mormon along similar lines, I can certainly sympathize with that, especially since the best case one can make for Romney on the merits is that maybe he doesn’t believe any of the things he’s saying.

For the opposite perspective, see Charlie Lehardy’s post.

The question of what’s fair game in politics is certainly a contentious issue.  I am still wondering how a commitment to religious knowledge–that is, to the idea that religion is a source of truth, rather than as a source of warm fuzzy feelings or personal moral guidance–affects the interaction between faith and politics.

To put it in question form, can evangelicals who wish to resist the relegation of their faith from the public square, who wish to have their Christianity viewed as a source of knowledge, vote for someone who does the opposite and still maintain their principle that religion is a source of knowledge (a principle worth maintaining!)?  It is a question for which I do not have a good answer.
The irony, of course, is that the marginalization of faith to the private realm–the preferred tactic of Romney’s defenders–stems from the post-modernism that drives identity politics.  It suggests that we live in a two-tiered reality (Francis Schaeffer’s famous ‘two-story house’ is the appropriate metaphor), with private religious truths on the one hand, and public secular truths on the other.

But Christianity–along with the world’s other major religions–claims to be much more than a ‘private faith’.  It purports to be the key to the single, unified, manifold reality, and as such, is subject to public scrutiny.  Our Bible is not an esoteric document the truths of which are available only to those “in the know.”  Though he probably rejected it more fiercely than anyone in history, Friedrich Nietzsche can hardly be said to have misunderstood Christianity.
Those who have accused Huckabee’s supporters of playing identity politics, then, while simultaneously refusing religion a place in the public squre are deeply inconsistent in their approach to politics.  In calling out the post-modern speck in their political neighbors’ eye, they have missed the plank in their own.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Have you read the little book with Audi and Wolterstorff on religion in the public square? I’ve found that’s a good place to start thinking about important distinctions to be made on this topic. And the back-and-forth format of the book helpfully clarifies a number of things.


  2. Thank you for linking to my post, Matthew.

    Matthew Yglesias’ “plausible alternative” doesn’t bother me, since it seems he’s talking about making a preference based on affinity, and I think we do that quite often in the voting booth anyway. I supported Jimmy Carter partly because we’re both southerners.

    But what I see in the Pew Forum data is a disqualification of a candidate because of his faith.

    That seems dangerous to me on a number of levels, one of which is the argument that Christopher Hitchens makes against Romney, that Joseph Smith’s Mormonism is a sham religion (my paraphrase), and it would be dangerous to elect a president who believes in gold tablets written in reformed Egyptian dug up in Missouri. Hitchens seems to equate Mormonism with mental illness.

    I strongly disagree. But it seems to me that many could say (and are saying, e.g. Dawkins, Harris, the same thing about Christians. I’m concerned that rejecting Romney on the basis of his Mormonism opens the door to rejecting creedal Christians as unsuitable for public office, because being a Christian is evidence of irrationality.


  3. AZChas, but is there any level of irrationality in a belief that might potentially disqualify a candidate in your estimation? If, for example, candidate X says that God is a giant squirrel living on the dark side of the moon, and that we should seek Giant Squirrel’s guidance as a nation, is it bigoted to reject candidate X as irrational, and does that “open the door” to rejecting “creedal Christians” as unfit for the presidency?


  4. […] This is where my hang-up is, and articulates, it seems, the position I criticized last night.  Robert Sirico, President of the Acton Institute, articulates the concern better than I could: […]


  5. Matthew Lee Anderson December 6, 2007 at 5:40 pm


    Haven’t read it yet. I’ll add it to my Amazon queue.


    In one of my drafts, I had a line about having sympathy for the critique because we’re concerned about the tide turning against us. I think that’s the best argument against my position. That said, I think Jim’s question is pertinent as well, and I don’t have a good answer for it.


  6. Jim, you ask a good question. One answer is that I’ll get back to you when giant squirrel worshipers run for President. Another, better, answer is that we judge whether people are sane or mentally ill (or rational vs. irrational) by how widely-accepted their beliefs are among ordinary citizens.

    That answer has problems, too — there are a disturbing number of Americans who believe the government brought down the World Trade Center. In a sense, we could say it’s a “normal” belief because it is so widespread. I call such people gullible, and I wouldn’t vote for one for President.

    Anyway, my answer to your question is yes, but I’m not sure I have a good rule to articulate, except what my gut tells me.


  7. […] It has been a quiet week, with not much to post on, however a friend has been discussing with me about Mitt Romney, his faith, the reaction by evangelical Christians and the reaction to that by the mainstream media. With that in mind I happened across a post on Another Think questioned whether evangelical Christians were applying a religion test for the office of President. He linked in the post to a story from the Catholic site, First Things about whether Mormonism was Christian. The Another Think post also linked to a post from Mere Orthodoxy, which included a quote from this post by Matthew Yglesias of The Atlantic. The interesting part to me is the representation of “Jews for Jesus” and whether “they” are Jews or not. The comments themselves provide a great deal of amusement. […]


  8. […] Matthew Lee Anderson kindly links to this post at Mere Orthodoxy and makes a number of good points about the role of religion in […]


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