Acton Institute Powerblog

Hugh Hewitt and the Mormon Question

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

In a plenary address a couple weeks back to the Evangelical Theological Society, law professor and journalist Hugh Hewitt spoke about the religious affiliation of political candidates and to what extent this should be considered in the public debate (Melinda at Stand To Reason summarizes and comments here). In advance of his forthcoming book, A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every Conservative Should Know about Mitt Romney, Hewitt used Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as an example as to why evangelical Christians should not withhold their votes for a particular presidential candidate purely based on theological disagreement.

In the intervening time, the so-called “Mormon question” has received a great deal of media attention. (Hewitt says that yesterday was “a day of interviews about and with Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.”) Here’s just one example, Time magazine’s story, “Can a Mormon be President? Why Mitt Romney will have to explain a faith that remains mysterious to many.”

A number of people, including Glenn Reynolds, have wondered about the potential hypocrisy in examining Romney’s Mormonism so closely, while apparently giving a free pass to politicians like Harry Reid. But for Hewitt, the appropriate treatment of a Mormon politician would look more like the reception Reid has gotten than the scrutiny that Romney has gotten.

Hewitt’s argument goes like this: if the long knives are brought out by Christians to attack Romney on the basis of his religious commitments, it won’t be long before secularists attack Christians on similar grounds. This is a sort of “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” argument, and it is one that is shared by “Evangelicals for Mitt,” who note that most of the objections to Romney’s fitness for the presidency are on theological matters that are “absolutely irrelevant to the presidency.”

David French of “Evangelicals for Mitt” does address one of the questions I had coming out of the Hewitt talk, which was whether Hewitt’s claims that the religious and theological commitments of candidates should be off-limits was true for practitioners of all religions (or even strands of individual religions). French writes, “Let me be clear: I am not saying that theology is never relevant. When theology dictates policy, it is fair and proper for a voter to take that theology into account.”

These are not the types of theological issues to which evangelicals are taking offense, however. Says French, “The questions we receive deal with the Mormon view of the Trinity, the Mormon doctrine of salvation, the Mormon view of the afterlife, etc. Not only are these questions not relevant to the presidency (though certainly relevant if the Governor were applying to be your pastor), by even attempting to inject them into the debate evangelicals play a dangerous game. Do we think we can reject a candidate for theological reasons and then cry foul if the media or political opponents attack our own theology?”

This distinction between theological positions that bear directly on matters of public policy and ones that do not may indeed be helpful in distinguishing when it is appropriate to discuss faith commitments ad hominem. It would certainly seem to distinguish Romney’s Mormonism from, say, an Islamo-fascist faith which would attempt to impose and enforce Sharia law with government coercion.

Moreover, disqualification of Romney simply on the basis of his Mormon faith is a mark of a theocratic tendency which holds that only Christians are fit to rule. An apocryphal saying attributed to Martin Luther is his expression that he would “rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” We’ll get to more of what Luther actually did say about Islam in a bit. But for the moment, let’s reflect on how this sentiment bears on the conversation.

The idea is essentially that the office of government can be rightly exercised by those who from the Christan perspective hold heretical theological views. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The state possesses its character as government independently of the Christian character of the persons who govern. There is government also among the heathen.”

Acknowledging this truth does not mean that it is of no consequence whether the politician is or is not a Christian. It may simply be of no political consequence. “Certainly the persons who exercise government ought also to accept belief in Jesus Christ, but the office of government remains independent of the religious decision,” says Bonhoeffer.

Back to Luther.
As we have seen, “Evangelicals for Mitt” do acknowledge that theological commitments are sometimes relevant. Luther himself was disparaging in his view of the governance of the Turks, and these kinds of opinions seem to be at least superficially in conflict with the “wise Turk, foolish Christian” sentiment that is often attributed to him. Luther writes,

I hear it said that in Germany there are those who desire the coming of the Turk and his government because they would rather be under him than under the emperor or princes. It would be hard to fight against the Turk with such people. I have no better advice to give against them than that pastors and preachers be exhorted to be diligent in their preaching and faithful in instructing such people, pointing out to them the danger they are in, the wrong they are doing, and that by holding this opinion they make themselves a party to serious and innumerable sins in God’s sight. It is dreadful enough to have the Turk as overlord and to endure his government; but willingly to submit oneself to it, or to desire it when one need not and is not compelled—well, the man who does that ought to be shown what kind of sin he is committing and how terrible his conduct is (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 193).

Luther thinks that these kinds of wishes are sinful not only because they manifest disloyalty to the current rulers, which is a sin, but also because,

They make themselves a party to all the abominations and wickedness of the Turks; for he who willingly goes over to the Turks is their comrade and accomplice in all they do. Now we have heard above what kind of man the Turk is, that he is a destroyer, enemy, and blasphemer of our Lord Jesus Christ, a man who instead of the gospel and faith sets up his shameful Mohammed and all kinds of lies, ruins all temporal government and home life or marriage, and his warfare, which is nothing but murder and bloodshed, is a tool of the devil himself (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 194).

Since the rule of the Turk is so inimical to “temporal government,” those wishing for new overlords would undo their own designs, so that “the preachers must impress upon the people that if they do go over to the Turks, they will not have bettered themselves and that their hopes and intentions will not be realized,” (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 195).

In a passage reminiscent of the infamous quote of Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address, Luther writes,

If anyone asks why the Turk performs no miracles to confirm this new law, he says that that is unnecessary and of no use, for people had many miracles before, when Moses’ law and the gospel arose, and did not believe. This is why his Koran does not need to be confirmed by wasted miracles, but by the sword, which is more persuasive than miracles. This is how it has been and still is among the Turks: everything is done with the sword instead of with miracles (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 197).

In all this, Luther comes to a rather different conclusion than the one that is usually attributed to him: “I would very much regret the rule of the Turk; indeed, his rule would be intolerable in Germany” (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 198). To be clear, Luther does not advocate in this piece any kind of a “Christian” war to be fought against the Turk. He does speak about the need for a sort of spiritual “war” to consist of Christian proclamation of the gospel, repentance, and promotion of sound doctrine. But any military action would be the act of the civil magistrate, Emperor Charles, since “it is his duty, as a regular ruler appointed by God, to defend his own” (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 184).

Most, if not all, of Luther’s remarks against the rule of the Turk in Germany are based on his understanding that basic tenets and practices of Islam were in direct conflict and opposition to the proper discharge of the office of government. Irrespective of the truth value of Luther’s claims about Islam, we can see that his concerns are with those points of religious belief that directly bear in on governmental administration, and policy that undermines the function of government itself:

For although some praise the Turk’s government because he allows everyone to believe what he will so long as he remains the temporal lord, yet this reputation is not true, for he does not allow Christians to come together in public, and no one can openly confess Christ or preach or teach against Mohammed. What kind of freedom of belief is it when no one is allowed to preach or confess Christ, and yet our salvation depends on that confession, as Paul says in Romans 10 [:9], ‘To confess with the lips saves,’ and Christ has strictly commanded us to confess and teach his gospel (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 175).

In Luther’s opinion, the problem with the government of the Turk is that it infringes on religious freedom, as an aspect of its destruction “not only the Christian faith, but also the whole temporal government” (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 178).

It appears after all that the sentiment attributed to Luther in the “wise Turk, foolish Christian” quotation is perhaps not so foreign. Indeed, if the government of the Turk would respect Christian practice, allow religious freedom, and properly exercise the role of the temporal government, it would not be inimical to wise rule in Luther’s view.

How does all this relate to the Mormon question? The bottom line is that a politician’s religious commitments only become relevant as a litmus test when they threaten to undermine or destroy the proper exercise of government. This applies to Christians, Mormons, Muslims, (or anyone else) of a theocratic bent. Are there any of these kinds of tendencies or commitments in Romney’s Mormonism? If not, then Hewitt and “Evangelicals for Mitt” are right. The theological attacks and concerns from evangelicals about Gov. Romney’s fitness to govern should be muted, if not silenced.

I do wonder, though, how much evangelical concern about Mormons in politics is a contemporary expression of older worries about doctrines that presumably would bear directly on policy. At the time of his murder, Joseph Smith was running for president and had control of Mormon militia, which has been called largest armed force (public or private) west of the Mississippi.

One of the religious practices that differentiated Mormons at that time from the broader American culture was the practice of polygamy, which is, incidentally, one of Luther’s complaints against the Turks: “Mohammed’s Koran has no regard for marriage, but permits everyone to take wives as he will. It is customary among the Turks for one man to have ten or twenty wives and to desert or sell any whom he will, so that in Turkey women are held immeasurably cheap and are despised; they are bought and sold like cattle” (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 181).

There is no doubt deep suspicion on the part of many evangelicals about just how Mormon theological commitments might come to expression in making policy. The facile association between the depiction of polygamy HBO series “Big Love” and Mormon practice today doesn’t help matters. And “Big Love” has been taken by some to be a touchstone for a change in political opinion. Bryan Caplan, for instance, says that he “can’t imagine that a person could watch Big Love and not conclude that polygamy ought to be legalized.”

The LDS complains that “placing the series in Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the program’s subject matter and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes.” So the continuing perception of the relationship between polygamy and Mormonism certainly hurts Romney’s standing among many evangelicals.

I conclude by noting how Luther responds to Matthew 26:52, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He says that as Christians, we should have nothing to do with promotion of the gospel by means of coercion. But in saying this he goes on to clarify his purpose in addressing these questions:

I say this not because I would teach that worldly rulers ought not be Christians, or that a Christian cannot bear the sword and serve God in temporal government. Would to God they were all Christians, or that no one could be a prince unless he were a Christian! Things would be better than they now are, and the Turk would not be so powerful. But what I want to do is to keep a distinction between the callings and offices, so that everyone can see to what God has called him and fulfil the duties of his office faithfully and sincerely in the service of God (Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 166).

Evangelicals would do well I think to keep Luther’s concept of vocation in view, judging all political candidates not firstly on their religious creed but on the soundness of their view of the role of civil government.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.