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I went into the speech thinking that if it were a purely political speech he’d probably done his job but if it were a spiritual speech he’d be hosed. As with all things political, it wasn’t quite either one.
It was a good speech and it was well delivered. He seemed more comfortable and approachable and humble than any other time I’ve seen him speak. And measured by time and words it was an overwhelmingly political speech. He hit the points he needed to hit; he said again and again that there is no religious test for office and that the president isn’t the president of any particular party. He talked about the American civil religion and was impressive and presidential. He dropped in evangelical code phrases and themes like the de-Christianization of Europe, the dangers of a secular America and America’s godly heritage.
But it was also a profoundly spiritual speech. He said he was going to stand up for his faith and that he wasn’t going to get into the business of theology. Then he did just that. In the middle of the speech was this:
There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.
In that single paragraph he blew his chance to slam the door on the pastor-in-chief idea because he was, consciously or not, making the theological argument that Mormonism was basically a part of historic Christianity. And it is, in the judgment of most liberal and conservative Christian theologians, not a part of historic Christianity. The fact that we will now be debating this is evidence of the one paragraph gaffe.
Kennedy’s 1960 speech succeeded in no small part because it was devoid of any religious sentiment. Nowhere in that speech did Kennedy say anything about what he believed. In fact, he said religion was a fundamentally private matter.
All of this points to our very, very big problem.
Our debate and discussion about faith and politics is, increasingly, just a discussion about faith. That is toxic for our politics and for our faith.
We need to be having theological discussions. They are important and valuable.
We certainly need to be talking about politics. Pick your reason why.
But we’re not getting either one. Instead we are getting politically-inspired theology discussions and theologically-inspired political discussions. Someone needs to hit a reset button because this is one of the ways religious intolerance takes root.
Perhaps what our country could use right now is a pledge by all of the candidates for president to:
1) Declare they respect and admire the faith of every other candidate;
2) Admit that no particular religion qualifies or disqualifies anyone for the presidency;
3) Promise not to manipulate religion to advance their political agendas.
Yes it is a small thing, yes it is a symbolic thing, but it might begin to restore some sanity to our increasingly goofy faith and politics discussion.