I almost feel sorry for Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, but I shall resist that feeling. Jeffress ignited a firestorm by calling Mormonism a "cult" and arguing that it is better to support a "Christian" for political office than a non-Christian.
In an op-ed in this morning's Washington Post, Jeffress argues confusedly about the role of religion in politics. For example, he writes, "While I prefer a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian, religion is not the only consideration in choosing a candidate. Frankly, Christians have not always made good presidents. We must also consider whether a candidate is competent to lead and govern according to biblical principles." Funny, I missed that article in the Constitution about biblical principles.
Jeffress also quotes John Jay who wrote, "It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." Of course, in late eighteenth century America, many Christians, including many founders, had strayed from the Nicene Creed. Unitarianism was on the rise as was Deism. The Christian God of many of the founders was not the Christian God about whom Pastor Jeffress peaches in his pulpit every Sunday. Besides, Jay was a first-class anti-Catholic, a trait he also shares with Jeffress. Jay wished the New York Constitution to forbid recognition of any foreign ecclesiastic or civil authorities among the citizenry, a not-so hidden slap at Catholic's allegiance to the Pope.
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Nonetheless, Jeffress is right that religion will continue to be central to the political debate over the next year. Such a shame that those conducting that debate - the candidates, most members of the press corps, and a coterie of fundamentalist preachers - are so ill-prepared theologically to examine what is a fascinating issue.
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