Better late than never, right? Buckle in. It's gonna take you a few minutes to read through this one.
So watching the presidential debates recently and reading as much as I can about the candidates from both parties, I saw something that made me flashback to childhood. I'll get to that in a minute.
But what started this ball rolling in my mind was watching a news clip about two weeks ago of the Rev. Al Sharpton making a coy statement about "real" Christians pulling together to defeat Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential elections...assuming Romney won the Republican nomination. Later Sharpton said his comment wasn't an indictment of Romney's Mormon religion, Romney decried Sharpton's words as religious bigotry, and Sharpton was roundly skewered for speaking out of turn.
I had two reactions to this incident: frustration and disappointment.
It is very difficult these days to get anyone, much less a public figure, much less a politician, in a position where they have to give you a straight answer, where they can't squirm out of it.
And it's even more difficult to get straight answers out of them when you ask your questions or raise your concerns in a stupid manner, thus giving the politician an out, an excuse of hurt feelings for not addressing the concern or answering the question.
Still with me?
In other words, Sharpton stuck his foot in his mouth. And while that must be a familiar place for it these days - no worries; he has plenty of company on both sides of the political spectrum - had Sharpton worded it appropriately, asking Romney about some of the tenets of his faith would have been just fine.
My fear is that religious faith is going to fall under the veil of political correctness and soon become off limits to questions. You think we know little about how individual politicians really feel now? Wait until it becomes as taboo to question faith as it already is to make jokes about race, weight, height, speech, etc.
I used to question PC terms in the early '90s like "handi-capable," one of the many PC terms used for a short while to describe people who were physically disabled. I always argued that "handicapped" like "physically disabled" was not something to be treated like the plague. Nor was it anything to be ashamed of. Just like being black or white or tall or short, I always figured it was luck of the draw. So what was the big deal? Seriously, none of us are really handi-capable. I'm clumsy as hell, and I have have bad knees, weak ankles, a bad back, and really flat feet. You want to know who's handi-capable? Superman. That's who's handi-capable. He can pull of wearing tights with a straight face. He can fly. He can burn things or freeze them with his eyes. And he can take a bullet, literally. When we can do all of that, then we can all be handi-capable. But I digress. My point is once something falls under the PC umbrella, we're supposed to feel uncomfortable talking about it. And I'm not comfortable with that.
When I was a kid, after my dad had retired from the military and had attended seminary and had begun pastoring a church in Southeast Virginia, he developed a reputation as a community leader. Understand, he never declared himself a leader of anything but his congregation, and that was with his church members' vote of confidence. But people in the neighborhood of his church always knew that they could go to "Pastor B." for help, whether they wanted spiritual guidance, food, work, or whatever. Small business leaders and city officials turned to him for help in keeping the gritty neighborhood where the church was located under control. Conversely, having a public reputation also drew critics, and opponents out of the woodwork. I never heard or heard of anyone challenging my dad's attitudes, or manners, or his character or anything. But every now and then, someone of a different faith would challenge him to a theological duel.
In one incident, I had gone to the church with my dad on a Saturday afternoon so he could retrieve some paperwork. When we exited the building a guy sprung out of the shadows. It's not nearly so dramatic as that sentence makes it sound. It was a guy we had seen around the neighborhood, a member of nearby Mosque. He startled us, that's all. Anyway, the guy was selling bean pies, incense, and cologne oils. We said no thanks. And he persisted. We said no thanks again, and then the conversation got personal. The guy began denouncing Christians and suggesting Christianity, in all its modern manifestations, was a con. That's OK. It was his right to believe and say as much. So he began peppering my dad with questions. How did he know this or that? Why do Christians believe this or that? That went on for several minutes. For every question he got, my dad calmly gave an answer, offered a historical context, and then as part of the playful give and take - 'cause by the end the two men were smiling mischievously at one another - he would throw a question about Islam back to the other guy. After a few minutes the guy, by now grinning ear to ear, held out a hand to my dad and said something to the effect of "Preacher B, I don't necessarily agree with what you believe, but I have to give you credit for knowing
what you believe. A lot of people wouldn't have been able or willing to explain anything."
I was ticked off at the guy when we finally walked to our car. I thought he was rude and mean. My dad brushed it off as we drove away and pointed to the big sign above the church and said that if the church was going to say "come one, come all" to the neighborhood, the leader of the church should be willing to tell folks what they would get inside those doors. Everyone knew my dad as "Pastor B." They didn't separate James Burnett the military veteran from James Burnett the husband and father from James Burnett the preacher. He was all the same person. And each one of those elements played a role in how he publicly presented himself.
The same goes for anyone - leader or follower - who publicly declares that a set of religious beliefs helped define who they are. If you make that declaration, expect people to want to know what those beliefs are all about. If they can't understand those beliefs, they can't really know the whole you, now can they?
This leads me back to Mitt Romney. Ever since questions started to pop up weeks ago about his Mormon faith - few specific questions, mostly generic stuff by pundits who said they just didn't understand it - Romney's defenders have been coming out of the woodwork saying such questions revealed bigotry. My understanding is that the few specific questions were about different Mormon factions' positions on race. There was a time some Mormon factions declined to allow ethnic minorities (black/brown people) to become priests. There was also a time back in the day that some Mormon factions taught that black/brown people were lesser people than their white counterparts. To be fair to Romney, there was a time in this country that some devout Christians believed it was their God-given right to own slaves and that black people were less than human and thus equal to property. Some believed that cheating on one's spouse was worthy of a good beating or a stoning, or being gay was worthy of death. And these were "Christians" who dug up scriptures to defend those beliefs. Romney's defenders though suggested questions aimed at him were too painful, too uncomfortable, unfair to him, and irrelevant to his presidential run.
And I say they're just plain wrong. If a Baptist or a Catholic were running for the highest office in the land, I would want to know from them if they subscribed to certain recorded elements of their faith that held some men in higher/lower regard than others. And my questions would be fair. I don't want a guy in the White House who isn't going to represent me as vigorously as my white neighbor or my rich neighbor or my Protestant/Catholic/Buddhist/Muslim/etc. neighbor. People lambasted JFK for being Catholic and said it wasn't right that a Catholic occupy the White House. That was bigotry. But if people had told JFK "We've never had a Catholic president. Some folks don't fully understand your faith. Tell us a little about what it means and what you believe so we can move past it and start looking at the other parts of you," that would have been fair and understandable. Do you think if Jerry Falwell had run for president, no one would have asked him to explain why this or that is taught in many Baptist churches?
There are some people among us who have no religious beliefs. Fine. Whatever. Ask my mom. I'm pretty sure that I'm a heathen too. And there are some people among us who are the stoic, silent types about religion. They don't feel right talking about it, 'cause they don't want to be perceived as in-your-face. They'd rather let their lifestyles do the talking. And there are those people who believe it is important to announce their faith as an integral part of how they live their lives. It's my humble opinion that we often find politicians in the latter category.
Let's face it, based on the blueprint laid in the 1980s by the Moral Majority, wearing your faith on your sleeve can work wonders for a politician's odds. But if you're going to tell people that at least part - if not all - of your life is governed by a moral standard that has been shaped by a specific set of religious beliefs you have to be willing to answer questions about those beliefs. Mitt Romney seems like a nice guy. He changes his mind a lot, from what I've read. But he seems nice enough as a person. But take a good look at my photo on the upper right side of this page. Do you really think I shouldn't be curious as to how he feels about those old doctrines of his church? I've had a religious expert tell me that no mainstream Mormon denominations still believe those things. But, what if? I can't ask that? Why not?
Sure, I could be politically correct and smile and offer polite applause when you say "Vote for me. I'm the most moral of all the candidates. And my faith is strong, and it has made me the man I am today."
But if this turns into one of Aesop's Fables, and I find out after
you've been elected that the fine print of your religious beliefs calls for you to eat a live chicken every full moon and to sacrifice a 6'3" black man every few weeks or so, starting with those living in South Florida, I have only myself to blame.
Religious faith is not like the knowledge of what you do in your bedroom. It shouldn't be a secret. If you believe it, then you should be willing and able to defend it thoroughly and vigorously. And someone questioning the meaning of your faith shouldn't get blasted for being insensitive, unless like Rev. Sharpton they word their thoughts in a stupid manner. Rather, they should get credited for trying to understand you better.
Gov. Romney, and any other politician who might have fallen, bumped their heads, and landed face down in front of a computer screen with this blog posting on it: If you don't want to talk about it your faith, don't. It's your right. But if you want to lead the country? Then get over the shyness and "protocol" and talk about it. And if you're unwilling or unable to do the latter, then don't blame me for being a little uncomfortable with "who" you are.
Labels: bigotry, faith, Mitt Romney, modern religion, personal beliefs, politics, the presidency