|Craig Parshall, General Counsel|
November 2, 2011
In last week’s issue of Time magazine, columnist Jon Meacham fired several volleys over the bow of conservative Evangelicals when he critiqued the comments of a Dallas pastor who, in a private conversation with a reporter, noted that he considers Mormon doctrine to be a “theological cult.” That aside became an issue because it had followed the pastor’s public introduction of Rick Perry at the Value Voter’s Summit in Washington, DC.
Mitt Romney’s troops were offended over the reference to Mormonism, and Democrats were likely jubilant at the fracas created within the ranks of Republican contenders. Yet Meacham’s harsh commentary outshouts all of that. Denying the relevancy of religious doctrine, he accused Evangelicals of harboring “contempt” for the idea of “ongoing revelation” – which is, in orthodox Christianity, a concept considered to be heresy going all the way back to the Church fathers and, of course, the Apostles themselves. Conservative Christians, noted Meacham, are “desperate” because they are losing the culture war. But as a result, Meacham said, America must beware of the “religious right” because “a wounded foe is always more dangerous than a healthy one.” Foe? His column contained other examples of similar cannonball commentary. For instance, he declared that Evangelicals are “shrill,” “extreme” and want a “theocracy”; put forward the idea that adhering to Biblical doctrine is “Mormon bashing”; and argued that Jesus supported the separation of church and state.
Meacham misses the mark by a mile. The right of Christian spokespersons to expound on the doctrines of other religions – including the right to call another group a “theological cult” – is a fundamental liberty under the First Amendment religion clauses. That exact result was reached by the Texas Court of Appeals and affirmed by the state supreme court. The autonomy of religious officials and their groups to “define and carry out their religious missions” was affirmed by the Supreme Court in a 1987 case, which, ironically, affirmed the right of Mormon organizations to exclude non-Mormons for doctrinal reasons. Mr. Meacham wields the First Amendment as a sword to, in essence, decapitate the First Amendment. Nor is history on his side. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton decried Thomas Jefferson’s lack of Christian orthodoxy (though he reluctantly supported his candidacy) and so did Abigail Adams, wife of Founder John Adams and an early First Lady. She also criticized the other candidate, Aaron Burr, not for his doctrine, but because his “practice” didn’t match his presumed profession. The degree to which religious beliefs ought to be calibrated in an election is ultimately up to the electorate, and Christians (and others) may surely differ on that issue. But how one views God will inevitably shape character – and in an election, character always counts.