Stephen talks about the new Pope and what his intentions are for the Roman Catholic Church.
Stephen talks with John Seigenthaler about his book “The Mormonizing of America” on Nashville Public Television’s “A Word on Words.”
Originally aired on 8/31/2012
Stay tuned for more videos and updates on Stephen’s new YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/mansfieldwrites.
Stephen urges new approaches in conservative politics.
Stephen discusses the results of the 2012 presidential race and what it means for the Republican party.
Nearly from the moment I became a Christian, and because I had some wise mentors, I understood that truth is usually in the tension between two thoughts. Frankly, I found it comforting. I found that it freed me from the pressure to be scientifically exact about spiritual things. I found it forced me to rely even more on God.
I wish I could say this principle, still precious to me years later, has always been welcomed by my fellow Christians. I wish we were—together—thinking this way about American politics today.
It seems undeniably biblical to me. For example, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign but that man exercises his will also. Both statements are true, I understand, but because I’m a limited creature I can’t comprehend much more than this now, in this life. That’s fine with me. It’s a glorious mystery held in tension between two truths. I affirm both, hold both in my mind at the same time whether I understand either fully or not.
Most biblical truths are like this. We are saved and yet we are still being saved. God meets our needs but all who live righteous lives will suffer. Men are made holy by Christ but can descend to the nature of demons. God is near and removed, comforting and terrifying.
Thinking two thoughts at once. It is what we have to do when thinking about God and his truth. It is what the Christian life requires.
So you can understand why I am so disturbed by the standard Christian response to the current presidential election. Most Christian conservatives are so intent upon defeating Mr. Obama that they are intentionally keeping quiet about Mr. Romney’s Mormonism, a topic they would rage about any other time. Several prominent national leaders have told me how much they appreciate my book on Mormonism, but then they have touched their forefinger to their lips as though to say, “But let’s not talk about that now.”
I think my political views are fairly well known. I am pro-life and pro-free market (though not always pro-big business) and pro-family and so on. My lean in this election is obvious. But I do believe we can hold two thoughts in our minds at the same time. Yes, Mr. Romney represents our political values. And, yes, he is a member of a religion that rewrites every cardinal doctrine of traditional, creedal, biblical Christianity. Let’s vote for him if we so choose, but let’s not go silent on that other vital matter. In fact, let’s use the present moment as a chance to articulate truth. The one does not overrule the other. There is no reason to remain silent on theology because we have a political preference. In fact, it may be sin to do so.
Thinking two thoughts at once. It is how we understand God. It is how we understand the central truths of Christianity. It is also how how we live as citizens of this world while at the same time being citizens of a world that is yet to come.
I’ve been asked many times in my life why I am not a Democrat. The question usually comes from people who do not know me well and who have heard me talk about the priority of the poor or perhaps how being pro-free market is not the same as being pro-big business. I’ve also disagreed with some of America’s military incursions in recent decades. This leads casual acquaintances to make some kind but uninformed assumptions about my politics.
Of course, if they knew my thoughts on defense, the First Amendment, taxation, federalism, and limited government, they would not have many doubts. Still, I take it as confirmation of my attempt to be more biblical than I am political that friends even have questions. My politics lean libertarian right up to the boundaries of scripture and this is certain to be confusing to a culture angrily divided between left and right.
As much regard as I have for my Democrat friends, there are two primary reasons—among others—that I cannot join them. Take a look below at the platform positions of the two parties on two different issues of great moral concern. You’ll see there is a difference between the political parties and this is why, whatever commonality I might have with my more left-leaning friends, the positions below determine the entire matter of party affiliation for me.
Once you’ve read these, you might also want to peruse the complete platforms of both parties. I’ve provided links.
On the Issue of Unborn Human Life
Democrat Platform: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay.”
Republican Platform: “Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”
On the Issue of Traditional Marriage
Democrat Platform: “We support marriage equality and support the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples. We also support the freedom of churches and religious entities to decide how to administer marriage as a religious sacrament without government interference.”
Republican Platform: “The institution of marriage is the foundation of civil society. Its success as an institution will determine our success as a nation. It has been proven by both experience and endless social science studies that traditional marriage is best for children.” “We reaffirm our support for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
My Old South grandmother used to tell me that I should never speak of religion and politics in “polite company.” She was right. Nothing divides like these two topics and if we wish to preserve harmony with our acquaintances we should find other subjects for discussion.
Until, that is, one of those acquaintances asks me to entrust him with the power of a public office. Then, though I should remain polite as grandma would have insisted, I am not fulfilling the duty of citizenship unless I insist on knowing everything about this acquaintance that might come to bear upon his conduct in office. His religion, among other features of his life, then moves from the private realm into the realm of respectful public scrutiny.
Why is the religion of a candidate important? Because if he is sincere about his religion, it shapes him politically. Because our religion—again, if it is more than window dressing or social club—is the lens through which we see the world. Because law and public policy are rooted in concepts of fair and good and right and just that are as much product of religion as any other influence. Because my vote puts civil authority under influence of a politician’s religion merely by helping to place the man in his position.
Religion matters. And it matters in politics. To say so is not to require an unconstitutional religious test or to fuel bigotry or to force all religion into political correctness. It is to simply insist upon knowing before Election Day what factors will be of influence while a man or woman sits in office.
Revere Ronald Reagan as we might—and I do—we would be justified in wishing we had known more of his religious views before he entered the Oval Office. We would also be justified in wishing we knew what was influencing him religiously while he sat in office, particularly when he was learning about Armageddon from his informal night time reading and then making pronouncements about its meaning for his presidency. Something similar could be said of the religious views of Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush or even Dwight Eisenhower. Religion shaped each of these to some degree as public men. Did we have opportunity to know specifics of that shaping before they entered office?
This brings us to the 2012 presidential race. Though we have men running for office who are profoundly fashioned by their faith, we have yet to hear definitively from them about how religion informs their politics. Numerous Mormons spoke in support of Mr. Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, but the candidate himself said nothing of consequence about his Mormonism in his acceptance speech. Yet the Sunday after the convention, Romney sat in a Mormon gathering and heard himself proclaimed an “ambassador” of Mormonism. The speaker was J.W. Marriott of the hotel chain Marriotts and the sentiments were echoed around the country. Perhaps it is true. Perhaps there is even much in Mormonism that might make a man a sterling president. Frankly, I believe there is, but may we not hear of this, fully, from the candidate himself?
If another candidate were proclaimed an ambassador of the Roman Catholic church or of the South or of the Ivy League educated, wouldn’t we insist upon knowing exactly what this meant before we sent the man to the White House?
The same is true of Mr. Obama. We should ask for clarity about his religious views as well. He reads the Bible almost daily, has a team of very respected spiritual advisors, has been profoundly influenced by his chaplain at Camp David’s Evergreen chapel and has given testimony of his Christian faith as fully as any president in recent memory. He has also made it clear that his policies grow from his faith. He supports same sex marriage because he is influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, he has said. He champions policies for the underprivileged because of the ethics Jesus Christ taught. He reaches to the Muslim world not just out of geo-political necessity but because of a common religious heritage. We might welcome it all, but shouldn’t we know more? Must his blend of traditional Christianity and progressive social values remain a mystery to us?
It is easy to understand why candidates shy away from the political implications of their religious lives. It means defining themselves in a way that distinguishes them from millions who believe differently and it potentially puts another club in the hands of their opponents. So be it. We live in a democracy. Presidents are not allowed undisclosed loyalties—to foreign governments, to political movements, to private clubs and, yes, to religions. It’s time for the media and the voters to ask the appropriate questions. Now. Two months before the election. Before a religion of some kind begins whispering in the ear of a man of some party as he decides matters of some national consequence.
Stephen explains how part of the American Right has emigrated from righteous anger to rage, which is both unwise and un-bliblical.
Stephen describes surprising trends in faith and recent politics.
The summer months of a presidential election year rarely hint at the “total war” the fall will bring. Publicly, the two campaigns move like panting dogs on an Alabama blacktop in mid-July. Each is content to sniff the other from a safe distance. There are occasional growls, but only such as honor requires. When the two do feel the need to engage, they employ as much mock ferocity as possible in hopes that sheer bluster will win the day.
It is hot, after all. Let us not do too much.
The campaigns save themselves, of course, for the conventions. Then, after these exhausting bits of theater, there is the required post-convention “Inevitable Victory Tour,” which often takes the form of an “express” of some kind or another. This field exercise is followed by the perpetual bombardments of the six weeks leading up to Election Day. Mercifully, none of this seems imminent during the judgment-of-God-heat of mid-summer, traditionally the doldrums of the political cycle.
So it is even more difficult to imagine from this lazy, hazy vantage what surprising controversies might descend upon the contests to come. They always do, though: the unexpected assumes the national stage during every presidential campaign season. Sometimes it takes the form of a political storm that merely clouds matters for a while and moves on. Sometimes it comes like a sky full of black helicopters intent upon carrying the national stage away entirely. Rarely, but occasionally, these outliers can be detected in advance. In 2012, one of them—much to the surprise of many Americans—will be the controversy of religion.
It might seem that all that could be said has already been said on this subject. Mitt Romney is a Mormon and Barack Obama is some kind of Christian and a large portion of Americans suspect the former and doubt the latter and so it goes in what G. K. Chesterton called “the nation with the soul of a church.” Surely we need speak no more of these disturbing themes and can allow the people to decide such matters—privately—on their own.
It will not be so, and here are eight reasons why.
As sophisticated and postmodern as Americans believe themselves to be, a Gallop poll in 2011 revealed that 20 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats will not vote for a Mormon. These numbers are too large to ignore. Mitt Romney cannot win without decreasing that 20 percent. The Obama campaign—though careful not to appear bigoted— will be required by the press of a tight race to push the other way. It will move religion center stage.
2. These indicators of distrust have not changed substantially since Gallop began asking about Mormons in politics in 1967. Only gays and atheists have worse numbers. It is a revealing legacy that is sure to make this election, in part, a referendum on Mormonism itself.
3. This same Gallop poll revealed that Democrats are 50% more hostile to Mormons than Republicans. It is naïve, then, to think that Romney’s Mormonism will not be targeted, particularly should the political left feel the election at any point slipping away. Stay tuned to Bill Maher on this score.
4. Then there is Romney himself. If New York Magazine’s Jason Zengerle was correct in his May GQ article, “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight,” Romney’s senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom wants his candidate to go silent on religion. Fehrnstrom apparently believes that part of Romney’s problem in 2008 was talking about his Mormonism too much. If this is true, it may explain why Romney flubbed George Stephanopoulos’s questions about Mormon doctrine in an interview earlier this year. As a Latter-day Saint bishop, Romney surely knew the answers. Perhaps he was determined to sidestep a grilling about religion and was clumsily in the attempt. It left the impression he was lying. If he continues on this course, he will only create a vacuum that will have to be filled. Critics, anti-Mormons and political enemies will be happy to step in.
5. There is also Barack Obama. The testimony of those near him is that the president has undergone a religious change while in office. No longer under the influence of Jeremiah Wright as he entered the presidency, Obama began being mentored by men like T. D. Jakes, Dr. Joel Hunter, Rev. Otis Moss III—men more theologically conservative than Wright. This may account for Obama’s evangelical-sounding speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February of this year, in which he mentioned “finding Christ,” his “Christian walk,” and having been “overcome by the grace of God.” This was far removed from his often-uncertain utterances about religion in 2008. If candidate Obama continues to sound like the Obama of the National Prayer Breakfast, this will also force religion to the fore in the upcoming race.
6. Remember, too, that we still live in a world in which twenty percent of America believes President Obama is a Muslim. Of late, that number has been rising. The question for this segment of American society will be which candidate to choose: “the Muslim or the Mormon?” This cannot but fuel religious controversy between now and November.
7. Roughly a third of all Americans are evangelicals. Most of them believe that Mormonism is a dangerous cult that subverts every cardinal belief of traditional, creedal Christianity. There is going to be a heated debate among this one third of the country during the upcoming election season—between those evangelicals who believe Mormonism is wrongheaded but that Romney is the only alternative to the far worse evil of Barack Obama and those evangelicals who will not vote for a Mormon no matter the alternative. It is a debate that will spill over into the country as a whole.
8. Finally, while the central issue in this election season is, in James Carville’s immortal phrase, “the economy, stupid,” some of the attending issues are faith-based in the eyes of many Americans. The obligations of the rich, society’s responsibility to the poor, gay rights, health care, immigration, and, of course, the relationship between church and state—all are religiously-charged for millions of voters. Mr. Obama has long framed these issues in terms of his faith-based social vision. Mr. Romney has not, but he and his advisors will realize that they cannot yield the religious high ground on these issues. This, too, will force religion onto center stage.
There are other matters that may drive religion to the forefront of the 2012 presidential election. We cannot be certain of all of them now. What Americans ought to know by this time in their history, though, is that religion is seldom far from their politics, seldom much removed from American culture as a whole. The 2012 campaign is likely to illustrate this as much as any presidential election in the nation’s history.
It all may make the remaining months of summer, even with the heat, a welcome haven from the looming crusades.
Stephen answers reader-submitted questions about Mormonism, Mitt Romney, Obama’s “war on religion,” and more.
Stephen gives an update on the 2012 presidential race now that Mitt Romney has all but secured the Republican nomination.
As you’ll see from my previous two blogs, I’m excerpting a few pages from the book on Sarah Palin I wrote with David Holland. In our last chapter, we made some recommendations to Governor Palin. They apply to all leaders. With Game Change now playing on HBO and talk of a brokered Republican Convention involving Palin growing more serious every day, it is a good time to ponder her leadership style and apply what we learn to our own way of living. By the way, you can order the book here.
#5: Critics are not enemies.
We have all had this experience. We are listening to a speaker who has been stung by a critical word. He is hurt, enflamed. He uses his speech to strike back. He hits hard and does not let up. But he is talking past us. We do not know what has been said and we do not understand why we are subjected to this angry tirade. Moreover, rather than being impressed with the persuasiveness of his argument, we leave more impressed with how small and vain this man is. He has lost us, and all because he could not rise above, could not let criticism go unanswered and unavenged.
It was the great missionary statesman E. Stanley Jones who said, “My critics are the unpaid guardians of my soul.” It is a truth that would serve Sarah Palin well. There is wisdom to be heard in the mouth of one’s enemies and she would be well served by knowing this. Critics hold up a mirror we would not otherwise see, allow us a clarified view of ourselves that we cannot get any other way. We have to discriminate, of course, and pick out the diamonds of wisdom from the dunghill of hate. Still, there is truth to be had and the wise leader learns to face criticism, discover the truth in it, and change accordingly. It distinguishes greatness of soul from vanity and rage, carefully crafted performance from genuine largeness of heart. Sarah Palin is capable of these, but only if she refuses to be embittered by those who strike at her.
#6: The poor and the needy are conservative concerns, too.
It is an oddity of modern politics that while conservatives believe they have the solutions for the poor, they seldom mention them. Conservatives prefer to speak in general terms about a healthy economic, about opportunities to achieve, and about the character that leads to prosperity, but rarely do they mention the poor or the underprivileged. It is almost as though they think that to mention the poor is to play into liberal hands. What they end up doing, though, is losing the battle in the popular mind by yielding the high ground of compassion and benevolence to their opponents.
Sarah Palin knows better. She comes from a family that, while far from poverty, fought hard to meet its needs. Both her parents worked a variety of jobs to serve the family and the Heath obsession with hunting was about more than sport. It was about feeding six hungry mouths. Then, when she married, she lived on a blue color workman’s salary and often struggled to make ends meet. In her family experience and in decades of life in the Mat-Su Valley, she has seen want and poverty and she knows the interplay of injustice and low character that can lead to both. She can connect these issues to conservative answers in a manner that few politicians today are able to achieve.
She should break out of the Republican manner of years and become a champion of conservative solutions for the poor. She should reintroduce words like “poverty,” “needy” and “hurting” to the Republican lexicon and prove the power of non-statist solutions for one of the desperate needs of our time. As a mother, as an oil field worker’s wife, and as a woman who has been willing to know and love the destitute, she is qualified to do—and perhaps courageous enough to do—what most politicians on the right are not: challenge the political left on the home turf of underprivileged America.
#7 Know your boundaries.
Sarah Palin is a woman of scripture and so she knows the pleasant words of Psalm 16: “My boundaries have fallen in pleasant places.” They are words that suggest the contentment, the effectiveness and the peace of living within ones range of abilities. It is a truth she should grasp anew as she steps on the stage of whatever is next for her in life.
Most people who become prominent reached their position by challenging barriers. They are African-Americans who defied racism or women who charged glass ceilings or the many who overcame some potentially defining flaw in their lives. They are not cowards and they are not weaklings. They have known their battles.
Yet the one of the great lessons of their victories should be the power of concentrated force. You do not break through by applying strength broadly. You penetrate at a defined point. You force through at a pinprick and then you broaden once you have broken out to the other side.
Many who have reached prominence have not learned this. They interpret their victories as an affirmation of their strength in all things. Rather than learning their lane and gaining a clear understanding of their boundaries, they overreach and attempt what is not theirs to achieve.
Sarah Palin has done this. She is a gifted woman who has had much success and this could leave her with the sense that she should charge Sarah Barracuda-like into realms that are not hers. It would not serve her well, as her embarrassing television interviews have shown. Yet, if she could take stock of her strengths and gain a clear understanding of what she is not gifted to do, she could engage the challenges of American society where she can do the most good.
The alternative is a messiah complex, what Harry Truman called, “Potomac Fever.” It is believing oneself the answer to all things, assuming that there is no realm which should go unchallenged. But this leads to defeat and distraction from the few arenas in which victory could be sweet and meaningful.
There is good to come from Sarah Palin’s presence on our national stage, but only if she confines herself to those realms for which her God, her life and her principles have prepared her.
In 2010, my dear friend David Holland and I wrote a book entitled The Faith and Values of Sarah Palin: What She Believes and What it Means for America. I’m deeply proud of it and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We did not write it because we are Palin supporters. We wrote it because Palin’s presence on our national stage exposes “fault lines” in American culture. We wanted to explore these lines, retell her story, and project the meaning of it all into the future a bit.
I love what we got on the page and I loved running around Alaska with Dave—having tea in Palin’s parents’ living room, meeting with her pastors and friends. It was a ball. And we grew to love our country even more because it is where a gifted, ambitious woman can rise.
In our last chapter, we dared to make some suggestions, to offer some truths that would serve Governor Palin well. After watching HBO’s Game Change this week, I thought of this chapter and decided to offer it as a series of blogs. So, here are the first two of seven principles we offered. They are more relevant now than ever—for Palin, for me, for every leader.
By the way, our book is as cutting edge now as it was in 2010. I hope you’ll pick it up at your bookstore, or order it from Amazon here.
#1: Love ennobles politics.
This may seem a sickly sweet, syrupy thing to say. It may sound too much like Bill and Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning” or George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light.” These are the types of phrases that speechwriters love for their euphony but which fall empty upon the public’s ears. To speak of love anywhere in the proximity of politics may simply sound like more of the same.
Yet, any statesman who is serious about leading well, who is intent upon leaving a lasting impact upon society, must find the highest, most genuine motive for their politics. They must sort through the popular rhetoric just as they sort through the crowded rooms of their own inner life to discover the linear connection between their times, the needs of those they serve, their skills, and the political passions of their heart. This is how statecraft grows from soul craft.
It does not require an exhaustive review of Sarah Palin’s political career to discover that she is at her best when she is leading out of love. Her best speeches grow from her love for Alaska and her people. Her most dramatic acts of service have come from a desire to end the corruption that grew like a cancer on the civic body she loves. She has shown herself most noble in the care of her family, in her welcoming of a special needs child, in her honor for her friends. All of this is about love.
From the time of John McCain’s summons, Palin has been on the attack. This is what that critical moment in the 2008 election required, what Republicans were desperate for and what wrung the most thrilling response from the crowds. Palin rose to the call. She transformed bedeviling Obama’s every act into an art form and later served both John McCain’s senatorial race and the Tea Party movement with large doses of well-crafted venom.
There is more to her than this, though, and she must re-discover it for herself before the clock runs out on her current plan of assault. She knows what love is. She grew up in a loving home and entered public life largely for what she held dear rather than for who she wanted to destroy. She must recover this inspiration and do it now, remembering that while politicians carp and spat for a season, the work of statesmen endures for generations, ennobled by love of truth and love of those they serve.
#2: Hang a lantern on your weaknesses.
It is perhaps too much to expect genuine humility from politicians. They arrive at their heights by fiercely believing in themselves and it is not surprising that this should sometimes bleed over into pride and even arrogance. Tending these weeds in a politician’s soul is a matter for spouses, close friends and clergy. The public, however, should not be surprised that their leaders are flawed in such a way. Even Winston Churchill once wrote to his wife, “I am so devoured by egoism that I would like to have another soul in another world and meet you in another setting.” It should comes as no surprise that the lesser lights of our own day might feel much the same.
Yet there is a bit of wisdom that has come down through the years and which, if not a fruit of character, ought to at least be a tactic of self-preservation for public figures. It is this: Hang a lantern on your weaknesses.
The smart politician describes his faults before his enemies get a chance. He admits his failings with a laugh before his opponents have opportunity to portray those failings in dark and dangerous terms. This is not only a means of disarming the opposition but of endearing oneself to a forgiving and similarly flawed public.
There is a case in point to be imagined from the life of George W. Bush. It was widely known that he was beset with some syndrome of verbal confusion. Some experts said he was an undiagnosed dyslexic. He was famous for mangling terms like “strategerly” and for summoning his listeners to choose “the high horse or the low road.” This weakness on the part of the sitting president was a raucous playground for late night comics but it was a serious inability to communicate which tragically damaged his presidency.
Suppose he had decided to hang a lantern on his weaknesses. Suppose that rather than cover his inabilities he decided to have himself tested, admitted publicly that he had wrestled with a minor form of dyslexia all his life, and committed himself to address the issue. How this might have endeared him to an American society ever cheering for the underdog. How this would have made his rise to the presidency seem an even more astonishing feat. And what might this have meant for dyslexic school children the world over that an American president faced similar challenges?
This is a lesson that Sarah Palin must absorb. She has built her public success on her “Sarah Barracuda” reputation, on the strength of an inner force that blows past failings and flaws as though they do not exist. But this is unwise in public life, particularly in a media age where every blemish and discoloration is transmitted in high definition. Better the knowing laugh, the homey expression of self-deprecation, and the confession of weaknesses the world already sees. This will require a new skill set for Sarah Palin, and it will feel awkward and unnatural for a time. But it is more than posturing. It is the fruit of wisdom and a reaching for humility that at least reflects a respect for virtue if it is not a virtue in itself.