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 reflects on the transitional papacy of Joseph Ratzinger.
Lightning Strikes the Vatican Hours After Benedict Resigns: http://www.weather.com/news/pope-resigns-20130211
Pope Benedict’s Resignation and John Paul’s Suffering: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/closeread/
The Bizarre Stories of the Four Other Popes Who Resigned: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/the-bizarre-stories-of-the-other-popes-who-resigned/article_2ef967ff-fb51-5828-beba-98f1d6562016.html
What Was the “Media Frenzy” Like in 1415? http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/02/the-last-time-a-pope-resigned-mass-media-was-called-mass/273098/
Stephen offers some historical and literary context for the Bible, revealing the common dangers of using Scripture as an “E-Z-Reference.”
Stephen describes the unique historical significance of the “Church of the Presidents” in Washington, D.C.
Hollywood rarely gets the faith side of history right. Steven Spielberg rarely gets it wrong. His stirring film Amistad, for example, contains one of the most moving renditions of Christian truth ever filmed. In his masterful new film, Lincoln, faith is treated only fleetingly, which is surprising since Abraham Lincoln is revered as our most spiritual president. In fairness, the film is not a biography but an exploration of Lincoln and his times during slightly more than thirty days in the battle for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. That it accomplishes this task so magnificently is a gift to the nation.
Yet this scant treatment of faith may be due to the unending problem of Lincoln’s spirituality itself. His religious life has been one of the most ill-defined, hotly-debated topics in Lincoln studies since nearly the moment he died. Historians still grapple with these matters and the filmmakers who must rely on their work may find the entire matter of Lincoln’s spiritual life too contentious and unsettling to pursue. Still, Lincoln’s great struggle for faith shaped him profoundly and we should know this story in order to fully understand the imprint he is having, even now, upon our age.
The challenge is that Lincoln lived through widely differing stages in his journey of faith, more than most men and certainly more than any other president. There is always the temptation to see his entire religious life through the prism of only one of these stages, thus neglecting the whole. To do this means missing the grand tapestry of faith that Lincoln wove during years of spiritual struggle.
There is, for example, the stage of Lincoln’s childhood years. Until early manhood, he was an intelligent, sensitive child who resented his father, found bombastic frontier revivals disturbing, and yet was capable of re-preaching the sermons he had heard almost word for word. Then there is Lincoln the young man, a voracious reader smitten with religious skeptics like Thomas Paine and remembered by the townspeople of New Salem as the village atheist.
The death of his son, Eddie, in 1850 devastated Lincoln. He turned for help to a Presbyterian minister friend, Rev. James Smith, who offered both comfort and learned challenge to his religious skepticism. It changed him. In this third phase of Lincoln’s spiritual life, he attended church, funded Christian ministries, befriended clergymen, and spoke more openly of God. It was during this phase that he entered the White House.
The bookends of his First and Second Inaugural Addresses define the transition to yet another stage of faith during his presidential years. Though in his First Inaugural on March 4, 1861, he referred to a God who has “never yet forsaken this favored land,” he perceived the war as under human control. “In your hands,” he told the departing Confederate states, “is the momentous issue of civil war.”
By his Second Inaugural four years later, he had seen too much suffering, had witnessed too many inexplicable Union defeats. He concluded that God had visited the war upon the nation as punishment for the sin of slavery. In this Second Inaugural, he spoke as prophet of an offended God, calling the nation to acknowledge divine purposes and “bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Clearly, he had begun to believe in a God who ruled men and nations, but had he yet become a Christian? We cannot know with certainty, though Mary Lincoln’s account of her husband’s final words raises intriguing possibilities. Confiding to a Baptist minister a decade after her husband’s death, Mary recalled that during a carriage ride on April 14, 1865, and later that evening at Ford’s Theater, the president assured her that following the war, “We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest. We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior.”
If Mary remembered correctly, these were the last words Abraham Lincoln ever spoke. John Wilkes Booth’s derringer ball entered his brain in the next seconds. If true, it means that a dramatic progression of faith had been underway in Lincoln’s life. We cannot know where it might have ended. We can know that Lincoln had journeyed at least as far as the religious vision of the Second Inaugural Address—to a just God both terrible and kind who works in history to draw men to righteousness.
Lincoln’s struggle for religious truth is a story Americans should know, even with its uncertainties and obscurities. It broke him, healed him, worked wisdom into him and helped to lift him to his great purpose. It was a struggle not unlike our own. We should be grateful then, for what faith element does appear in Lincoln, and grateful also that his spirit is being freshly imprinted upon our troubled times. Thank you, Steven Spielberg.
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 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.
Religious Neutrality in the Schools—Of Iraqi Kurdistan? The Kurds Choose Religious Equality—and they are 94% Muslim!
When Americans sent their sons and daughters to fight in Iraq, whether they agreed with their government’s actions or not, they hoped for some result greater than mere retribution. They did not wish for miracles, but they did dare to hope that when the war was over there might be opportunity for a less militaristic, more democratic and certainly more benign Iraq to arise and join the family of well-intentioned nations.
We cannot know yet whether these hopes will be fulfilled. The central government of Iraq in Baghdad remains a scene of contention and conflict, with heated debate over the most fundamental rights. Americans have learned to their disappointment that non-Muslims have been forced to flee from the South of the country, that churches have been bombed, and that the rights of minorities have been denied. It is natural that many in the United States should wonder if their sacrifices will make for a better day anywhere in the Middle East–but particularly in Iraq.
On June 11, 2012, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan gave an answer. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)—which is responsible for the northern quarter of the country, an ethnically Kurdish region—declared that its schools will now be religiously neutral. This means that they will teach the great religions of the world on an equal basis but will not press any one religion upon students or even make what is taught about these religions a part of the final examinations required for graduation. This is a profound change from the previous requirement that Islam be preferred in the classroom and that students master its doctrines as a requirement of graduation. It is an astonishingly broad-mined move by the government of a region that is 94% Muslim, that is bordered by nations like Iran and Syria, and in which an American teacher was shot and killed just weeks ago.
Iraqi Kurdistan is now the only region in the Middle East other than Israel in which the religions of the world are taught on an equal basis in the public schools but no one religion is given preference.
“This decision is a result of our Kurdish history,” says Mariwan Naquishbandi, spokesman for the KRG’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. “Kurdish Islam is not the Islam of Saudi Arabia or Iran. We have often been made to suffer by those who were our Islamic brothers. It has made us more tolerant, more able to see the good that other religions offer to Kurdish society.”
It is an attitude that comes as a surprise to many in the West who view all Muslims as alike—equally radical and equally oppressive of other religions. The Kurds, though, are a unique people among the nations of the Middle East. They are not Arabs but are historically identified with the Medes, an ancient people closely connected to Persian heritage and culture. Most Kurds were Christians long before they began converting to Islam in the sixth century. In fact, many Americans will know the Medes primarily from the pages of the Bible. The Medes played a prominent role in the story of the prophet Daniel, for example and are listed among the nations present on the Day of Pentecost, the day of the Christian Church’s birth.
Both their history and the heartrending suffering endured at Muslim hands have made the Kurds—already a people known for their hospitality—particularly welcoming of other religions. Older Kurds in Kurdistan today tell of how in 1948, when Israel became a nation and the Kurdish Jews left Kurdistan for their Holy Land, Muslim neighbors wept over the loss and frequently maintained abandoned synagogues—in some cases for decades after—in honor of their departed Jewish friends
It is an openness the Kurdish government has had to protect. When the Central Government in Baghdad insisted upon sending its teachers to start schools in the northern region of Kurdistan, the KRG refused. “The religious sectors in Baghdad are filled with religious fanatics,” says Naquishbandi. “We knew what they were trying to do. So we refused because we are trying to achieve a more democratic society.”
Naquishbandi found the KRG’s decision particularly satisfying. He has been working on this and similar reforms for years. As an example of the Kurdistan he hopes for, this intense, pleasant man with a ready laugh keeps both a Koran and a Bible on his desk. He has gained a reputation for his fairness. When he received complaints about an Arab evangelical pastor in the region, a man named Pastor Yousif Matti, Naquishbandi refused to move against the man until he had met him. After lengthy conversation with Matti, the official called those who complained and said, “I will not act against this man, but perhaps I will write something against you for condemning him.”
Over time, Matti and Naquishbandi became friends. The official eventually accepted an invitation from Matti to visit the United States. Along with his brother, a general and military judge, Naquishbandi toured parts of America, visited evangelical churches Matti was connected to and even met with Tennessee Congressman Marsha Blackburn in Nashville, where the U.S.’s largest concentration of Kurds live. “I had asked a Mullah to join us on the trip to America,” Matti says. “People in America could not believe it, but this is how Kurdistan is different. An evangelical pastor, an Islamic Mullah, and two high-ranking government officials can travel as friends to the United States. It would not be possible for some other nation in the Middle East. It is possible here.” Matti founded and runs the Classical School of the Medes, which will soon have some 2500 students from all over Kurdistan.
The KRG’s change in school policy regarding religion is a stunning break from the traditions of the region, but it is a step closer to what many Americans have hoped for in these last years. For Naquishbandi, it is simply what his society must do: “This law is going to help with tolerance between the religions. This is what Kurdistan should be.”
Stephen talks about Vanderbilt University’s recently instituted “all-comers policy.”
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.
Stephen revisits “Is Mormonism a Cult?” and answers questions submitted by listeners in this edition of Backtalk.