The Republican presidential debates are almost too excruciating to watch for many reasons, mostly because they consist of a contest to establish the firmest conservative credentials. One such conservative credential is Christianity - if I had a dollar for every time Herman Cain reminded us that he is a Christian, I'd be in the 1%.
There is one Christian among them who is not like the rest, however. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney does not flaunt his faith like the others because, unlike Cain or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), it has the potential to hurt his candidacy. Overall, there should be more scrutiny applied to the “mainstream” views espoused by all of the Republican candidates, not just Romney.
Some argue that in 2007, fear of Romney's Mormonism led to former-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's all-important victory in the Iowa caucus. Despite attempts to keep quiet on the subject, it seems that Romney can't avoid it this time around either — just two weeks ago, Pastor Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a "cult," a "false religion," and certainly not a form of Christianity.
There are of course diverse views on whether and how much a candidate's religious beliefs affect his or her ability to govern the United States. Religious faith and decision-making about policy cannot realistically be separated, however, especially when candidates express as much religious fervor as this group does. What is disturbing about the level of scrutiny that Romney's faith is receiving is the lack of scrutiny that the other candidates undergo for their own, arguably more extreme and potentially dangerous, beliefs.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, Romney's most obvious rival for the nomination, is a prime example of “mainstream” Christian beliefs gone awry. In August, before he made his presidential ambitions known, he hosted a national day of prayer in an attempt to heal the country's spiritual woes. He said, “as an elected leader, I’m all too aware of government’s limitations when it comes to fixing things that are spiritual in nature. That’s where prayer comes in, and we need it more than ever." In other words, when the going gets tough, the tough get praying. This day of prayer is not only an egregious example of government establishment and endorsement of religion, but it reveals an important aspect of Perry's governing strategy. Perry is a man who deeply believes in the literal power of prayer to change the country's direction. Thus he uses prayer as a "substitute for reasoned action," as the Freedom From Religion Foundation aptly points out.
Despite the fact that Perry has strong ties to Evangelical institutions that endorse extreme views, they receive only praise for their Christian faith while Romney struggles to establish his conservative and Christian credentials.
Perhaps what frightens Christian conservatives most about Romney's religion is that, if one accepts that his beliefs are a valid variant of Christianity, then the traditional Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible are not the final, absolute, revelatory source that is so central to Christian belief. If the Bible can be changed radically almost two thousand years after Christ’s crucifixion, then it is no longer an unalterable piece of text. There is nothing to stop men or women calling themselves prophets and continuing to add to the text of the Bible in the future, deeming their views a new form of Christianity.
It is unclear to what extent candidates' religious beliefs will be factors in the general election. What is clear, however, is that winning the Evangelical vote is a vital step towards becoming the Republican presidential nominee, and Romney has some large obstacles to overcome in order to gain the trust of conservative Christians.
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