Who’s More Christian, Romney or Obama?

Does the “(R)” following a politician’s name stand for “Righteous,” and the “(D)” stand for “Depraved”?

The presidential election of 2012 presents a curious slant on that question. In one corner, we have an incumbent president, a devilish Democrat with a Muslim-sounding name who attended a Southside Chicago African-American church with a loose cannon preacher. In the other corner, we have a resplendent Republican with a model family straight out of a tearjerker Latter-Day Saints commercial who was bishop (i.e., pastor) of a Mormon congregation in Massachusetts. Only one of the two will discuss his faith with any candor, and when he does, he sounds, um, like a born-again follower of Jesus. But to many of his brothers and sisters in Christ, he is wearing the wrong jersey and running the wrong plays, as if your best friend from Bahston was drafted by the Lakers or the Yankees.

Romney is famously, consistently, and to some, maddeningly reticent to discuss his personal faith. For a Republican base drunk on the near beer of George W. Bush’s Guideposts-meets-Dobson administration, Romney is an unsatisfying and unsettling choice. Republican voters’ only true alternatives in the primary were a Pennsylvania Catholic with a TBN platform and a Georgia philanderer with a Fox News Radio panache. If the Republican Party could have played Dr. Frankenstein for a moment last fall, they would have sewn together Romney’s Armani suit and squeaky-clean morality, Santorum’s blue-jeans-and-VBS values, Gingrich’s neural cortex and rhetorical acumen, Perry’s flowing locks and Texas drawl, Cain’s skin tone, and Palin’s glasses and legs. That’s what they wanted, but instead they got Stilted Mitt, the closeted Mormon and everyman tycoon. 1

You get the sense from the Romney campaign that Mitt is hunkered down on the subject of religion like a kid grimacing until the roller coaster ride is over, or like Lance Armstrong on the subject of doping. Just keep changing the subject, he tells himself, and eventually, hopefully, hallelujahly, they’ll stop asking so many damn, er, darn questions. Fortunately for Romney, there’s a way out of this gosh-darn pickle: by playing up Moral Mitt.

Morality has long been a proxy for faith in American politics, as it is in American life. I can’t know a man’s heart, but I can tell you how many cases of Coors are in his fridge. Don’t-drink-don’t-smoke-don’t-cuss is code for “born again believer” in many parts of the country. This false equivalence is something that suits a highly moral Mormon candidate to a tee. Projecting and even living a highly successful (code for “blessed”), highly moral life is a signal to many that you are on “God’s team.”

The pace with which the evangelical Right has embraced the morality-over-faith position has accelerated ever since Ronald Reagan, an occasional attender of Bel-Air Presbyterian, defeated Jimmy Carter, a Sunday school teacher at Maranatha Baptist in Plains, Georgia. Carter was hands-down the more authentic Christ-follower of the two, but his gentle lovingkindness made him an awkward fit in the White House. Where Carter sidled up to the office, Reagan saddled it like a Hollywood horse. The Great Communicator, with his syncretistic religious beliefs and fundamentalist political beliefs, gave the moral masses exactly what they wanted: Old Testament morality with a New Testament glint in his eye.

But we are not about to decide between Jimmy and Ronnie. We are to choose between Louis Farrakhan and Joseph Smith (as their enemies would frame it), between Martin Luther King and John Willard Marriott (as they would prefer it be framed). One aspect of that decision, for many readers of this fine digital publication, is the candidates’ attitudes about and positions on matters of faith.

I think it best to let the candidates speak for themselves on these matters—to the extent they are willing. What follows are a handful of excerpts from each of the candidates on the subject of faith. While there are more quotes from Obama than from Romney, that is no indication of my bias: there is simply much more first-person material to work with in the case of the incumbent when compared to his challenger. I have included links to sources, so you can read or watch each speech or interview in full or gain additional context for some of the quotations:

Mitt Romney, Interview with Bill Hemmer of Fox News  New York, NY | May 2012

I think people who are people of faith believe that there’s a purpose greater than themselves. For me, there’s no question. I believe in a Heavenly Father, I believe in his Son Jesus Christ, I believe in the Holy Ghost. These are features that are part of many people’s faith in this country; other folks have differing views … That shapes my view.

Mitt Romney, Liberty University Commencement Address  Lynchburg, VA | May 2012

People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. […] The call to service is one of the fundamental elements of our national character.

Mitt Romney, Speech on Faith in America  College Station, TX | December 2007

If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience.

Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God.

Barack Obama, Christmas Tree lighting ceremony  Washington, DC | December 2011

More than 2,000 years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among the cattle and the sheep. But this was not just any child. Christ’s birth made the angels rejoice and attracted shepherds and kings from afar. He was a manifestation of God’s love for us.

And he grew up to become a leader with a servant’s heart who taught us a message as simple as it is powerful: that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves. That teaching has come to encircle the globe. No matter who we are, or where we come from, or how we worship, it’s a message that can unite all of us on this holiday season.

Barack Obama, Easter Prayer Breakfast  Washington, DC | April 2011

I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason — because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective.

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work. And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways. And I admit that my plate has been full as well. The inbox keeps on accumulating.

But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross. And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast  Washington, DC | February 2011

And like all of us, my faith journey has had its twists and turns. It hasn’t always been a straight line. I have thanked God for the joys of parenthood and Michelle’s willingness to put up with me. In the wake of failures and disappointments I’ve questioned what God had in store for me and been reminded that God’s plans for us may not always match our own short-sighted desires.

And let me tell you, these past two years, they have deepened my faith. The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray. Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.”

Barack Obama, Easter Prayer Breakfast  Washington, DC | April 2010

For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye. The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire. The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves. The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in his tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.

We are awed by the grace he showed even to those who would have killed him. We are thankful for the sacrifice he gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.

Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast  Washington, DC | February 2009

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.

I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose — His purpose.

Barack Obama, Speech on Faith and Politics  Washington, DC | June 2006

Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship — the grounding of faith in struggle — that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts.

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away – because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

Barack Obama, Speech on Faith in America  Zanesville, OH | July 2008

Now, I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household. But my experience in Chicago showed me how faith and values could be an anchor in my life. And in time, I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.

Barack Obama, Remarks at the Memorial Service for the Victims of the Tucson Shooting  Tucson, Arizona | January 2011

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. […]

So sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

That process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions – that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires.

  1. For an interesting look at Romney’s reticence to speak publicly about his faith, see the Slate article, “Where is Mitt Romney’s Faith?” A second exploration of Romney’s faith may be found in this Politico story: “Romney’s Mormon Faith in Spotlight.”
About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.