In a recent column I wrote about prayer at presidential inaugurations and suggested that if we must pray ceremonially, those prayers should reflect America’s religious diversity. In other words, prayers at inaugurations should probably not end with “in the name that is above every name, Jesus.”
A good many Christian readers took issue with this. They argue that Christians should always pray in Jesus’ name. They also made the point that the Constitution allows for this in the free exercise part of the First Amendment. Many Christians understand free exercise to mean that they have the right to express their faith anywhere, anytime, and in any manner they choose.
So let’s play that game for a minute and see if the praying faithful are willing to let their rules be the rules for everyone.
For instance, suppose a non-Christian became president. Obviously that would mean that a majority of Americans either supported the new president’s religion, or didn’t care about it.
Anyway, following the rules established by the faithful who are now in charge, the new president would be free to invite a religious leader to offer a prayer in the name of the deity he or she believes is the “name above every name.”
Never happen you say? Never say never.
Among the names being circulated as a possible presidential candidate for 2008 is Republican Gov. W. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. If we asked Gov. Romney today if he considered himself a Christian, he would most certainly say yes. Unfortunately, there are many in the Christian family who would argue that he most certainly is not. You see, Gov. Romney is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, consider themselves Christian. They believe in God as Father and Jesus Christ as Son, but see them as separate beings. Mormons use the same Bible that Christians use, but add to it the Book of Mormon. These additional scriptures are believed to come from God and were given to the church through Joseph Smith.
Because of these and other beliefs unique to Latter-day Saints, many evangelicals do not consider Mormons as part of the Christian tradition. In fact, some conservative Christian groups regard Mormonism as a cult. This view is not shared by William Gordon, an expert in comparative religions for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. However, while not a cult, Gordon does believe there are substantive differences between Christians and Mormons. “We believe in a different God, and we believe in a different Jesus, and we believe in a different plan of salvation.”
If Gov. Romney runs, in the highly charged religious climate that characterizes our politics these days; his faith will almost certainly be an issue. And if it is, and the 2008 campaign becomes the moment that we begin to determine the viability of candidates based on their theological commitments, something dangerous will have taken root in our republic.
Centuries of bloody religious war in Europe convinced the men who framed our Constitution of the danger of mixing religion and government. That’s why our Constitution prohibits any religious test for political office. That is why government should never endorse any faith as the official or established religion of America. And that is why if we must pray prayers at public events, those prayers should be broad enough and general enough that every American who prays can find a place in that prayer to say, Amen.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.