Religion in the Public Square-Part 3

Continuing the discussion of religion’s place in the public square by taking a closer look at Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech:

In previous posts, I’ve alternately noted both positive and negative elements in Romney’s comments. This time, I’d like to point out a section that actually contains a bit of both. In a paragraph that no doubt drew increased attention from many, Romney stated the following:

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.

No doubt the most arresting feature of this quotation for many orthodox Christians is Romney’s assertion that Christ is the “son of God and the savior of mankind.” And even with the subsequent admission that his “church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths,” that statement is certainly worth a deeper discussion regarding the differences between Mormon and biblical Christian doctrine.

But since the idea in these posts is to discuss religion in the public square more generally, it’s actually the latter part of this paragraph that I’d like to discuss more fully at the moment.

In the final sentence, Romney rightly points out the simple but still often-overlooked fact that religious tolerance is anything but tolerance if it is “reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” This statement is commendable for its straightforward assertion of an important truth: tolerance is something that we exercise toward people and beliefs with whom we disagree, and sometimes significantly so.

In other words, tolerating a particular religion refers to the willingness to let those with beliefs one deems to be inadequate or even erroneous freely practice their religion under the law.

What tolerance need not imply—despite the best efforts of our politically correct culture to cloud the issue—is approval or endorsement, or that it is somehow wrong to debate the relative merits of differing beliefs. Therefore, while I would cheerily endorse (on biblical grounds, no less) the right of, say, a Mormon like Mitt Romney to freely practice his faith in this country, I would steadfastly maintain that he holds many of his beliefs in error and welcome the opportunity to discuss and support that position. No doubt many Mormons who similarly question my theological convictions would appreciate the opportunity to do the same. This kind of debate is not only completely appropriate, but it should be welcomed in a free and pluralistic society.

Given all of this, it therefore seems curiously inconsistent for Romney also to suggest in the same paragraph that each religion’s distinctive beliefs “are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.” This is clearly a false dichotomy. Actually, religious beliefs with which we sincerely disagree are tests of our tolerance precisely because we find them to be worthy of criticism.

So then, should we shy away from supporting responsible religious liberty in the United States? Absolutely not. But neither should we feel it necessary to treat all religious beliefs as possessing equal merit, or immune to respectful criticism in either private discourse or the public square.

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