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Francis Beckwith on Chrisitan Creeds and the “Kennedy Mistake”

May 29, 2007

From First Things:

“Creeds are not meant to measure the qualifications of a political candidate in a liberal democracy. Not only does the formulation of Christendom’s most important creeds predate the existence of liberal democracies, their subject matter bears no relation to assessing those attributes that we consider essential to the leadership of a political regime. In practice, most Christians already fully grasp this truth.

“For example, many evangelicals in the 1980 presidential election voted for Ronald W. Reagan over Jimmy Carter, even though Carter was clearly more evangelical in his theology and church participation than Reagan. For Reagan’s supporters, it was his policies and not his theology that was decisive for them. Although these evangelicals would have likely chosen Carter over Reagan to teach Sunday school, they preferred Reagan in the Oval Office because they believed that Reagan’s policies best advanced the common good.

“If one believes that the common good is achieved when a political regime treats justly its citizens and the many institutions that help develop and sustain their virtue, a candidate who embraces these ideals, even if he or she is not a Christian, is a candidate that a Christian can support with a clear conscience…

“Romney, in order to pacify secularists and traditional Christians, may be tempted to emulate Kennedy and claim that his theology and church do not influence or shape his politics. But this would be a mistake. For it would signal to traditional Christians that Romney does not believe that theology could, in principle, count as knowledge; but this is precisely the view of the secularist who believes that religion, like matters of taste, should remain private. Yet if a citizen has good reason to believe her theological tradition offers real insights into the nature of humanity and the common good—insights that could be defended on grounds that even a secularist cannot easily dismiss—why should she remain mute simply because the secularist stipulates a definition of religion that requires her silence? Why should she accept the secularist’s limitations on her religious liberty based on what appears to many of us as a capricious and politically convenient understanding of “religion”? If Romney commits the Kennedy Mistake, it would give tacit permission to secularists to call into question the political legitimacy of not only Romney’s fellow religionists (including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) but also conservative Catholics and evangelicals.”

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