Romney-Bob Jones alliance is a sign of the times

When I heard that Bob Jones III was endorsing Mitt Romney for president, you could have knocked me over with a hanging chad.

Jones, chancellor of the uber-conservative university named after his grandfather of the same name, has made headlines over the years for publicly sharing all of his views on what is wrong and revolting in the world.

The list of said “revolting” people, ideologies and behaviors is long. At one time in very recent history, the university banned interracial dating, and has forbidden alumni of the school who are openly gay from attending on-campus events.

More relevant to Romney’s candidacy are Jones’ personal views about other faiths. He has labeled both Mormonism and – believe it or not – Catholicism as un-Christian cults. Granted, Mormonism came along well after the Protestant Reformation, but unless Jones has some insight to church history that the rest of us do not, Catholicism is the very “church universal” from which all subsequent Christian faiths have emerged.

It seems Jones is not content to differ ideologically about dogma; he feels the need to attack those who differ from him, which is most of the world when you think about it.

So why in the world would such a narrow-minded, outspoken hate-speech aficionado publicly endorse someone whose faith he calls an “erroneous faith,” and one to which he is “completely opposed?”

It may be as simple as a lack of a perceived alternative.

Fellow Republicans Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have made few friends in evangelical circles with their relatively centrist social agendas. Both tend to lack the hard-line political credentials to ensure that the all-or-nothing political agendas of the extreme Christian right will take top priority.

Though there are several Protestant Democratic frontrunners out there, the very fact that they’re Democrats rules them out for endorsement. At the end of the day, Romney really is the most viable candidate for social conservatives to stand behind, even if they find his religious beliefs reprehensible.

Romney shrugged off questions about his willing acceptance of the endorsement, claiming he’s running for a political position, and not a religious appointment. However, Romney can no more separate his personal beliefs and values from his politics than Bob Jones can.

It’s an awkward marriage of necessity: one that may yield short-term results, but that may hold grave consequences for the candidate in a general election.

Regardless of the implications this may have for Romney, should he make it past the primaries, it raises a couple points of note about the landscape of contemporary American faith.

First, there is a certain contingency of hard-core social conservatives who will do anything they feel they must to promote their agenda, including getting into bed with people they can’t stand. Second, Mormonism not only has incredible political, social and economic sway, but its relevance seems to be growing.

An acquaintance commented recently on Romney and the momentum he is gaining as a top-tier presidential contender. She noted that, even if Romney does not win the presidency this time, he will be back. If he cannot personally secure the most powerful political seat in the world, he certainly is paving the way for those who will follow in his footsteps, bringing with them a set of beliefs based on a faith about which few of us know very much.

Romney is not alone in forging new territory in this election cycle. Barack Obama gets accused by some, of all things, of not being “black enough.” Hillary Clinton is the favorite punching bag of many from both parties, with plenty on either side of the aisle still not quite comfortable with the idea of a strong woman in the driver’s seat.

Part of the reality of this new diversity in our leadership is that good people will be castigated for things that have little or no bearing on their qualifications for office. On the other hand, unlikely alliances will continue to emerge like the one between Romney and Jones that once seemed impossible, yet may now be essential for both.

For better or worse, this places a greater responsibility upon the public to discern which criticisms and which endorsements hold water, and which should be dismissed as opportunism or simple bigotry. Those who are inclined simply to follow the recommendations of the local or national media, special interest groups or the guy next door may get much more than they bargained for.

Christian Piatt is the author of “MySpace to Sacred Space” and “Lost: A Search for Meaning,” and is a columnist for the Pueblo Cheiftain newspaper and DisciplesWorld Magazine.

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