Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Wehner’s Straw Man

A straw man is a component of an argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet nonequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position. Generally, the straw man is a highly exaggerated or over-simplified version of the opponent’s original statement, which has been distorted to the point of absurdity. This exaggerated or distorted statement is thus easily argued against, but is a misrepresentation of the opponent’s actual statement.  Wikipedia

A couple of recent articles by Peter Wehner, in Commentary Magazine, caught my eye.  In them, Wehner cites the Constitutional prohibition on having a religious litmus test for those running for public office.    Suggesting that Robert Jeffress, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor, was irresponsible, if not bigoted, for straying from the Founders’ intent as specified by Article 6, Clause 3 of the Constitution:

The Senator and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Wehner also cites Madison as the father of the Constitution, and Washington as the father of our country, attempting to enlist them in defense of his views.  He erects a sound argument against something no one, let alone Jeffress is arguing for – a institutional religious test.   Jeffress is a private citizen expressing his views as an evangelical Christian.  He has no power to legislate or impose his views through governmental or legal fiat.  The opinion he expressed on Mormonism being a cult may not be politically correct, may be insulting and incendiary, but it is entirely within his purview to express it.

In his Sunday, October 9 article, Wehner comes across as condescending and superior, implicitly suggesting that religion has little if any place in what he considers rational politics.  He throws in differences of doctrine (and belittles those who believe in the importance of such things), and makes out of them silly examples of why religion should be hardly, if at all considered, in choosing a candidate for office.

There is in fact no sound reason to vote for a person based simply on their religious affiliation. Principles are obviously important in a candidate, and they may well be informed by religious faith. But the principles, not religious affiliations, are the things which have public relevance.

Who is Wehner to make such a sweeping statement?  Who is he to decide what criteria anyone but himself, should use to determine their choice of candidate?  For many religious people, principles are something that stem from core philosophical beliefs – which come from their religious beliefs.  As Jeffress said in the interview below:  “To religious people, religion matters.”

Near the end of the article, Wehner provides an anecdote about George Washington, which is totally irrelevant to the present case, and then concludes with a self-serving aside:

In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington wrote these beautiful words: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

George Washington was a better general and a better president than Robert Jeffress. He was also, it turns out, a better theologian.

Jeffress is not suggesting that the government take any sort of step against any group, because of their religion.  Washington was making it clear that the newly formed government would not favor any religion over any other.  Washington’s religious beliefs were a private matter with him and Wehner’s attempt to interpret them in defense of his argument makes him appear all the more condescending.

Wehner must have gotten some heat about his first article because he went on to elaborate upon it in a follow-up piece, published on October 12.  In this article he invokes the Constitution,  the Virginia Bill of Rights, and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.  Somehow the fact that Madison (and Jefferson) fought against state-sponsored religion – e.g. levying taxes to support selected clergymen – translates into an indictment of Jeffress’ remarks as downright un-American.

America has achieved something remarkable in the history of nations: allowing religion to play a constructive role in the public square in a way that honors both faith and politics. It isn’t an easy balance to achieve, to say the least; and we have achieved it better than anyone. And so we don’t need ministers of any faith, including Christianity, attempting to undo what the framers created, with such great care and wisdom.

Jeffress wasn’t seeking to “undo what the framers created,” when he suggested that Romney’s religious beliefs, specifically those in the tenets of Mormonism, should be factored in to a Christian voter’s decision-making process.  In his own words: “As individual citizens we have every right to impose a litmus test on the kind of individuals we prefer.”



1 George Archibald { 10.15.11 at 9:32 am }

Thanks for your thoughtful comments about Peter Wehner’s Commentary pieces about Mormonism and presidential candidates George Romney and Jon Huntsman, prominent LDS Church members. This is an important dispute among evangelical Christians that will affect the vote split, so your weighing in has considerable weight among those who respect that you are solid and fair.


2 Martin { 10.16.11 at 8:23 am }

Thanks. It seems like a legitimate matter for discussion. I’m tired of mere partisans who don’t want to have the debate. I don’t believe that the mantra “Anybody But Obama” cuts it.


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