Sixteen years after being exiled from “Christian” Massachusetts for “dangerous opinions,” Roger Williams, erstwhile Baptist and a founder of Rhode Island, wrote a 1651 letter to Massachusetts Gov. John Endicott that conscience is “a persuasion fixed in the mind and heart of man which enforceth him to judge … and to do so and so with respect to God, His worship.” For Williams, conscience was unique to the human species and thus “is found in all mankind, more or less: in Jews, Turks, Papists, Protestants, pagans.”
Had he written some 200 years later, Williams would doubtless have added, “and in Mormons.” These days, it’s the “conscience … more or less” that should trouble Americans in the land of the free and the home of the newly acquitted.
“Note to the Prayer Breakfast: consider a moratorium on such events until you can actually practice what Jesus preaches.”
I retrieved Williams’ description of conscience after hearing former Republican presidential candidate, current Utah senator and lifelong Latter-Day Saint, Mitt Romney, describe his decision to become the only member of his political party to vote “Yes he did,” when confronted by “the grave question the Constitution tasked senators to answer … whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor.”
Romney was clear that his decision to dissent from every other Republican senator was grounded in his faith in God, asserting:
“As a senator-juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential…. But my promise before God to imply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and political bias aside.
“Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s abuse and the censure of my own conscience.”
Words befitting Roger Williams.
But Romney didn’t stop there. Knowing exactly the kind of response that would follow his conscientious objection, he added:
“I’m aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision, and in some quarters I will be vehemently denounced. I’m sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters.
“Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Sure enough, one day after his acquittal by the Republican-majority Senate, President Donald Trump attended the National Prayer Breakfast where he heard conservative Harvard University professor Arthur Brooks call the audience and the nation to reconciliation. Citing Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Brooks, a devout Catholic, observed: “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”
Taking the podium immediately after Brooks, Trump replied: “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you…. I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong” (clearly a slap at Romney). Then, for good measure, he followed one insult with another: “Nor do I like people that say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s just not so” (no doubt referencing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Catholic-oriented contention that she prays daily for the president). In an interview after the “prayer” meeting, Trump suggested that Romney had used his “religion as a crutch” for his impeachment vote.
Others followed suit. Donald Trump Jr., a son of a United States president, denounced Romney as a “p—-,” the same word his father used on the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording, and demanded the senator’s expulsion from the Republican Party.
“Should … we continue to stifle our consciences and Christ’s gospel, we could reach a point when even the stones can no longer cry out.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott also felt led to address Romney’s faith-based reasoning: “I think it’s always a dangerous place to be saying that God told you to do something specific. Especially when you have a lot of God-fearing people who are diametrically opposed to your position.” Scott seemed to suggest that since Romney failed to vote with the majority, he should keep his God to himself.
Actually, Romney never said that God told him how to vote; he said that his faith in God compelled his conscience to act accordingly. That’s the freedom of conscience that has shaped dissent against religious and political majorities across the centuries.
As far as I can tell, not one of the president’s evangelical leader-supporters dared to advocate for Romney’s religious freedom to speak and act out of faith and conscience, even when it contradicted that of their own. As self-professed defenders of religious liberty, they might have enhanced their increasingly tarnished witness by acknowledging that if a lone baker’s faith and conscience is sacrosanct enough to refuse a cake for a same-sex wedding, then a lone Mormon’s faith and conscience is sacrosanct enough to vote for a presidential impeachment.
As a professor of American religion caught in a lifelong lover’s quarrel with Baptist traditions, I’ve studied LDS history with considerable fascination and critique. Nonetheless, I am profoundly grateful that Romney’s act of conscience compelled the President, the Senate and the rest of us to confront faith and conscience, religious liberty and dissent, at this moment in our nation’s troubled, divided history.
At a potentially teachable moment, I’d suggest the following:
Note to Republicans: You “won” on the president’s “acquittal.” If your cause was truly just and your consciences intact, why do you seem so frightened by – and vitriolic toward – the conscience of one measly Mormon?
Note to President Trump: If you’re going to take issue with the Sermon on the Mount, do it at a Mar-a-Lago dinner party, not at a National Prayer Breakfast.
Note to the Prayer Breakfast, aka the Fellowship Foundation, an 85-year-old, highly secretive, religio-political organization also known as The Family, that has organized the “prayer breakfast” as its only public event each year on behalf of members of Congress: When President Trump or anyone else upends Jesus’ call to “love your enemies” at your invitation-only, supposedly “bipartisan” event, try not to laugh or applaud. Furthermore, consider a moratorium on such events until you can actually practice what Jesus preaches.
Note to Sen. Romney: Roger Williams’ conscience got him exiled into the “howling wilderness” of a New England winter. Just saying.
Note to the rest of us Americans, especially Christians who claim to follow our consciences, “more or less”: Should the times become even more dire and desperate, and we continue to stifle our consciences and Christ’s gospel, we could reach a point when even the stones can no longer cry out.
Well, then we’d all deserve what Romney called “history’s abuse.” World without end, Amen.