One of the first lessons that I teach my missions students is that you cannot enter, understand, and minister effectively among a people group without understanding their culture, worldview, and, specifically, their religion. The culture, worldview, and religion of a people inform the ways that they understand the universe, make and enforce their laws, explain reality, and interpret all events of life. If missionaries are not careful, the people may embrace a new religion, for various reasons, but may really be mixing the new religion with their old religion. In such cases, they are also mixing beliefs about the old gods with the true God. The resulting mixture is a syncretism, no longer the first religion nor saving knowledge of Christ. Missionaries must know the existing religions so they can recognize this process when it is occurring. What people believe matters because such beliefs govern all of life. Religion is not simply an intellectual acceptance of codified beliefs; it is part of our identity. This is why many seemingly illogical atrocities committed in the name one’s religion are often simply visceral, unconsidered responses growing out of a religious worldview.

A recent dialogue between politicians is raising an age-old question again: Does religion really matter?

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently asked a question about Mormon beliefs. The resulting uproar was a major news story among the presidential race watchers for a few days. Fox news reported, “Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern

Baptist minister, asks in an upcoming article, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

This blog post is not about Mormons, it’s about beliefs and ideas. Ideas have consequences.

A politically evasive non-answer from the Mormon camp quickly followed Huckabee’s query. “A spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Huckabee’s question is usually raised by those who wish to smear the Mormon faith rather than clarify doctrine. ‘We believe, as other Christians believe and as Paul wrote, that God is the father of all,’ said the spokeswoman, Kim Farah. ‘That means that all beings were created by God and are his spirit children. Christ, on the other hand, was the only begotten in the flesh and we worship him as the son of God and the savior of mankind. Satan is the exact opposite of who Christ is and what he stands for.’”

What?!? Never mind, back to the point. Why can’t they just answer his question? While the honest answer may be politically inconvenient, the truth is of course Mormonism teaches that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers.

Notwithstanding the fact that Mormons do not believe about Jesus Christ what Christians believe, the Mormon spokeswoman stated, “We believe, as other Christians believe . . . .” [emphasis mine] Notice that Mormons want everyone to believe that they are Christians. Of course, they themselves know that they do not hold to the doctrines that Evangelical Christians believe. They want the world to believe that they have returned to the true Christian doctrine as taught by Jesus Christ himself. I suppose that means that one can call himself a Christian and redefine what it means to be one. In this case, Mormonism holds to soul-damning heresies and still calls itself Christian—all the better to entice and entrap trusting, unsuspecting victims. Notice that the Mormon spokeswoman did not deny the teaching Huckabee referenced outright.

At the end of the day, all the political candidates decided to make nice and agree that a person’s religious views should not enhance or detract from his or her ability to be President of the United States. Still, surely you noticed that Romney did not admit to this Mormon belief and say, “Yes, but what we believe doesn’t matter.” The Mormon response was carefully crafted to veil the truth. Because, everyone knows that there is great importance in what the candidates believe.

Today, the Associated Press carried an article describing Obama’s continuing quest to rid himself of the persistent rumors that he is a Muslim. He also insists that he is a Christian. The article quotes former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey referring to Obama, “It’s probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims and I think that experience is a big deal.” It’s a big deal alright. Just ask the burgeoning numbers who say they cannot support him for fear that he is a Muslim and would pose a risk to the USA if elected President.

We have heard arguments for, and against, the separation of church and state all our lives. Some people are vehemently in favor of it while others argue that is has gone much too far. The sad fact is that very few have paused to wonder what it really means. The Huckabee-Romney discussion raises the religion question, once addressed during John F. Kennedy’s campaign. The media wonder aloud whether a religious person should be President, or whether it would be better to deposit all religion into some blind trust for his or her four-year term. Their wondering shows that they do not understand religion at all.

Some people have taken the separation of church and state to the mistaken extreme that anything Christian must be filtered out of textbooks. This week MSNBC news reported a Christian scientist’s allegation that he lost his job because he would not accept the theory of evolution as the factual explanation for the world’s existence. A physician recently shared with

me his sorrow that we are now teaching only evolution in our science programs. He pointed to the rampant cheating that is common in many medical schools as one consequence of this. He lamented that it is no wonder that this is so; when young people are taught that they evolved from lower life forms and that the survival of the fittest is the basic law of the universe, of course they will lie, cheat and steal if necessary—and why not? Survival is the highest virtue. What we believe about the Creator and the origins of life matters.

Religion is one aspect of every culture and worldview. Each one informs the other and flows into a common stream. For instance, life in the Muslim world is much like a rope of three strands tightly entwined. One strand is religion, one is law, and one is culture. To identify whether an action sprang from the cultural norm, or the legal requirement, or religious belief is tantamount to touching the rope and know which strand is which.

Culture is our system of rules, beliefs and behavior for all of life that we learn in community. Worldview is the lens through which we see the world. It is at once a part of our culture and also informs our culture. It answers the basic questions of life. What is real? Where did we come from? What happens when we die? Where does sickness come from? Worldview shapes our understanding of reality and informs our opinions, dictates our reactions, and guides our decisions. To think that we can have total separation of state and religion is impossible; there would have to be a complete absence of one or the other—which is also impossible.

What people normally mean by separation of church and state is that our laws should enforce a separation of state and religious practice, i.e. church attendance, enforced taxation to support a particular faith, or government-mandated religious indoctrination. Now that begins to approximate a possible reality, but we should not be so naïve as to assume that a man’s religion—or lack thereof—does not affect the way he lives his life. Likewise, no one should pretend that a person’s religion—or lack thereof—does not matter in the way he or she will govern our nation as our next President.

The religion of our nation’s founding fathers informed their politics.

Osama Bin Ladin’s religion informed his.

The absence of religious beliefs informed Hitler’s, and Stalin’s.

Of course, religion matters. Ideas and beliefs have consequences. Beliefs inform decisions. Religious devotion results in an ethical norm among people of that religion that a non-religious person who operates according to human logic, public opinion, or selfish desires will never attain. For this reason, it is essential to vote for the leader who will guide our nation to be what is closest to God’s design for His people.

Of course, religion matters. Ideas and beliefs have consequences.

Dr. David Sills

Dr. David Sills is the founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, a missions professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaker, and author.

Want more posts like this?

Enter your email address and we will deliver Reaching & Teaching blog posts automatically to your inbox. It's a great way to stay on top of the latest news and resources for international missions and pastoral training.

Almost done! Please check your inbox and click the confirm button.