God and Gary Johnson

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Religion has played an important role regarding presidential elections in the United States for many years. Some presidents and presidential hopefuls have greatly emphasized their religious beliefs and values, such as Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson would probably fit that bracket as well. But others have generally kept their faith to themselves, such as John Quincy Adams. Many have heard during the current presidential election season about Donald Trump’s Presbyterian background, his alleged status of having been recently “born again,” and his memorable recitation of “Two” Corinthians 3:18.[1] On the Democratic Party’s side, Hillary Clinton has not had as many headlines published related to her religious views, but even her views have been clearly made known as relevant to her public and political work, as Paul Kengor’s God and Hillary Clinton illustrates. Although the presidential race has already proven to be unique in many ways, the rise of Gary Johnson as the Libertarian option for president has certainly had major ramifications. Among the millions of Republicans, there are certainly plenty of Donald Trump fans. However, there are undoubtedly numerous Republicans that have begrudgingly given their support to the GOP nominee. Meanwhile, there is even a group of voters that have decided they will not support Trump, if not due to policy issues, then likely because of concerns of conduct. For the straying Republican, Gary Johnson has become quite the candidate of interest. Johnson, nevertheless, has not made his religious views a major component to his candidacy or core convictions. Still, I would contest, Gary Johnson’s view of God does play an important role for potential voters. But even more personally, I would say that his view of God affects his own conceptions of governmental policy, and that many Americans find plenty of religious commonality with him.

 

For a man who supports the legalization of marijuana, gay marriage equality, and is not adamantly trying to eliminate abortion, Johnson might appear to be a thorough secularist. He has commonly been called fiscally conservative, but a social liberal. Earlier in the year, Johnson was asked about his religious views during a town hall, televised by CNN.[2] According to his own statements, he was raised a “Christian.” From that background, he admits, “if there’s one thing that I’ve taken away from Christianity,” it would be “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”[3] Johnson does not attend a church and seems to not assume the title of being a Christian anymore, but that does not mean he has jettisoned a belief in God altogether. In fact, he stated, “I have to admit to praying once in a while.”[4] Thus, he is not a Deist. When pressed specifically about his understanding of God, he said, “the God that I speak to…doesn’t have a particular religion.”[5] Judging from these statements, it would seem that Johnson holds to a form of non-institutional Unitarianism (though I’m thinking he probably would not like to be given a label). Johnson does believe in God, and prays to Him “once in a while,” but as far as his Christian upbringing is concerned, he seems to have mostly just kept his “golden rule” ethic. These ideas do not appear to be all that significant, unless they are placed in a context of Johnson’s Libertarianism.

 

Libertarianism is inherently a little tough to define because, at its core, it essentially advocates the prerogative of personal liberty. And where there is liberty, there is generally diversity. Nevertheless, most Libertarians are united under this principle of individual freedom. Libertarians also tend to dislike the oversight of the federal government, which is why they believe in keeping federal power to a minimum; hence the reason why Libertarians usually call for lower taxes, a non-interventionist military, and fewer federal laws (especially on things pertaining to personal liberty like gun rights, marijuana legalization, and the like). In other words, Libertarians would prefer that the government stay out of the way and let them live their lives. Ironically, this model of government is ideologically similar to Gary Johnson’s religious views. In both realms, the hierarchical overseer (federal government/God) generally stays out of the way. In both realms, the autonomy of the individual is of great importance, so much that little interaction is made between the person and the overseer. Because of this autonomy, institutionalism is generally bypassed (limited government/lack of church attendance). One might even say that Johnson’s religion is, in fact, Libertarian. This may cause us to ponder, do Johnson’s religious views affect his political views, or do his political views affect his religious views? Perhaps it would be best to conclude that the causal relationship is impossible to determine with certainty. More likely is that the two views, political and religious, share the common principle of having liberty with limited oversight.

 

Since religion is such a private matter for Johnson, those that are much more public with their faith may question whether or not their liberties would be retained under a Johnson presidency. It is clear that Johnson has not supported some of the recent legislation pushed in states like North Carolina regarding LGBT rights and religious liberty. However, both Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld, have stated their approval of recent legislation passed in Utah. Though I have not been able to confirm which bill they have referred to in the talks that I have heard, it is quite likely that Johnson and Weld were speaking of S.B. 296.[6] Religious liberty advocates can breathe a sigh of relief since this bill protects religious institutions from being sued over sexual morality claims of discrimination. That means BYU, a well-known Mormon university, can continue to have the legal freedom to enforce standards of sexuality (such as prohibiting students from homosexual behavior), and pastors cannot be forced to marry couples they deem inappropriate to join in matrimony. While Johnson and Weld could probably do more to ease the concerns of religious liberty advocates, they do not appear to be on the quest to hinder the free exercise of religion, preferring to try to find a balance between granting civil rights to the LGBT community and not interfering with the religious community either.

 

For questions of sexual morality, clearly Johnson holds to a pretty common Libertarian perspective, and that is that government should not prohibit homosexual behavior, or even gay marriage. I would assume that Johnson likewise would not think the same things to be immoral as well. Regarding worldview, it seems clear that the Libertarian candidate for presidency does not accept the Bible as grounds for ethics and governmental policy, and that shouldn’t be surprising since his own statements make it very clear that his religious views are unorthodox and, according to my perception, even Libertarian. But I think that Johnson’s religious views speak of something greater, namely, that his ideas of God are strikingly similar to what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”[7] Like Johnson, MTD argues that doing good to others, the “golden rule,” is the essence of religion. MTD is “therapeutic” in the sense that people can come to God with their problems when they need Him, as if He was a “divine butler,” which sounds a lot like Johnson’s prayer activity of speaking to God “once in a while.” Finally, the “D” in MTD refers to a type of Deism, meaning God generally stays out of the way of the dealings of mankind (unless He’s really needed, hence the “T” in MTD). The “D” in MTD is, of course, quite Libertarian, as inferred above. It’s no wonder that many Americans, particularly Millennials, are willing to vote third party—Gary Johnson’s worldview is so much like their own. For Americans that hold to a more orthodox and/or evangelical Christianity, they are left with the choice of figuring out if they want to form an alliance with someone who, though starkly different in theological and social views, has been successful in private businesses and as governor of New Mexico for two terms. After all, Clinton and Trump both possess several qualities that don’t sit well with many Christians. Whether or not one votes for Johnson, it looks like his views of society and government have resonated with many Americans, and as I have argued, both are derived to a certain extent from his view of God.

[1] On Trump’s conversion experience, see https://www.drjamesdobson.org/news/commentaries/archives/2016-newsletters/august-newsletter-2016 [accessed October 1, 2016]. Also, it should be noted that Trump’s statement of calling II Corinthians “Two Corinthians” may not be as embarrassing as some have claimed. When my wife traveled to England, she recalled that some Christians there also used the phrase, “Two Corinthians.” Since Trump has Scottish roots, it’s possible that he was simply speaking of the passage the way he was taught, as strange as it sounds to many American ears.

[2] http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2016/06/22/transcript-cnn-libertarian-town-hall-moderated-by-chris-cuomo/ [accessed October 1, 2016].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/SB0296.html [accessed October 2, 2016].

[7] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

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