Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney disclosed a low-sacrifice ethic in Iowa that should raise more doubts about his qualification to be a president than his religion does.
Given that his low-sacrifice ethic matches the ethic of so many American Christians, will his low-sacrifice ethic be a problem for him?
Ethics reveal more than doctrine. Too often religious doctrine is a matter of mental assent to faith statements adopted over extended periods of time and codified as orthodoxy. Ethics, on the other hand, has more real-time value, integrity and practicality.
While many Americans and even more evangelical Christians feel most unconformable with Romney's Mormon faith, they should pay much more attention to his ethics. No, not his practiced pro-family moral values as a Mormon, but his expressed political values as a Republican.
At a town hall meeting in Bettendorf, Iowa, a woman asked Romney if any of his five sons was serving in the military. She said, "If none of them are, how do they plan to support this war on terrorism by enlisting in our U.S. military?"
Romney answered: "It's remarkable how we can show our support for our nation, and one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected [italics added], because they think I'd be a great president. My son, Josh, bought the family Winnebago and has visited 99 counties, most of them with his three kids and his wife. And I respect that and respect all of those in the way they serve this great country."
Driving a family Winnebago in Iowa to elect one's father is a political act. It qualifies neither as an act of patriotism nor an act of sacrifice. It should never be compared to what the nation's military personnel are doing in Iraq.
Yet in defense of their father, one Romney boy weighed in.
"The military is a voluntary thing," said Tagg Romney, a Harvard Business School graduate. "I've got a ton of respect for those who do it and make a huge sacrifice for this country."
Apparently, he respected sacrifice so much that he decided not to emulate it.
"If I was ever called upon to serve my country, I wouldn't think twice," he added. "I would be there in a heartbeat."
A few days later on Fox News Sunday, Romney clarified his remarks. "I didn't mean in any way to compare service in the country with my boys in any way. Service in this country is an extraordinary sacrifice being made by individuals and their families," he said. "There's no comparison. I'm very pleased and proud of my boys and the help they're doing for their dad, but it's not service to the country. It's service for me. And there's just no comparison there."
Romney was right to correct his misstatement, which came after he was criticized.
The problem with his correction is that what he first expressed probably reveals what he really feels. No doubt about it, he's a war hawk if other children are the war fodder. More positively put, he has a low-sacrifice ethic.
Romney is far from alone, however. The Republican Party is full of those who are enthusiastic about the war as long as someone else's children, brothers, sisters or parents are being killed, maimed or mentally stressed out.
When blogger Max Blumenthal visited the College Republican National Convention, he found numerous war cheerleaders who had numerous excuses for why they were not in Iraq--asthma, bad knees, medical reasons, personal reasons, educational reasons. Pro-war college Republicans disclosed a low-sacrifice ethic.
Republicans are far from alone with a low-sacrifice ethic, however.
American Christians have a low-sacrifice ethic--big time.
Abortion is a low-sacrifice issue for many Christian Right leaders, costing them nothing personally and gaining them the false perception of being pro-life.
They stomp around in Sunday sermons condemning abortion. They demonize those who defend the right to abortion, damn those who provide abortions, denounce women who seek abortions and demand a culture of life. But at the end of all the thunderous moralizing, they have made no sacrifices. How many have adopted children, for example? Certainly some of the loudest anti-abortion Southern Baptist leaders have not adopted children.
One exception on the political wing of the Christian Right is Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who has adopted two children. He and his family are a noble exception to the rule of low-sacrifice.
Christian Right leaders are far from alone with a low-sacrifice ethic, however.
Moderate to liberal denominational leaders issue a steady stream of press releases about their concern about poverty, but take few political risks to work for public policies that provide universal health care or a living wage or better funding for public education. Their organizational budgets disclose miniscule commitments to clean water projects, HIV/AIDS programs and primary education initiatives.
How is it that moderate to liberal Christian leaders have such a low-sacrifice ethic?
Jesus didn't teach a low-sacrifice ethic. The early church didn't practice a low-sacrifice ethic. Many of the heroes of the faith didn't live a low-sacrifice ethic. Many of our parents and church leaders didn't model a low-sacrifice ethic.
On the contrary, Jesus taught, the early church practiced and heroes of faith lived a high-sacrifice ethic. Many of our parents and the best of our childhood church leaders disclosed a high-sacrifice ethic.
What has happened to so many American Christians? What are the roots of our low-sacrifice ethic? How can we reconnect with authentic faith?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.