I find myself confused a lot these days. (And all the readers said, "Amen!")
For instance, I used to think I understood the interplay between religion and politics. When I was a religion reporter for the Herald-Leader in the 1990s, I wrote numerous stories about church-state issues.
Whenever there was a Kentucky gubernatorial race, to cite one example, I'd go out before the primaries and interview all the candidates about their religious backgrounds, their theological views and how their faith affected their policies.
After a while, the interviews got predictable to me because the candidates' answers more or less were ideologically consistent.
In Kentucky, hardly any candidate ever admitted to being irreligious (with the notable exception of Gatewood Galbraith, who described himself, on the record, as a pagan; I've liked him ever since, for his good-humored candor if nothing else).
Mostly, though, the candidates all loved Jesus so, so much.
As I said, no real surprises there. Those who were politically conservative tended to be religiously conservative, too. Those who were politically moderate (there being no full-bore, self-avowed liberals in Kentucky politics) tended to be religiously moderate.
These days, however, I can't tell what's going on sometimes.
The Rev. Robert Jeffress's pronouncement that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is "a cult" left me scratching my head. Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, backs Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president.
I wasn't surprised by the "cult" remark itself. I've heard that all my life. Whether or not it's true, I can't say.
I've met a few Mormons. They've all seemed like decent, well-meaning, family oriented folks. And notably clean. I don't mean morally clean, although I'm sure they're that, too. I mean just-bathed, smelled-good, every-hair-in-place, no-gravy-on-their-ties, clean.
Then there's Donnie and Marie. It's hard to picture those two dancing naked around a maypole or conjuring up demons with a Ouija board or chanting Hare Krishna in an airport. Donnie and Marie, cultists? Wow, I hope not.
Still, if I didn't learn anything else as a good Baptist child, I learned that the road to hell is packed 10-deep with nice, well-meaning folks who smell pleasantly of Old Spice.
No, what surprised me was that Jeffress also strongly implied Perry's status as a true Christian made him better presidential timber, and seemed to suggest voters ought to hold Romney's Mormon faith against him when they stepped into their polling booths.
Stay with me here.
This surprised me because, if it's true, it would make Jeffress, a religious conservative, also a constitutional liberal.
He seems to think the U.S. Constitution is a fluid document, open to reinterpretation and second- guessing. For crying out loud, Jeffress might turn out to be an ideological brother of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Who would have dreamed it?
Not me. I didn't see that one coming. Whoosh. Right by me.
Normally, political and religious conservatives present themselves as constitutional literalists. A few actually wear copies of the Constitution around their necks on chains the way other people wear crosses. I kid you not.
Some despise liberalism and humanists and whatnot in part because they think the United States was divinely founded, and that the Constitution is almost as sacrosanct as the Bible. Liberals, they say, want to twist the Constitution and relativize it and modernize it.
Then Jeffress comes along and implies that voters need to weigh Perry's evangelical orthodoxy and Romney's Mormon membership when it comes time to vote.
The Constitution says, in Article VI, Section III, that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Maybe Jeffress would argue that he wasn't proposing an official, binding test that would bar Mormons from office. I don't think he was. Yet he was proposing the next thing to it.
Or maybe I'm mixing apples and oranges. Maybe I'm just daft again.
But I'll tell you, the guy threw me for a loop.
Clearly, the Founding Fathers thought a candidate's religion shouldn't qualify or disqualify him. What should matter is his ability to do the job better than the other candidates.
To me, Jeffress was saying it's sort of un-Christian to vote for a candidate whose faith Jeffress doesn't approve of, when another candidate is a born-again Christian. The born-again qualification trumps all others.
And if that's what he meant, then wasn't Jeffress also saying, directly or indirectly, that the Founding Fathers and their Constitution were wrong? Wasn't he saying we shouldn't take them at their literal words? Wasn't he questioning their divine inspiration?
Oh, my head hurts.