Mitt Romney served as a Republican governor of a highly Democratic state. He turned around the nearly bankrupt Salt Lake City Olympics. And in the early going in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney, who hails from a successful political family, has shown the ability to smoothly and convincingly speak to the country’s frightening economic challenges, exuding executive experience and financial competence. Clearly Romney, who was unsuccessful in his attempt at the 2008 nomination, has earned his position as one of the GOP’s frontrunners.
Yet Romney’s impressive (albeit imperfect) professional resume will never convince a huge chunk of the country’s citizens to vote for him—including many evangelical Christians. Nor will anything else he says or does during the primary season or—if he gets that far—the presidential campaign. And this is not just because of disagreement with his political policies—that accounts for some of it, but not all. What’s the other reason?
Mitt Romney is a Mormon.
According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 34 percent of evangelicals recently said they would be less likely to vote for someone who is Mormon. This is virtually unchanged from a Pew 2007 survey, when Romney first attempted to secure the nomination.
It goes without saying that evangelical Christians constitute a significant percentage of the Republican electorate (though of course many evangelicals are Democrats and independents, too). If Romney is unable to win over evangelicals (identified in this survey as white, non-Hispanic Protestants who describe themselves as “born-again or evangelical”), then he is likely to fail again in his bid to become president.
The question, then, is whether we evangelicals ought to base a vote against Romney (or, for that matter, fellow Republican candidate Jon Huntsman) on the fact that he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And we need to consider the consequences of our answer to that question.
Of course, Martin Luther, the great German Protestant Reformer, is believed to have said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.” In other words, Luther (assuming he really did say it) would have preferred an intelligent Muslim in charge of the government over an incompetent Christian. This principle speaks to the fact that the government is not the same as the church, and that, at least in some cases, competence trumps ideology.
This reminds me of something Christian author and radio host Hugh Hewitt told me the first time Romney ran. “I’m not looking for a pastor,” Hewitt said. “I’m looking for a president.”
Few who feel discomfort with a Mormon in the Oval Office, however, would put the matter so simply. They are not looking for a national pastor, either, but someone of character whom they can trust. Many question whether someone who believes in Mormon teaching qualifies on that score. After all, for decades in our evangelical subculture, Mormonism has been classified as a cult. And the idea that a cult member could have the key to the nation’s nuclear briefcase is scary, to say the least.
Certainly the traditions and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints give Christians legitimate cause for concern. The founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist who shunned orthodox churches. For over a hundred years the LDS church excluded blacks from its membership and priesthood. Smith taught that there is a plurality of gods and that God is married, that He was once a man as we are, and that Jesus Christ is not a member of the Trinity.
It’s no wonder that in 2001 the Roman Catholic Church ruled that converts from Mormonism must be re-baptized. Former Mormon and active evangelical apologist Gregory Johnson rightly says that although individual Mormons may have saving faith in Christ, “Mormonism does not legitimately receive the label Christian.”
Yet there have been some interesting developments in recent years. Between 2000 and 2009, evangelical and Mormon leaders held 17 intensive dialogue sessions, discussing everything from theological differences to the touchy issue of outreach. Johnson and LDS professor Robert Millet have held 58 public dialogues together and co-authored books talking through areas of agreement and difference between the Mormon church and evangelicalism.
Standing Together, a coalition of 90 evangelical churches in Utah, received LDS approval for a revival meeting in September 2009 at the Salt Lake City Tabernacle. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias also was invited to preach there in 2004.
Richard Mouw, a leading proponent of the Mormon/evangelical rapprochement, downplays some of the doctrinal difficulties in the LDS church. Mouw says some of the un-Christian theology of Smith “has no functioning place in present-day Mormon doctrine.”
Glenn Beck, the well-known radio talk show host who is also a Mormon, has declined to highlight the many fundamental doctrinal differences between Christians and Mormons in his call for an American revival. At his Restoring Honor rally on the National Mall a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Americans—many of them Christians—turned out. Sharing the platform with Beck were numerous members of the Christian clergy. They didn’t endorse Beck’s Mormon faith, but they did support his call to moral seriousness at a time of national crisis.
Christians can and should find common cause with Mormons in addressing some of society’s pressing moral issues. During the heated 2008 battle in California for Proposition 8, for example, Mormons took a key role in keeping the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.
Mormons and evangelicals must continue as co-belligerents in the unavoidable culture war in which we find ourselves. States David French, who heads the Alliance Defense Fund’s campus religious freedom project, “The LDS commitment to core values is one that betters our country, without question.”
Leftists know this instinctively, which is why the Pew survey found that political liberals are actually the group most opposed to a Mormon candidate (41 percent). If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” holds true in the rough-and-tumble world of American politics, then such a statistic ought to give pause to evangelicals who would reflexively vote against a Mormon—any Mormon.
While Article VI of the Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing a religious test for office, there is no law against citizens taking all relevant facts into account—including religion. Certainly some religious beliefs ought to be suspect. A candidate who held to the Raelian UFO cult, for instance, would, ipso facto, be disqualified in my mind. The question is, does Mormon faith or LDS membership fit that category?
Mormon doctrine, in my view, is a confused and deceptive counterfeit of Christianity and pulp science fiction. Anyone—even a smart man such as Mitt Romney—who believes it automatically raises a doubt in my mind. Yet we ought to judge people who hold to a faith not just by its official doctrine but also by how they actually live it. We might discover new insights using this kind of patient hermeneutic.
And we evangelicals need to be extremely careful. Many members of the cultural elite dismiss Bible-believing Christians as cult members themselves, forgetting that Judeo-Christian principles were key to the founding of the Republic. New York Timesexecutive editor Bill Keller charged, “Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity . . . which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.”
It makes sense to find friends where we can. And, as in any election, we need to consider the alternative.
In religious matters, then, Mormons must remain the objects of our compassionate evangelism. But in matters political, I think we can keep an open mind.
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