Recently, the volatile question of Mormon participation in the political life of the country at the highest levels, namely presidential campaigns, reached the boiling point once again.
The occasion was a Baptist pastor answering a theological question with a theological answer his secular political reporter interrogators simply did not have the cognitive grid to assimilate and understand accurately. Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, was asked by reporters after he had introduced Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., if he believed Mormonism was a cult. He gave a theological answer, which is that Mormonism is a cult.
When the theologically uninitiated hear this answer they immediately think “Branch Davidians” or “Jim Jones,” and there is a cognitive disconnect. When most people hear Mormonism described as a “cult” they think, “No, that can’t be right. A Mormon is president of my Rotary Club or coaches my children’s soccer teams.”
The problem is that while Mormonism may technically be a cult theologically, in that it has moved well beyond the parameters of orthodox, apostle’s creed Trinitarian Christianity, it does not behave as a cult culturally or socially. Most people would tell you that Mormons are solid citizens and among the nicest and most moral people they know.
The problem is exacerbated by the “self-definition” culture in which we live, where people claim the right to define themselves without objective parameters. When orthodox, Evangelical Christians say, “Mormons aren’t Christians,” that is heard as intolerance by large segments of our culture who think, “If they want to call themselves Christians, who are you to tell them they’re not?”
For nearly two millennia the basic Trinitarian formulation of the Christian faith has been accepted by Catholics and Protestants alike and it is not open to self-definition or reformulation. Christianity has objective, theologically defined parameters which Mormonism has clearly moved well beyond.
Perhaps a more positive and helpful way to describe Mormonism is that it is a new religion – perhaps best described as the Fourth Abrahamic religion – the first three being Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this formulation, Mormonism would be analogous to Islam with Joseph Smith analogous to the prophet Mohammad and the Book of Mormon analogous to the Koran.
Mormonism is a new religion and not a particular branch of the Christian faith. A significant majority (75 percent) of Protestant pastors do not accept Mormonism as “Christian” (LifeWay Research, 2011).
How much better would it have been had Dr. Jeffress, recognizing his audience, said, “Perhaps it would be better to see Mormonism as a new religion, separate and distinct from the historic Christian faith?” My guess is taking the word “cult” out of the discussion for his secular audience would have made the story a much lower profile one in the news and would have generated considerably less heat and more understanding.
Some may think that the issue of the Mormon faith of presidential candidates has been, or will be, laid to rest when and if Mitt Romney becomes the Republican presidential nominee. This is an erroneous conclusion. Most Evangelicals who attend church on a regular basis understand the basic tenants of the Mormon faith and how they differ from the doctrinal teachings of orthodox Christianity. They have been taught about Mormonism by their pastors who have seen it as their duty to inoculate their flocks against Mormonism. And, knowing Mormonism’s belief system, at least four-fifths of them are prepared to vote for Romney when the alternative is President Obama. Even Pastor Jeffress himself said he would vote for Romney in a general election campaign against President Obama.
However, the vast majority of the 40 percent or so of the American public who identify themselves as “Independents” (and who decide every American presidential election) have only the most cursory understanding of the truth claims or belief system of the Mormon faith. If, and when, Gov. Romney becomes the Republican nominee, the major broadcast networks, all of whom but Fox have abandoned any semblance of objectivity on political matters, will be airing specials going into great detail on the beliefs of Mormons. While they will say they are doing this in the public interest, informing voters about Mormonism in light of the nation’s first Mormon nominee for president, their real reason will be much different. Since they are so invested philosophically and emotionally in the re-election of President Obama, they will be hoping that Mormonism’s beliefs will be exotically new and different enough to Independent voters that many of them will conclude that they sufficiently question the judgment of someone who believes such things that they will not entrust that candidate with the presidency.
When the press comes at Gov. Romney full tilt concerning his Mormon faith, if, and when, he becomes the nominee, he needs to impose a rigid self-discipline upon himself and his team. Under no circumstances should he allow himself or his campaign to be enticed into defending Mormonism. President Kennedy never defended Catholicism. He defended the right to be a Catholic and run for president.
Being asked to defend one’s faith beliefs does not belong in an American presidential campaign. Romney should turn this against the press and portray them as the bigots who are trying to introduce religion into a presidential campaign.
He should tell them unequivocally that it is un-American to raise such questions in a political campaign. If they want to know his stance on issues, they should ask him or contact his campaign. If they want to know the tenants of the Mormon faith, they should contact Salt Lake City.
The Mormon faith of Mitt Romney, if he is the GOP nominee, will be a severe test of whether Americans really believe in the religious pluralism we espouse in America. Martin Luther is reported to have said that he would rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian. Do American voters agree with the great Protestant Christian leader? Many Americans of both parties would say we have already had incompetent Christians in the White House.
If a voter agrees with Gov. Romney on the issues and believes in his competency, then will he or she vote for him over a less competent opponent or one whose policies the voter does not share? One would be hard pressed to find a good reason for a voter not to vote for Gov. Romney in such circumstances.