Should Christians vote for a Mormon presidential candidate? That's the question many evangelicals are grappling with as the November election draws near.
While pondering the ramifications of a Mormon in the White House, some prominent Southern Baptist theologians have emphasized that whatever happens on Election Day will not affect the work of the Kingdom of God.
"The Kingdom is not riding on whatever happens on election day and the church's mission isn't going to change regardless of what happens ... on Election Day," said Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Tuesday.
During a panel discussion at the Louisville seminary, Mohler recognized that the hardest issue for many "thoughtful" evangelicals is not merely political. The question on their minds is, "What does it mean worldwide for a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to be elected president of the United States?"
The election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, in 1960 proved to make Catholicism more mainstream in American culture, Mohler indicated. Now with a Mormon, Mitt Romney, having accepted a major party's nomination for president for the first time ever, evangelicals are asking a lot of questions.
There's no question for many that Mormons make wonderful neighbors, the theologian noted. They also lead commendable and admirable lives where family is essential and caring for others is a major responsibility. But when it comes to theology, what the LDS church teaches is a "false gospel," Mohler stressed, and a belief system that would take people "to eternal destruction."
"As difficult as that is to say when you see the kindness and the fruitfulness of Mormon lives, that really raises the importance to understand that (false theology) and to say that," he added.
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
But some in the public have taken that to mean a voter can't have any concern for the religious identity or convictions of a candidate for political office. Mohler said he found that a "ridiculous reading of the Constitution."
Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, agreed, saying on the panel Tuesday that the Constitution is "talking about a religious test that's codified in law."
"It's not talking about the way individual citizens of the United States think about how they're going to cast their vote. To say you can't even consider this ... is a ridiculous reading of it," said Gilbert.
If a scientologist were to run for president, Mohler doesn't believe the public would consider that candidate's religion irrelevant.
While Christian voters consider the religious beliefs and backgrounds of a candidate and how that may affect his or her work in public office, religion also doesn't rule a candidate out.
"I heard someone in recent days say 'I would never vote for anyone who is not an authentically professing evangelical Christian," Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at SBTS, stated on the panel. "If that's the case, then as far as I can see, you have about three candidates in the last 100 years or so that I can think of that you could possibly vote for president of the United States: William Jennings Bryan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Everybody else is some kind of mainline Episcopalian or some other variant."
"The question is not John 3:16 in terms of reading the regeneration of the person's heart. The question is Romans 13 – does this person have the kind of wisdom to bear the sword on behalf of God's authority that He has granted to the state and can I trust that person to protect society?"
So the question remains: Should or can Christians vote for a Mormon presidential candidate?
Mohler's response: "I'm not sure they can but I think they will."
"I'm not sure that most American Christians are going to go through some ... sophisticated decision-making with deep theological analysis ... but they're just going to get there and they're going to realize here's a choice, it's A or B and I think on many issues it's going to be a fairly clear decision."
The SBTS president made his personal choice clear, saying, "I'm unapologetic in saying right here on this platform because of the issue of the priority of the sanctity of human life born and unborn at every point of development, for me because of the issue of the integrity of the family, I really don't struggle a great deal with how to vote."
Voting, he added, is massively important. At the same time, it's just a vote.
What evangelicals must do, Mohler advised, is separate the priestly role from government.
"In the minds of American evangelicals ... on the one hand either we expect too much or we have too many American Christians who think the Kingdom will fall or not come ... if the right political outcomes don't come. They're both horrible distortions of the Gospel," he explained.
"We have kind of migrated sloppily in our thinking towards assigning a priestly role to the political process and sometimes in our own way we baptized it as our own American religion of American Christianity. We have to recognize that that is not only a constitutional problem, that pales over against what that represents as a political problem."
In the end, the theologians believe this year's election is a good opportunity for Christians to not only tighten their understanding of the Gospel but also proclaim it.
"If a President Romney is elected, we're the people who ought to be able to say we respect and honor this man as president," said Moore, "and we're the people who are willing to, if we are invited into the Oval Office, say 'President Romney, here's where we agree with you, here's what we like about what you're doing, and we sincerely want to plead with you to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that you don't perish everlasting.'"