Robert Jeffress, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who supports Texas Governor Rick Perry for president, provoked a predictable uproar this month when he labeled the Mormon faith of one of Perry’s rivals, Mitt Romney, a non-Christian “cult,” and suggested that Romney’s beliefs should disqualify him for Christian support.
Jeffress was widely censured for his intolerance, but ritualized condemnation won’t stop such anti-Mormon eruptions between now and next November should Romney win the Republican nomination.
One reason why is that Mormonism isn’t, in fact, Christian. Today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t resemble a cult in any meaningful way. But its relationship to Christianity is similar to Christianity’s relationship to Judaism.
Christianity grew from Judaism, but it soon distanced itself in fairly dispositive ways (that whole business about God having a son, for example). Mormonism reached escape velocity from Christianity virtually at the moment of its creation. Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me that in his view, most Mormons are “socially and culturally Christian,” but theologically they are a thing apart.
Just so we’re clear, I couldn’t care less whether Mormons are Christian, for two reasons: 1) I’m Jewish, so both Christianity and Mormonism (not to mention Islam) are a bit too arriviste for my taste; and 2) religious tests for public office are profoundly un-American. It says so in Article VI of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
The New York Sun noted in a recent editorial that “the religious test clause is the most emphatic statement in the entire constitution. ‘No … ever … any,’ is the way the Founders put it.” It’s perfectly American to support for public office qualified Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Lubavitchers and Druids, and even -- perish the thought -- atheists. (Although we will sooner have a Wiccan as president than a self-declared atheist, except if that atheist has a plausible jobs plan.)
Neither does Mormonism offend me aesthetically. I don’t particularly care about what secular culture -- on Broadway and off -- sees as evidence of its essential ridiculousness: the early dalliance with polygamy; the belief that every righteous Mormon gets his own planet; the sacred underwear; the off-putting absence of both acne and irony among Mormon youths. Christians believe in a virgin birth, after all, and members of my faith remove the foreskins from 8-day-old boys, just as our Bronze Age ancestors did (which bothers me not at all).
Mormons themselves contend that “Christ is at the center of our worship, study, service and faith,” as a statement released by the church after Jeffress’s comment put it.
But theological honesty demands that we recognize that Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.
There is much in Mormonism that stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, including the belief that the Book of Mormon completes the Christian Bible. Christianity had an established creed about 1,500 years before Joseph Smith appeared in upstate New York with a new truth, codified in the Book of Mormon, which he said was revealed to him by an angel named Moroni.
“The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed settled the basic ideas of Christianity,” said Michael Cromartie, an evangelical who is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “The canon was closed, and then Joseph Smith comes along and says that there’s a new book, an extra-biblical addition to the agreed-upon canon.”
An Ontological Gap
Nothing in Mormonism is quite as alien to Christian thought as the core assertion that God and man are of the same species.
“This is a canonical belief of Mormons, and it stands in radical opposition to the beliefs of the monotheistic religions,” Richard J. Mouw, the president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in California, told me. “Your people” -- that is, Jews -- “and my people would say that the fundamental sin here from the biblical point of view is that God is God and we’re not. There’s an ontological gap between creator and creation.”
Mouw, who is a leader in the deepening dialogue between evangelical Christian and Mormon theologians, said he believes that many Mormons are moving toward more Christ-centered modes of worship. The Mormons who, in the Salt Lake City vernacular, tend to “go planetary” -- who embrace some of Mormonism’s more idiosyncratic folk beliefs -- are dwindling in number. But Mouw said he isn’t ready to accept Mormonism as branch of Christianity.
What Really Matters
How much does this theological dispute matter? Among Republicans, probably not that much in the end. Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, suggests that evangelical voters are pragmatic, and highly motivated: “Do not underestimate Barack Obama’s ability to unite social conservatives around a candidate,” he said.
But here’s a prediction: If Romney wins the nomination, we will see a rush of anti-Mormon propaganda -- generated by secular liberals, not evangelicals. Anti-Romney leftists, the sort of people who would be loath to utter an unfavorable word about Islamic doctrine, will expend a great deal of energy and money bringing to light the most peculiar aspects of Mormon theology and practice, in an effort to convince evangelicals that the man leading the Republican Party is a harebrained heathen.
When confronted by such questions about his religion, Romney shouldn’t defend its doctrines. He should defend the right of a Mormon to be president. And those Mormons drafted to defend their faith on the political battlefield shouldn’t argue that they are merely misconstrued Christians, a claim that won’t fly with pivotal Christian constituencies. Instead, they should assert that theirs is a legitimate and moral system of belief, and that a country that elected a black man named Barack Hussein Obama as president is certainly ready to elect an adherent of what Land calls the fourth Abrahamic faith.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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