(The following post is by Brandon Morgan. It does not necessarily express the views held by this blogger. (Of course, I wouldn’t post it here if I didn’t think it raised some very important questions.) And it does not imply endorsement of any candidate or party.)
A Republican candidate being asked to give the commencement address at Liberty University is no surprise, especially given that the university is the ‘altar’ school where the marriage between conservative evangelicalism and neo-conservative American politics occurred and is continually bolstered. No one is shocked. But this time is different since the Republican candidate for the presidency is a Mormon.
As a young Christian, I attended a very conservative independent Baptist school and was taught often that Mormonism was a heretical perversion of the Christian faith and should be fought against with rigorous biblical apologetics. The main issue in that context was the manner in which Mormon’s added authorized texts to the biblical canon as a strategy to justify their theological beliefs. The theological differences regarding Christology and the Trinity were not mentioned at all, as they often are today in setting off Mormonism as a deviation from creedal Christianity. It was simply that they read the Bible “wrong” and “added” other texts to the canon, which, among other things, positioned the belief system for being named a Christian heresy. This judgment should be no surprise given that all conservative evangelicals are strong biblicists and solidify their theological positions on strict literal interpretations of Scripture, which in this particular case, finds Revelation 22.18-19 rather helpful. It condemns those who would add to or take away from the Bible and reneges on their share in the “tree of life and the holy city” (read salvation) who would attempt such a pursuit. I cannot count how many times this verse was used in my conservative Christian upbringing to ward off ‘cult-like’ additions to the biblical canon like those claimed to be found in Mormonism.
I retell this story, not as an entrance into the ongoing debate about the theological differences between Christianity and Mormonism, but in order to isolate just one biblical apologetic strategy used in conservative evangelicalism to distinguish Mormonism from Christianity. I do not agree with the argumentative strategy, but simply describe it as a test case in how biblical literalism furnished the tactics required for conservative Christians to distinguish themselves from Mormons who, apart from obvious theological differences, actually took up, and continue to take up, similar social and political causes related to the institution of the family and, therefore, Republican party interests.
I find this biblical-apologetic strategy of interest because it serves to insinuate the ways in which conservative Christians actually recognized the need to ‘set apart’ Mormons as ‘deviant’ simply because they often looked alike within the social-political sphere. In short, the theological differences between conservative evangelical biblicists and Mormons at one time made all the difference, and often still does, in whether or not to accept Mormons as a part of the Christian faith. The similarities in social and political issues were never mentioned in my ‘education’ in the ‘cult-countering’ apologetic strategies, though they were prevalent. They never needed to be mentioned because every political candidate that ran on the Republican ticket (the only correct Christian choice, I was then taught) had always been a Christian during my life and often felt the need to pander for conservative evangelical votes as a way of recognizing the intricate relationship between conservative Christianity and neo-conservative politics. None of this has changed since my grade school years except that now the Republican candidate pandering for conservative evangelical votes is ironically a Mormon, a belief system always blasted as a ‘cult’ among the very voting block seemingly needed the most. Such ‘cult’ language was even used by FBC Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress early this primary season in the Republican debate circuit as a strategy to again differentiate between the Christian, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and the Mormon, Mitt Romney. It was Jeffress’ claim that he would vote for Romney, despite his Mormonism because he believed that his principles were true while the principles of the Christian Obama was false, that sparked my interest in the present phenomenon of re-evaluating the relationship between conservative Christians and the supposed ‘religious’ underpinnings of voting for Republicans. Romney’s candidacy and his address at Liberty University further this re-evaluation.
What seems to be occurring now in conservative evangelical circles is a process of discerning shared principles that both conservative Christians and Mormons hold within the political and social sphere. No one is surprised by these similarities, which rest on typical appeals to ‘family values.’ But the strange fact is that no one seems to discern the divergent theological claims that would naturally lead to ‘family values’ talk. In fact, most theological divergences between Christians and Mormons are avoided altogether in order to properly discern similar social concerns, which always find their nexus in traditional Republican claims about abortion, homosexuality, the free-market, and foreign policy. The ‘similarities’ are found within the political sphere, more specifically the Republican sphere, so as to alleviate the obvious theological differences that continually separate conservative Christians and Mormons from each other. Romney’s appeal to the ‘religious’ claims about marriage between males and females, for instance, is a way to persuade conservative voters, like those from Liberty U, to see him as an ally. Likewise, his claims in his commencement address about America’s ‘religious’ founding also serves to isolate the similar ‘mythological’ view that many conservative Christians and Mormons have about the foundational ‘Christianness’ of America.
Many more examples of this strategy of discerning the social-political similarities between Mormons and Christians could be shown. But my point here is to suggest a somewhat radical alteration that has occurred in typical ‘religously’ minded voting within conservative Christian circles. I suggested earlier that biblical-apologetic strategies of differentiation were rampant within my conservative Christian grade school upbringing because the social and political similarities between Christians and Mormons could often be deceptive. The ‘truth’ was in the biblical and doctrinal differences, which needed to be articulated to show that Mormonism was a ‘heresy’ or ‘cultic deviant’ belief system. But now that a Mormon has won the Republican candidacy, the strategies are reversed. The theological and biblical differences are pushed to the side in order to isolate the social-political similarities. That is how a Mormon like Romney can give the commencement speech at Liberty. There simply are no theological reasons why such an invitation would ever be allowed at Liberty. Its occurrence seems to be reliance upon the common presupposition that conservative Christians vote Republican for seemingly ‘religious’ reasons and Romney happens to be a ‘religious’ Republican who shares in social-political values that conservative-Christians value. Nothing about Christian beliefs and Mormon beliefs are referred to other than a blanket appeal to God’s (whose God?) ‘election’ of America as the new Israel—a true Christian heresy in its own right.
My question about all this is: given this state of affairs, can it be claimed with integrity that conservative Christians’ criteria for voting in a consistently conservative way subsist in any ‘theological’ or specifically ‘Christian’ criteria. In short, will not conservative Christians have to give up the claim that they vote with Christian ideals in mind when, in fact, they choose to vote for a Mormon, a group often deemed ‘cult-like,’ over Obama who is a Christian (though perhaps not a conservative one)? Since it is now impossible to claim that a Republican’s political viewpoints reside in his uniquely ‘Christian’ sensibilities, what is revealed is the possibility, perhaps always waiting to be shown, that conservative Christians vote according to neo-conservative political criteria and not uniquely Christian ones. More specifically, what is at stake, and perhaps has always been at stake, is a political ideology and not actually getting a “Christian” into office. Yet the strategy here, as in the past, is to make the Republican political ideology into Christian principles—to amalgamate both into a single religio-political ideology. This strategy, however, must now include Mormonism.
The irony about the Romney candidacy and his Liberty commencement invitation, not to mention his strategies to show the political-social similarities between himself and his needed evangelical votes, is that perhaps many conservative Christians will have to include Romney as a ‘Christian’ in principle, though perhaps not in practice, while excluding Obama as a Christian in principle, despite his claimed commitment in practice. The fact seems to be that Romney, and maybe Mormonism in general, will have to made into a “Christian” through being inducted into the religio-political ideology just mentioned in order to justify voting for him. What, of course, seems to be lost here, and perhaps was always an illusion, is any actual Christian theological claim as an evaluative criteria for political involvement. This is possibly fortunate because it may show that people do not, and maybe have never, actually voted according to their theological belief at all, despite the claims to be doing so. Such beliefs are cast aside for the sake of common conservative principles that will at least defeat the Democrats, if nothing else. Nevertheless, these could be unfortunate realities, if true, because it again alleviates important Christian beliefs, like that oneness of God, the Incarnation of God and God’s Trinitarian life to do any social-political work. It is simply assumed that such particularity serves absolutely no evaluative means to discern what being a Christian citizen, over against the citizenries of the world, could mean. Christianity as a social reality is shown to have never actually been what was at stake in Christian political involvement. What is at stake now is the establishment of common principles to alleviate the lingering separateness between Christianity and Mormonism in order to solidify the needed justification for conservative Christian votes. No doubt our Enlightenment-schooled founding fathers would be proud, though not for the reasons some would assume.