“Mitt Romney’s a good moral person, but he’s not a Christian.” –Pastor Robert Jeffress.
“When Mormons seem to be so nice & have good family values, what makes them wolves in sheeps clothing?” –A questioner on Yahoo! Answers.
“We can have a lot of fun at the Mormons’ expense because there’s stuff in their religion that may seem silly to outsiders . . . But these are really nice people who believe what they do wholeheartedly.” –“South Park” and “Book of Mormon” Co-Creator Matt Stone.
In my almost six-year-long journey as an “Evangelical for Mitt” I’ve been told a few things with almost numbing repetition and certainty: First, Mormons are “nice people” with “good values.” Second (and by extension), Mitt Romney is a “good family man.” Finally — and emphatically — evangelicals should never obscure their opposition to the LDS church and it’s “false gospel.” In other words, Mormon morality was the obligatory and cursory compliment before the decisive theological blow. Mormon morality was presumed, and so was Mormon apostasy. But over the years, as I got to know more Mormons, spent more time in scripture, and experienced more of the dysfunctional world of American evangelicalism, something about this message simply wasn’t adding up.
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I grew up in the churches of Christ, autonomous fundamentalist congregations born out of the American Restorationist Movement in the Second Great Awakening. The message of the restorationists was relatively simple: the pure Gospel message had been distorted and destroyed by the denominational churches. Convinced that creeds divided and led to apostasy, one of the core slogans of the historical church of Christ was “No creed but Christ.” Concerned that a thousand years of Christian teaching and tradition had led believers astray, the church of Christ looked to the Bible alone (more specifically, the New Testament) for wisdom. Many times I heard the statement: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.”
The founding fathers and leaders of the early church of Christ, men like Alexander Campbell and David Lipscomb, led a movement that ultimately became radically Arminian, truly sectarian, and functionally deist. In other words, salvation was entirely a matter of individual choice, only those who chose to join the church of Christ would be saved, and God’s supernatural interference in the Earth’s affairs had almost entirely ceased. This left members of the church in quite a fix: salvation was earned by their choices, God would not aid church members in making the right choices, and any choice other than the church of Christ led to damnation. Salvation was easily lost. Youth ministers (“pastor” is not a word the church of Christ uses) regaled teens with the story of the poor damned girl who died driving to her baptism. My wife, the very week after her baptism, “went forward” after church to confess the sin of uttering a mild curse word — a sin she was convinced (and she was taught) was a mortal stain on her formerly-redeemed soul. Suffice to say, moral purity was highly recommended.
For me, there was one tiny little problem that theology: I didn’t believe it. In fact, my church made me angry. One fifth grade Sunday after enduring yet another lesson about the damnation of my Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian friends, I grabbed one of the Bibles from my parent’s shelves and started reading. And kept reading. (I’d like to say that I read it as voraciously as I did Lord of the Rings, but that’s not quite right). When I finished reading, I turned to my parents and made a declaration: I wasn’t going back to Sunday School until my teacher apologized for telling me that my Christian friends were going to Hell. The core of my legal case was Romans 10.
My teacher apologized. In writing. A young lawyer was born.
I think it was two years later when our pulpit minister disappeared. Well, he didn’t really “disappear,” he just vanished from the pulpit — he ran off with the church secretary. Three years later my first youth group friend “came forward” to confess her pregnancy. By high school graduation, our youth group’s behavior was indistinguishable from my public high school classmates, except we were fantastic a cappella singers. As the “good kid” (it’s amazing how devotion to Dungeons & Dragons and science fiction can act as a firewall for teen purity), I felt more of an outsider in my own church than I did in my public school.Needless to say, I left the church. But I never left Christ. In His infinite mercy, he taught me about grace, he gave me the eternal security I never thought I’d feel, and I realized I can do nothing without Him. In other words, He empowers and enables all that is good in my life.
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Why the autobiographical diversion? Because God and virtue are not separate. In the first 22 years of life, I lived and breathed a culture and theology that placed absolute importance on moral purity — a moral purity that could (and must be) obtained without God’s divine help — but that same culture reeled from its own failure. I left the church of Christ just as hundreds of thousands of its members cried out for something different, a Gospel of grace, not works, and a God who lives, not a historical figure who wrote the rules and then departed this world. And by God’s grace, the church of Christ is changing, with congregation after congregation springing to life, a truly new life.
I made my first Catholic friends in law school (yes, that late) and was deeply moved by the depth of Catholic teaching combined with the vital reality of the Holy Spirit in their lives (it turns out that the Spirit of God was moving throughout the last 2,000 years). When I first darkened the doors of a Presbyterian church it was — with all due apologies to John Denver — like coming home to a place I’d never been before. And what about those crazy pentecostals? Nancy became a Christian in David Wilkerson’s church in Times Square, and I spent six of the best years of my life at Trinity Assembly of God in Georgetown, Kentucky.
If scripture and life have taught me — clearly and unmistakably — that Christ enables virtue, what then can we say about the LDS church? Is it right to so quickly say, “they’re moral people, but . . .” with such certainty? Are we not taught “By their fruits you shall know them?” Are we not also taught that “fruits” in fact come from the Holy Spirit. Yet we so quickly dismiss those “good” and “moral” Mormons in spite of manifest virtues that my fellow Presbyterians should envy. Who has the lowest divorce rate in America? Yes, Mormons who marry Mormons. Who gives more money to charity than evangelicals? Mormons (Utah is our most charitable state). Evangelicals talk a lot about young people serving God (and some go on short mission trips), but Mormons — well, who hasn’t met a Mormon missionary?
Does this mean that Mormons are Christians because of their good works? No, of course not. We are saved by faith, not by works. But the presence of abundant fruit means that those of us in the evangelical world, an evangelical world that is overrun with pornography, divorce, and infidelity, should perhaps be a bit more humble in our judgments of our Mormon friends and neighbors.
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Twenty years ago this fall I was very far from home, sitting in a law school dorm room hallway, and defending myself from a raging attack from my secular left classmates. They were mocking my faith, mocking me, and mocking my family. I felt very much alone. A door opened and a 3-L walked out, our RA. He sat next to me and proceeded to give his own testimony of faith, speaking of his love for Jesus Christ in words far more moving, far more eloquent than I could ever craft.
My RA? A Mormon.
Four years ago, Nancy had the enormous privilege of spending months working with Ann Romney on an as-yet unpublished book project. She came away from that experience calling Ann her “Mom mentor,” an agent of God’s grace who taught her how better love and serve our family (she even started making pancakes every Saturday for breakfast, though sadly using Bisquick more often than Ann’s recipe). The lessons Nancy learned from Ann have enriched our lives in very real and meaningful ways.
In case you didn’t know, Ann Romney is a Mormon.
During that same time, I had the privilege of serving my country in Iraq with the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment. We had exactly two LDS members in our 780-man unit. One was my paralegal. The other? My roommate. When my wife organized an effort to send care packages to every single member of my unit, more than 2,000 packages arrived. Where did they come from? Most came from Tennessee (my home) and . . .
Who is a Christian? God knows who has called on His name. If, however, we are told that we know a tree by its fruits, perhaps we need to have more respect for the Mormon spruce. And maybe, just maybe, our comments about Mormons shouldn’t begin with, “They’re good and moral people, but . . .”
Instead, how about, “They’re good and moral people, and . . .”