On Mitt’s Mormonism, Are Evangelicals Witnessing Christ?

On Mitt’s Mormonism, Are Evangelicals Witnessing Christ? January 4, 2012

Many socially conservative evangelicals in Iowa, concerned about the prospect of a Romney presidency, and encouraged by organizations like The Family Leader and the Iowa Family Policy Center, coalesced at the last possible moment behind Rick Santorum.  Even if it was not the “landslide” for Santorum that the Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats had predicted, it was a clear indication of the discomfort many social conservatives feel when it comes to Mitt Romney.  Santorum had, for months, drawn support beneath 5% in Iowa.  After these endorsements, and as social conservatives deserted Gingrich (having crossed Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich off the list already), Santorum’s support edged sharply upward in late December and he reached roughly 25% of the caucus vote.  Roughly half of caucus-goers decided for whom to vote in the final few days; of that number, 23% chose Mitt and fully 34% chose Santorum.  32 percent of evangelicals, and 48 percent of those who ranked abortion as the most important issue shaping their vote, chose Santorum.

So, I promise that my next post will not be about politics.  But we need to consider: What are our obligations here as believers?  And what kind of witness are we giving the world to the grace and truth of Christ?

To be clear, I do not believe that evangelical distrust of Romney is entirely due to his faith. That’s a caricature.  There are other, understandable reasons why evangelicals question Romney’s social conservatism.  (I’ve addressed the abortion issue here.)  But we need to consider whether we’re responding to his Mormonism in a godly way, because Mitt’s Mormonism is a part of the evangelical response to his candidacy.

Being involved both with Patheos and with Evangelicals For Mitt, I’m in a good position to witness this.  When I published (as a part of a multi-perspective conversation on the issue) Warren Cole Smith’s “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church,” it evoked outrage from Mormons but also support (some of it beneath the table) from some conservative evangelicals.  When Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a “cult” and warned that evangelicals should prefer someone of their own faith, there was a fair amount of support (again, some in the open and some beneath the surface) in conservative evangelical circles.  And over the weekend I received a submission from a respected professor at a respected Christian university arguing that Evangelicals should not support a candidate whose religion is “openly hostile” to theirs, and that electing a Mormon would legitimate Mormonism in the public eye and put the salvation of many souls at stake.  I also, as a member of Evangelicals for Mitt, receive love letters like this one (edited for length), entitled “You’re NOT Evangelical!”:

I certainly don’t want someone who sees himself as “a god” who will one day rule his own universe, ruling this nation.
It’s about having AN INSTRUMENT OF SATAN in the White House.
Evangelical, my foot…
I wonder how much Mitt is paying you to be his shill.
You, like Judas, have betrayed your alleged Master FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY.

Letters like this are, at most, mildly disturbing (if EFM received money from Mitt Romney, I wouldn’t be driving a beat-up car from 1996!), but the founders of EFM (David and Nancy French) have also received anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night threatening violence upon their family.  Letters and phone calls like these, of course, do not represent evangelicalism as a whole.  But there is an ugly side to this, and it presents a horrible witness to the world.

Put yourself in Mormon shoes for a moment.  Imagine that you have been raised to see Mormonism as thoroughly Christian, indeed a uniquely faithful recovery of original Christianity.  You’ve fought alongside evangelicals and Catholics against abortion and same-sex marriage.  And now you find evangelicals arguing that Mormonism is a cult and no Mormon can be considered for the presidency, and going to extraordinary lengths to organize against a candidate of your religion partly because of his religion.

I’ve done my best to address the arguments.  In “Is it bigotry to oppose a candidate on religious grounds?“, I actually come down in defense of the view that it’s not necessarily bigotry.  I would not be willing to vote for a Satanist, and I would have an awful hard time voting for a New Atheist.  I don’t think it’s necessarily bigoted to consider a candidate’s religious beliefs, because those religious beliefs tell us something about a person and about his values and thought processes.  There are some bigots who oppose Romney simply because they intensely dislike Mormons.  There are others who are honestly misled by the likes of Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults and various anti-cult websites that provide ridiculously caricatured pictures of Mormon beliefs and practices.  And there are others who oppose Romney because they fear that his election would fuel the growth of the LDS Church, or because they fear his Mormon beliefs would make him unsuitable or unreliable in the White House.  So the question is: Are those persuasive concerns?

So I asked, “Would a Romney Presidency fuel the growth of Mormonism?”  Some evangelicals are genuinely convinced of this; I don’t question their sincerity.  They say: electing a Mormon would legitimate what has been, until now, a marginal religious group in American life.  People who never took Mormonism seriously will investigate it.  Some will be deceived — and this places their eternal souls in jeopardy.  My view is: there’s no evidence that the election of any President has swayed the American people in favor of his religious affiliation; there’s hard evidence that Romney’s first candidacy did nothing to change public opinion about Mormonism; theologically, I believe the Election of God is infinitely more powerful than the public relations efforts of men; I believe that Mormons as such can be saved, even though I feel that official Mormon theology is deeply mistaken on some deeply important matters; and I think evangelicals should not fear people learning more about other religions.  In the current world, it’s inevitable.  And how people respond to other religions is between them and God.

Finally, I asked, “Would Romney’s Mormon beliefs make him a bad President?”  Some have argued that Romney’s commitment to Mormonism (1) shows that he is something less than fully rational, especially when it comes to matters of history, and (2) would make him subject to the authority (and the “continuing revelation”) of LDS leadership.  I don’t really know Romney’s views on the historical claims of the Mormon religion.  I find some of those historical claims incredible.  But even if he believes them wholeheartedly, it’s not hard for me to understand how an entirely rational person can be raised within a particular belief system, and even investigate its beliefs and read its apologists, and find that belief system coherent and convincing.  And Mitt has been clear that he will act in the interests of the nation and according to his political philosophy, not at the beck and call of the Mormon leadership — and his record supports him on this point.

It should also be stated that many evangelical leaders — from Chuck Colson of BreakPoint to Jim Daly of Focus on the Family to Franklin Graham — have opposed the idea that evangelicals should disqualify Romney on the basis of his Mormonism.  And I believe evangelicals will ultimately support Mitt Romney against Barack Obama.  But there remains a portion of evangelicalism that disagrees with Colson, Daly and Graham, and that is deeply uncomfortable with candidate Romney — at least in part — because of his Mormonism.

So let me issue a plea.  I am an evangelical.  I believe in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ; I believe that the grace of God in Christ is the only basis for the salvation of the world; I believe that each of us should cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who is God made manifest in the flesh and the redeemer of those who take refuge in him; I am committed to the authority of scripture.  But I am deeply concerned that evangelical opposition to Romney, on the basis of his faith, has presented a poor witness to the world.

I don’t mind it when the world criticizes evangelicals for believing what they ought to believe and doing what they ought to do.  But I do grow concerned when my fellow evangelicals present a caricatured view of Mormonism, when they nastily criticize evangelicals who support a Mormon for the presidency, and when they show something less than the extraordinary charity and grace that Jesus showed to those whose beliefs differed from his own.  Right now, many Mormons are showing in their actions that they are moral, loving, hard-working, patriotic people.  And right now, unfortunately, some evangelicals are showing in their actions that they are uninformed, ungracious, and more “us against them” than “let us reason together.”  Again, some of my friends raised legitimate concerns, and legitimately are concerned about them.  For others, I fear the arguments are cover for their personal dislike of Mormonism and Mormons.

So please, if you must oppose a Mormon because he is a Mormon, do better.  Do it with a massive, meticulous commitment to the truth.  Do it with an equally extravagant grace, love and humility.  And don’t simply assume that because you believe Mormonism is wrong or weird, that you must oppose a Mormon candidate for the presidency.

Show that you’ve done your homework — not proof-texting Mormon beliefs on the basis of obscure nineteenth century Mormon figures, or even pulling together non-canonical comments from the likes of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, but really looking at the current, modern, official teachings of the Mormon church.  Moreover, show that you understand how those comments — and how the Mormon scriptures — are interpreted by the present-day LDS church.  And show in your words and deeds that you’re speaking out of concern for the truth and concern for souls, not out of prejudice and suspicion of those who are different.

The world is watching — and rightly or not, it will judge the evangelical proclamation on the basis of the actions of public evangelicals.  Again, consider these questions: What are my actions witnessing to the world?  And what are they witnessing to Mormons?  If you don’t like the answers to those questions, then perhaps you should reconsider what you’re saying and doing.

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