Most voters don't care very much about Romney's Mormonism.
A survey this summer by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 60 percent of voters who know of Romney's Mormonism are comfortable with his religion. Another 21 percent said it doesn't matter.
But the Pew survey also found that, along with atheists and agnostics, white evangelicals and black Protestants are the most uncomfortable with his religion. The vast majority of those who are already Republican will vote for Romney anyway, but only 21 percent of those who are uncomfortable with his Mormonism will back him strongly. Some may choose not to vote at all.
This could spell trouble for Republicans. CBS News found that half of the voters in the 14 GOP primaries from January through March were evangelicals. Their lukewarm support for John McCain in 2008—with many staying home on Election Day and around 30 percent of their 18-29 year-olds casting votes for Obama—helped give the White House to the Democrats.
The Pew survey found evangelicals evenly split on whether Mormonism is a Christian religion. Of those evangelicals who say Mormonism is not Christian, some fear it will advance Mormonism and blur the boundaries between true Christian faith and its counterfeits. They think this election will force them to choose between the nation and the gospel.
But are these evangelicals right to think that Mormonism is not Christian?
They are right to think that the God of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is different from the God of traditional Christian orthodoxy, but evangelicals have often been wrong in their reasons for believing this.
For example, they have sometimes thought Mormons deny the divinity of Jesus. Yet the Book of Mormon says it was "the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" who was "lifted up … and … crucified" (1 Nephi 19:10).
Evangelicals also typically protest that Mormons believe in salvation by good works. Some Mormons do indeed believe this, just as many Catholics and some Protestants believe they will be saved by being good Christians. Yet the Book of Mormon teaches salvation by Christ's work of grace: "There is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah" (2 Nephi 2:8)
Mainstream Christians who condemn Mormons for teaching salvation by works sometimes forget that Jesus teaches the necessity of works as a fruit of true faith: "By their fruit you shall know them" (Matt. 7:16). "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15:14). "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).
At the same time, evangelicals have legitimate reasons to believe that Mormon beliefs are different from those of historic Christianity. For if Mormons believe Jesus is now fully God, they do not believe he was always God. Joseph Smith wrote that just as God "was once as we are now," Jesus over time grew into being God (Abraham 3:24).
The contrast with Christian orthodoxy is considerable: the Jesus of the historic church was always the second person of the Trinity, fully divine and fully equal to the Father, who in turn was always God. There never was a time when the Trinity was not fully God, each of the three Persons co-equal and co-divine. Jesus never moved from non-divine to divine, and did not gain divine attributes after not having them.There were times in his incarnation when he voluntarily "emptied himself" of some of his divine prerogatives, such as knowing the day and the hour of the end of all things (Phil. 2.7; Matt. 24.36). But these were powers which he had possessed until the Incarnation, and chose not to use while on earth in bodily form.
So, for the orthodox Christian tradition, the movement of divine attributes in Jesus is the reverse of that for the LDS view: Instead of gradually accumulating the divine nature, he always was divine. Only at a point long after the creation did he appear to have relinquished his divinity. But this was merely an appearance, camouflaging the "fullness" of deity (Col. 1:19) by a divine humility willing to forego certain privileges.
Another point of important theological difference is that Mormons do not believe Jesus is the same God as his Father. Christian orthodoxy says instead that Jesus and his Father are two persons in one God—they share the same divine substance. For Joseph Smith and the resulting Mormon tradition, on the other hand, the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are three divine "personages" or Gods amidst a "plurality of Gods," according to a sermon Joseph Smith gave just before he died. In other words, they are three different Gods. (As Mormon theologian Robert L. Millet put it, they are "beings," not persons in one being.) In that last discourse, Smith declared that the Father of Jesus has his own Father. The existence of other gods beyond the three is not in official LDS doctrine or its canon, but it is taught by LDS authorities that Jesus is one of three Gods.
Mormons also believe that Jesus is not different in nature from us mortals, but is one of our species. Like us, he started with divine potential and by his choices ended up as omniscient and omnipotent, just as we can. Christian orthodoxy in contrast teaches that the human Jesus is also divine by nature, but that we are not.
Mormons reject the Trinity and the traditional Christian doctrine that God created the world from nothing. Latter-Day Saints believe that God reordered pre-existing matter, which was eternal, into the world we now inhabit.
So Mormon doctrine is quite different from historic Christian orthodoxy on the Incarnation, the origins of Jesus' divinity, his relationship to the Father, the Trinity, monotheism, human nature, and the creation of this cosmos.
These differences must not be ignored or minimized. The Mormon views of Jesus and God are different from those of the classic Christianity. Therefore it can be said with accuracy that the Mormon Jesus and the Mormon godhead are not the ones which the mainstream Christian churches have been pointing to for 2000 years.
But if we should not ignore the differences, we must also not ignore the overlap between Mormon views and mainstream Christian views. For one thing, Mormons insist they believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
They also affirm solidly—more so than many mainstream Christians today—the moral theology which historic orthodoxy has taught for two thousand years. They believe in what Luther called the third use of the law—that God's moral teachings in both Testaments help guide Christians in making moral decisions and knowing what a faithful life looks like. They believe, with the historic church, that the Ten Commandments are not simply ten suggestions.
One more important thing must be said on this question of the relationship between Mormonism and historic Christian orthodoxy. Some of our most beloved presidents have had beliefs about God that were a long way from orthodoxy.
George Washington was a deist who usually referred to the deity in vague and impersonal terms. He never seemed to have the personal relationship with God or Jesus that evangelicals think is necessary to true faith. John Adams, a Unitarian, wrote to his son John Quincy that the idea of an incarnate God suffering on a cross made his "soul start with horror at the idea." Thomas Jefferson believed the doctrines of the Trinity, atonement, and original sin were essentially pagan, and rejected the possibility of most miracles and any bodily resurrection. Lincoln biographer Allen Guelzo reports that our 16th president also rejected the Trinity, believing hesitatingly in a "remote, austere, all-powerful, uncommunicative" God without either Son or Spirit.
So if evangelicals and other mainstream Christians vote for a presidential candidate whose theology they find objectionable, it won't be the first time.
In a May 1960 poll Gallup found that 21 percent of his respondents said they would never vote for a Catholic, even if he were well-qualified. In April 1967 after George Romney announced the formation of an exploratory committee, 17 percent of Gallup respondents said they would never vote for Mormon, even if he were well-qualified. In June of this year, an almost identical 18 percent of Gallup respondents said they would not vote for a well-qualified Mormon.
Can Mitt Romney do what John F. Kennedy did and his father could not? Can he win despite the religious opposition of nearly one-fifth of the American public?
Kennedy's election tells us something: it is possible, but the religious factor will probably make it too close for comfort.
Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College, debated Mormon theologian Robert Millet on the identity of Jesus in their book, Evangelicals and Mormons (Regent College Publishing).