Robert Millet, professor of ancient Christian Scriptures at Brigham Young University, and Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College, are co-authors of Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate, to be published in September by Brazos Press. The book discusses a wide range of topics, including how to understand the biblical canon, the Book of Mormon, the Trinity, faith and works, and other theological subjects. Here they ask how much the theological divide between Mormons and evangelicals should matter when considering a Mormon candidate's presidential campaign.
As we enter the summer, Mitt Romney remains the most conservative among the top three candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. But can Romney get the votes of evangelicals, whose support is essential to winning the nomination?
Romney is attractive to evangelicals for a number of reasons. Unlike Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, Romney is clearly conservative on both social and fiscal issues. He talks about the need to protect traditional marriage and is opposed to abortion on demand and stem-cell research. He was also a successful venture capitalist who, after running his own company, rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics from financial disaster. Furthermore, Romney can claim political success. As a conservative governor in liberal Massachusetts, he eliminated an inherited deficit and pushed through major healthcare reform.
Some analysts say Romney's social conservatism is very recent and politically motivated. They point out that in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney proclaimed support for Roe v. Wade and promised he would not change the state's abortion policies. In the same year, he endorsed RU-486, an abortion-inducing drug.
Romney says he has had a true change of heart. If so, he is not the first governor-turned-presidential-candidate to have changed his mind on abortion. Ronald Reagan signed a liberal abortion law for California and later said he regretted it.
But evangelicals are reluctant to vote for a Mormon. Historically, evangelicals and Mormons have demonized each other. Evangelicals consider the Church of Latter-day Saints to be a cult and typically think Mormons are not real Christians.
Evangelicals accuse Mormons of adding new revelation (the Book of Mormon) to the Bible. They think Mormons teach that humans are saved by good works rather than by Jesus Christ, and that humans are of the same species as Jesus and can someday attain his status. In addition, evangelicals say, Mormons reject key Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and creatio ex nihilo (God creating the world out of nothing).
Yet America has a history of electing presidents with religious beliefs outside the orbit of traditional Christianity. George Washington was a deist who usually referred to the deity in vague and impersonal terms. Thomas Jefferson believed the doctrines of the Trinity, atonement, and original sin were essentially pagan and rejected the possibility of miracles or resurrection. John Adams also denied the Trinity, along with most orthodox Christian doctrine, while holding to a Stoic-like resignation to fate. Abraham Lincoln and his wife attended séances, and William Howard Taft was a Unitarianwhich means he rejected the deity of Christ.
Besides, Mormon beliefs are not as un-evangelical as most evangelicals think. Unlike Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons hold firmly to the deity of Christ. For Latter-Day Saints, Jesus is not only the Son of God but also God the Son. Evangelical pollster George Barna found in 2001 that while only 33 percent of American Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists agreed that Jesus was "without sin," Mormons were among the "most likely" to say that Jesus was sinless.
Most evangelicals would also be surprised to learn that the Book of Mormon contains passages that teach salvation by the merits and grace of Christ ( "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) and others that require personal trust in Christ for salvation, such as 1 Nephi 10:4-6: "All mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer."
Of course there is still doctrinal distance between Mormons and evangelicals. But this has not stopped important evangelical leaderssuch as Richard Land, the late Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Chuck Colson, and Cal Thomasfrom saying that these doctrinal differences should not by themselves disqualify Romney from a presidential nomination. As Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine, put it, "If he faces Hilary Clinton, I'll vote for him in a Utah minute."
He and other evangelicals who like Romney's experience and positions say that they are looking for a Commander-in-Chief, not a theologian-in-chief. In this sentiment they echo Martin Luther, who famously said, "I would rather be governed by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian."
Robert Millet, professor of ancient Christian Scriptures at Brigham Young University, and Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College, are co-authors of Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate, to be published in September by Brazos Press. "Speaking Out" articles are not editorials and do not necessarily represent the views of Christianity Today.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints include:
Q&A: Hugh Hewitt | Conservative blogger, political analyst, and radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt on Romney's bid for the White House. (February 27, 2007)
Latter-day Complaints | Mormons and evangelicals fret over movies, politics, and each other. (July 1, 2006)
Weblog: Ravi Zacharias, Rich Mouw Speak in Mormon Tabernacle | Plus: Couple attempts to sacrifice children at church altar, the new head of the Catholic bishops' conference, a focus on Dobson, and other stories from online sources around the world. (November 1, 2004)
Mormon scholar under fire | Anthropologist says Latter-day Saints' teaching wrong about Native Americans. (March 1, 2003)
Mormon Film a Lesson in Telling Faith-Based Stories | Little Secrets avoids theological lectures but delivers an engaging story. (November 18, 2002)
Mere Mormonism | Journalist Richard Ostling explores LDS culture, theology, and fans of 'crypto-Mormon' C.S. Lewis. (February 7, 2000)
A Peacemaker in Provo | How one Pentecostal pastor taught his Congregation to love Mormons. (February 7, 2000)
The Mormon-Evangelical Divide | Beliefs that set Mormons apart, and evangelicals' response. (February 1, 2000)
The Mormon Story | Once the most persecuted faith in the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has emerged as one of the fastest growing and most influential religious groups in the country. (Books & Culture, November 1, 1999)
Article VI Blog, "Discourses on The Constitution Religion Public Office," has been discussing Romney's bid for the presidency.