Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Doesn't Matter . . .and Why it Does.

In case you have been living under a rock for the past five years and aren't already aware of it, one of the Republican candidates for President is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Yep, Mitt Romney is Mormon, and that fact has quite a few in the evangelical community really upset. Romney's Mormonism has also brought out others on the Republican side who simply don't understand why anyone should be so upset, because they see little if any difference between Mormonism and Christianity.

Both groups have it wrong.

Of course, Romney's religious views became an issue in the last election cycle as well, and many pundits believe it could have played a role in his primary defeat at the hands of Arizona Senator John McCain. ( I wrote about this issue here.)But this time around, the issue rose again after Texas Governor Rick Perry was criticized for his association with Pastor Robert Jeffress, who unequivocally refered to Mormonism as a "cult." To be sure, many evangelical Christians agree with Pastor Jeffress that Romney should not be a candidate for President because he is Mormon. I just don't happen to be one of them.

For one thing, Article VI of the US Constitution clearly says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Needless to say, I think the office of President fits this description.

Additionally, one need not be an evangelical Christian in order to be an effective leader. Conversely, just because someone claims to be evangelical does not mean they are capable of leading a nation. Martin Luther expressed this sentiment best almost 400 years ago when he claimed "I'd rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian."

With all this in view, I'm disturbed to find many of my fellow evangelicals repulsed at a Presidential canddiate merely because of the religion with which he is associated. Mitt Romney's close association with the LDS church has little relevance to how well equipped he may be to defend our country against foreign and domestic enemies, or write and pass a cogent and effective energy policy, or get our struggling economy back on track. So I am disturbed that so many would forget the lessons we learned from John F. Kennedy's presidency almost a half century ago, and allow a man's religion to be the single issue that turns them against him.

Still, as disturbed as I am by this angst against a Mormon candidate, the response by Romney supporters who claim to be evangelical Christians disturbs me more.

A Baltimore Sun article on Sunday stated that Perry's campaign, in response to Pastor Jeffrees' statements "distanced itself from [his] remarks." And how did the Texas governor, who is himself a vocal evangelical Christian, "distance" himself? By explicitly stating that "Mormonism is not a cult."

Salt Lake City, we have a problem!

That problem, of course, is that Mormonism has about as much in common with historic, orthodox Christianity as does Hinduism. In one sense, evangelicals might actually have more in common with Hindus, since Hindus don't worship as many gods as the Mormons do. If that sounds like an over-the-top statement, consider briefly the origins and theology of "Latter Day Saint Christianity."

Founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, Mormonism is based on three extra-Biblical sources, The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, all of which were authored by Smith. In particular, the Book of Mormon is based on a series of "visions" given a 14-year-old Smith by an angel named Moroni. Although there is precisely zero archeological or historical evidence for this claim, Mormons cling tightly to the belief that in the book of Mormon, Smith answered two questions that were at the forefront of 19th century American life: Which of all the Christian denominations is correct, and what is the origin of the Native Americans?

During his encounter with Moroni at his family farm in Palmyra, New York, Smith answered the first question by saying of the various denominational expressions of the Christian church that "they are all wrong, and their creeds are an abomination in God's sight." As a result of this experience, Smith saw himself as one called to restore "true Christianity" to the earth. But the "Christianity" he subsequently spread was very odd, to say the least.

Where God is concerned, Smith taught that our Creator was no more than a highly exalted man. "As man is," Smith claimed, "God once was; as God is, man may become." In essence, Smith taught that God was not God from eternity past, but instead had advanced himself to the state of deity, and created human beings to follow after this pattern. In the face of texts like John 4:24, Mormonism teaches that God has flesh and bones, just like His creation, and that human beings, through "eternal marriage," can live forever in dominion over their own world, as gods over their own planets. Though they deny it today, it was Brigham Young himself who advocated the worship of and prayer to Adam as a god.

The tricky part of all this, of course, is that Mormons utilize much of the same Biblical language that their evangelical counterparts are familiar with. They speak freely of Jesus, salvation, and even atonement. But while their vocabulary sounds identical to ours, their dictionary gives very different definitions of those terms.

To have salvation, for example, one must not only believe in Jesus (who is not God, but instead the first "spirit baby" of God the Father and Mary), but must also submit to Mormon baptism, receive the ordinances of the temple, and perform good works. Faithfulness to these teachings of course, results in "becoming as God is."

Much more could be said here, but suffice it to say that when one looks at the totality of Mormon beliefs, it is clear that they do not embrace a Biblical view of any major Christian doctrine and therefore, they cannot be counted as "Christian."

Such a statement is a hard pill to swallow when one looks at the way 21st century Mormonism has reinvented itself in the eyes of the public. They are experts in public relations, and have successfully presented themselves as mainstream. Popular business leaders like Steven Covey and Bill Marriott, and powerful politicians like Orrin Hatch are openly Mormon, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has become an American institution, having been invited to perform at Presidential inaugurations. Brigham Young University is today the largest private institution of higher education in America, with a student body of more than 30,000. Moreover, the church has grown to over 10 million faithful followers in more than 150 countries. They certainly don't look like a cult.

Which brings us back to Mitt Romney. The former Massachussets Governor is seeking the Republican nomination for President, and in the process, is trying to assure the American people that his membership in the Mormon church will not negatively affect his performance as President. I believe him. But such is not the same as saying that I believe in Mormonism, and the call for "tolerance" that minimizes these differences and as a result compromises the clear Gospel of Jesus Christ must be answered loudly and clearly.

A Politico article released just today quotes Romney, alongside popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, calling on Governor Perry to "repudiate" the remarks of Pastor Jeffrees and deny that Mormonism is, in fact, a cult. In other words, if Governor Perry desires to be "tolerant," he must turn his back on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This isn't tolerance. It is pure insanity!

Once upon a time, "tolerance" was what helped adherents of various faiths to coexist with each other. It was rooted in mutual respect, and grounded in the firm belief that "forced conversion" is in fact, no conversion at all. Such is exactly the kind of tolerance that forms the root of Article VI of our Constitution. It is why a person's religious beliefs should not be a litmus test for the office of President, or for any other office at the federal level.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of "tolerance" that is being promoted by Governors Romney and Christie. The "tolerance" they speak of is one in which major differences about God, Jesus, Salvation, heaven, hell, and all other things of eternal importance should be minimized, or altogether erased. Yet, no honest person who examines the clear teachings of Mormonism can come to the conclusion that it is compatible in any way with the teachings of Jesus. Romney has the Constitution, Article VI, to protect him from religious discrimination. Allowing him to hijack Christianity in the process is not only unneccesary but dangerous.

Luther was right. A wise Turk makes a better leader than a foolish Christian. What the Romney campaign is ignoring however, is that a Turk is still a Turk. The fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon does not, in itself, disqualify him from holding the office of President. It does, however, mean that he cannot accurately be called "Christian." If these distinctions cannot be adequately maintained, then ardent evangelicals may deny what our Constitution clearly states. But if the "tolerance" we must have is defined in the way Christie and Romney define it, we may lose Biblical Christianity altogether.

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