Romney's Mormonism is a positive in campaign

Posted: October 15, 2012

Robert Benne is the author of "Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics"

Gerald R. McDermott is coauthor of "Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries"

Evangelicals who have had concerns about Mitt Romney's Mormonism, and who make up a large portion of Republican voters, should consider Romney's religion a positive in this election.

One of their concerns has been that Mormonism is non-Christian. Some fear that it would advance the Mormon Church 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.

Are they right? Simply put, no. There is no Mormonization of America coming, and, in fact, though there are differences, the basic values of both Mormons and mainstream Christians are in sync.

The God of the Latter-day Saints is different from the God of traditional Christian orthodoxy. Mormons reject the Trinity and the traditional Christian doctrine that God created the world from nothing. Latter-day Saints believe that God reordered eternal preexisting matter.

Though Mormons believe that 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 (the church's Book of Abraham 3:24). 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 and never will be.

Nor do Mormons believe Jesus is the same god as his father, as Christian orthodoxy proclaims. For Smith and the resulting Mormon tradition, the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are three divine "personages," or gods, amid a "plurality of gods," according to a sermon that Joseph Smith gave just before he died. In that last discourse, Smith declared that the father of Jesus was his own father.

Should these differences in belief matter politically for evangelicals? Martin Luther did not think so. Commenting on the politics of his day, Luther proclaimed, "I would rather be governed by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian."

The realm of politics for Luther was not the realm of the church or salvation, for which refined theological distinctions were crucial. Politics deals with penultimate matters, where Christians are on equal ground with non-Christians when it comes to good judgment. Non-Christians have the capacity to exercise political virtues - common sense, practical reason, reflection on experience, prudence - as well as Christians. A wise Turk could possess good practical reason and prudence, while a foolish Christian might lack them.

Furthermore, qualifications for elected office have much more to do with political virtues, ideology, and worldly values than they do with refined theological beliefs. Luther would not have been upset that many of the Founding Fathers were deists and non-orthodox Christians. After all, he would say, we are electing political leaders, not bishops. Bishops are called to defend the faith; presidents are not. Politicians operate in a different, but not God-abandoned, realm. They are to make sure the nation is secure, that its economy is robust, and that justice is guarded and pursued. For Luther, wise Turks and deist Founding Fathers - and competent Mormons - could do that.

Some Americans, however, fear that a Mormon president would do what the Founding Fathers did not: impose a particular religion on the rest of us. They suspect that Mormons have theocratic tendencies, desiring to use politics to promote their own religion. After all, Mormons in their founding decades spoke of building Zion in the West.

But an interesting shift took place around the turn of the 20th century. Instead of developing a social or political ethic that would give them a blueprint for social transformation, they focused on individual agency and responsibility on the one hand, and private charity on the other. They now spend an inordinate time on the formation of their young and in taking care of their own in the areas where they are strong. The only issues that seem to bring them as a church into the political realm are those having to do with marriage and family life.

So evangelicals and other Americans need not fear a Mormon theocracy. And, truth be told, Romney's religion should be attractive to evangelicals and other classical Christians because of its connection to traditional moral values, which are right in line with those of evangelicals. On social issues such as abortion, marriage, sexual ethics, the traditional family, religious freedom, respect for authority, and public decency, Mormons and evangelicals are peas in a pod. Add to that the Mormon commitment to patriotism, free enterprise, fiscal probity, and private charity - and you have a marriage made in heaven.

So should Romney's Mormonism be politically significant for evangelicals? No and yes. No, if they think Romney's religious beliefs are unorthodox and will lead to the Mormonization of America. But yes, if they note the congruence between Mormonism's religiously based moral values and those of classic Christianity.

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