Evangelicals and Romney: Should Theology Matter?
As an American, a Republican, and a fiscal and social conservative — and though I have endorsed no Republican candidate — there is one thing that would disturb me greatly if Mitt Romney were not the Republican nominee: if Romney’s Mormon faith were a factor in his defeat.
Many evangelical leaders have said that if Romney is the Republican presidential candidate, they would not vote for him in the general election. What is implied — and sometimes explicitly stated — is that his Mormonism prevents them from voting for him in the primaries.
Most evangelicals label Mormonism a cult, and many accuse Mormons of being dishonest for calling themselves Christians.
Let me explain where I’m coming from on this issue. First, all I care about with regard to the forthcoming election is that a Republican wins. It is difficult to see how the United States could survive as anything but another Europe between Mexico and Canada (while Europe itself is not surviving as Europe) with another four years of the most left-wing president in American history. Just the prospect of Barack Obama appointing one or more Supreme Court justices should focus every non-leftist’s mind.
Second, as a Jew, I have no religious pony in this race. I believe that American Christianity has been the greatest force for good in the modern world and that evangelicals are at the core of America’s backbone. And I have enormous respect for Mormons. Third, none of my favorite candidates — Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, for example — are running. So I do not write this column on behalf of Mitt Romney or against Newt Gingrich.
Having said that, let me offer three observations on Mormonism and evangelical views of it.
Observation No. 1: Regarding Mormonism being labeled a cult, my study of religious history has taught me that just about every religion is seen as a cult in its formative years by the religion from which it sprang, or it gets labeled a cult by the older religion in order to delegitimize it. Jews and others regarded Christianity as a cult in its early years. Sunnis regard Shiites as a cult. The Catholic Church saw the early Protestants as a cult, while Protestants regarded the Roman Church as a cult. And Christians regarded the early Mormons as a cult.
Over the course of time, as a religion establishes itself and its members act more or less like members of the older religions, the charge is usually dropped. Jews hardly regard Christianity as a cult, and few Catholics or Protestants regard the other as members of a cult. After nearly 200 years, Mormons are an integral part of American society, with impressive reputations for family life, integrity and other values. The “cult” label just doesn’t seem appropriate.
Observation No. 2: I may be mistaken, but I believe that what most annoys evangelicals (and some other Christians) about Mormonism is that Mormons call themselves Christian. In order for Jews to better understand evangelicals — and for evangelicals to better understand Jews — I think there is a parallel here.
The vast majority of Jews understand that in a free society, people convert to other religions. Therefore, some Christians convert to Judaism and some Jews convert to Christianity. What particularly annoys Jews is not the existence of converts but the existence of “Jews for Jesus.” To most Jews, this is a misleading label because people who come to believe in Christ should call themselves Christian, not Jews.
So, too, in the view of most evangelicals, if people wish to believe in the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the prophecy of Joseph Smith, that is their business, but to call these and other distinctive Mormon beliefs “Christian” bothers many evangelicals. Of course, Mormons respond that a religion that calls itself The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can hardly be dismissed as non-Christian. But it is not my interest here to adjudicate this debate. I only wish to offer one reason that evangelicals might be disturbed by Mormonism calling itself Christian.
Observation No. 3: Most importantly, theology and values are not the same thing. Traditional Jews and evangelical Christians have quite different theologies, but they often have virtually identical values. (That is why this Jew is so supportive of evangelicals and why evangelical Christians syndicate my radio show.) Conservative Catholics and evangelicals differ on theology but share virtually every important value. The Founders differed on theology but rarely on values.
It is hard to identify any area of life in which Mitt Romney’s values and life differ in any way from the finest evangelical’s values and life. And with regard to electing a president, that is what matters.
What I am asking here is that evangelicals and other traditional and conservative Christians who have problems with Mormonism not allow those problems (however legitimate they may be from the perspective of Christian theology) to play a role in their primary voting or in their general election voting if Mitt Romney wins the nomination. The fate of America and the world hangs in the balance.
In other words, fight the left now. You can fight theology later.