There has been quite a lot of discussion about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. How serious is his Mormon faith? Does his faith influence his politics? Should Christians vote for a Mormon for the highest office in the land? Would people become more interested in the LDS faith if Romney becomes president?
These questions have been discussed and debated throughout this election cycle. People have not necessarily fallen into predictable patterns in their views. Ben Stein has called Romney’s faith a “worry.” Progressive Tony Jones has written a piece called, “Mitt’s Mormonism Matters: Considering a Candidate’s Faith.” Jones expresses concern that Christians, such as Billy Graham, seem willing to set aside their convictions in order to vote for a Mormon. Here is how Jones puts it:
“If, for instance, you think that a presidential candidate is a long-time member of a cult, then that could very well lead you to vote for the other candidate. What it should probably not do, however, is lead you to reconsider whether that candidate’s religion is a cult — that determination should be made independently of the current election cycle.”
While I do share Jones’ principle concern, I don’t think the election is what has caused people such as Billy Graham to reconsider their views. Rather, it’s the election that clarified changes that have been going on for some time. I took a Ph.D. seminar last year on comparative religions and it became very clear to me that sociologists, as well as many Christian apologists, have been moving away from calling Mormonism, and other new religious movements, as cults for some time. For one, “cult” has historically referred to the LDS Church but also to Doomsday cults such as followers of The Peoples Temple and Branch Davidians. It’s clear that these groups have more differences than similarities to Mormonism and cannot both be simply categorized as cults without serious qualification.[i] Second, some Christians have concluded that calling Mormonism a cult doesn’t help inter-faith dialogue. My Mormon friends all agree.
This is one reason why Romney’s faith doesn’t bother me. I haven’t seen Mormonism as a cult for some time. This is not to say that I think Mormonism is a genuine branch of Christianity. I have written elsewhere about the key differences between Mormonism and Christianity. Despite what Jones suggests, I (and many other evangelicals) have not changed their views on Mormonism because of the current political milieu. Rather, the elevation of Romney as the Republican presidential candidate has cleared the way for a clarification of what we have believed for some time about the nature of Mormonism.
Politics is a less consequential reason why some evangelicals have supported Romney than many think. The important issue is his values. Yes, his Mormon faith does influence his values. But one cannot say, “Romney is a Mormon, therefore he must believe X.” After all, Harry Reid is also a Mormon, and he has been one of Romney’s most vocal critics on a myriad of issues!
This is also true for Christians. Jimmy Carter was a “born again” Christian. And so was George Bush. And yet their views on foreign policy, abortion, the environment, and most other issues were diametrically opposed. I can’t speak for other Christians, but I would undoubtedly rather have a non-Christian candidate who shared my values than a Christian candidate who did not.
It is certainly true that Romney is a serious Mormon. He has not tried to hide this fact. Romney’s great-great-grandfather was Parley Pratt, a Mormon apostle who had twelve wives. His great-grandparents were polygamous Mormons who moved to Mexico because of anti-polygamy laws in the U.S. He took his two-year mission to France, in which he acknowledged that his faith “became much deeper” as a result of his missionary experience. Romney is a “temple Mormon,” which means he is in good enough standing with the LDS church to engage in temple activities. For a good description of Romney’s Mormon faith, as well as an in-depth analysis of Mormon beliefs, see What Mormons Believe.
Romney is a committed Mormon. So, how could this not bother me? I do recognize the concern of some Christians who fear a Mormon in the White House would give some legitimacy to Mormonism. This may be true to a degree. But has the election of Keith Ellison (D-MN) to Congress given legitimacy to the truth of Islam? I have not heard any stories of people converting to Mormonism because Romney became governor of Massachusetts or Harry Reid became the Senate Majority Leader.
There are two reasons why Romney’s faith doesn’t bother me. First, his candidacy has brought Mormonism into the national dialogue. It’s a good thing to have people discussing whether or not Mormonism is Christian. I’d rather have people talking and debating rather than ignoring the issue. Second, Romney strikes me as pragmatically driven rather than ideologically driven. He has a considerable public record in Massachusetts and with the Salt Lake City Olympics, both of which suggest he has little interest in using politics to advance his Mormon faith.
While Romney's faith (and really any candidate’s faith) is an important part of judging their worldview, values matter much more. I judge a candidate not by skin color or religion, but by values. That’s why Romney’s faith doesn’t bother me.
[i] The bottom line is that if we’re going to call Mormonism a cult, we need to carefully define our terms and make sure others understand them as well. There is such disagreement and confusion over the nature of a cult that I’ve found it generally unhelpful to characterize Mormonism that way.