Romney's rise brings attention to Mormonism and a battle over the language
Published: 08 May 2012 11:08 PM
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be excused if they wince upon hearing from non-Mormons how nice they are. That faint praise is often followed by criticism, some of it ill-informed.
As the stage is set for the possibility (I’d be happy to say likelihood) of our first Mormon president, unprecedented attention will be paid to the LDS faith, which brings positives and negatives.
The positives include a lesson millions of Americans will get in what Mormons do and do not believe. There was some attention directed at this in 2008, when Mitt Romney was a strong candidate. But as the actual Republican nominee, he will usher his faith into an unprecedented spotlight, as millions ask questions about a religion they may have no familiarity with.
Learning is inherently good, but with it comes a tug-of-war, as competing interests rush into the vacuum to score points.
Much has been made of some faction of fundamentalist Christians who seek to denigrate Mormonism as a cult. This may be the most exaggerated slice of the American population since activist Mitch Snyder’s 6-million-homeless scam.
Do some people express disregard for Mormons? Sure, as there are those who speak ill of other faiths for reasons of mere “differentness.” The actual number of people with overt hostility to Mormons is as small as it should be in a society that stresses religious tolerance.
As for the cult designation, there is an academic theological definition that arguably applies, as in a group deviating significantly from the orthodoxy of a faith yet retaining many of its basic precepts.
But most voices identifying the LDS church as a cult seek merely to insult it. The church’s defensiveness against this is as understandable as the Jewish community recoiling against anti-Semitism.
As Mormons properly seek to protect the reputation of their faith, many make an unreasonable demand as evidence of tolerance: They require a definition of Mormonism as just another form of Christianity. The prospects of an LDS president will only increase this pressure.
For those making that argument, the bad news is that it will not work. The good news is that it does not matter.
Definitions do not exist to make people feel better or worse about themselves. They exist to make things clear. Christianity, as a term, has a definition that embraces various denominations following the same Bible and only that Bible.
If a thoroughly well-meaning sect devised another entire holy book based on appearances by Jesus in Europe or Asia, adding beliefs that differ broadly on the status of Jesus and the details of the afterlife, are those people still followers of Jesus? Yes, they are. But are they Christians? Most would justifiably say they are not.
The LDS faith teaches of Jesus in North America, a story Mormons have every right to believe, along with the right to have that belief respected in a pluralistic society.
But they cannot expect that most Christians will view Mormonism as just another denomination, like Lutherans or Methodists. The differences are theologically sharp and unreconcilable according to biblical teaching.
But as Romney makes his push for the presidency, I consider his magnificent values and life story to be far closer to my values than the teachings ladled out in Barack Obama’s supposedly Christian church — that America-bashing cauldron of racial hatred lorded over by the poisonous Jeremiah Wright.
Ultimately, I would have no problem with a Jewish president, who would not even share my belief that Jesus is the son of God. Christian differences with Mormonism are smaller than that and ultimately play no part in my vote. As we practice proper deference toward one another’s beliefs, no one should be pressured to sacrifice clarity on the altar of empathy.
Conservative talk show host Mark Davis is on Twitter at @markdavis and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.