Evangelicals to Romney: You Can’t Claim the Lord (He’s Ours!)

Several stories have been published of late advising Mitt Romney on the strategy of dealing with his religion in the presidential race. The advice is unsolicited, mean-spirited, and premised on half-truths, but at least it’s free. Several writers and sources are now urging Mitt Romney to be very careful about the common ground he tries to stake out between Mormons and Christians for purposes of connecting with the broader evangelical audience. “I told him, you cannot equate Mormonism with Christianity; you cannot say, `I am a Christian just like you,”’ says Bob Inglis, R-S.C., one of the lead sources in both stories. “If he does that, every Baptist preacher in the South is going to have to go to the pulpit on Sunday and explain the differences.” (By the way- ever seen a candidate to whom others were so desperate to give advice? It’s almost become a pundit parlor game these days).

Despite the unpleasantness of this counsel, there is little doubt that Bob Inglis is right. If Romney were to try to equate his Mormonism with mainstream Christianity, he’d have a problem on his hands. Evangelicals don’t want to be told they’re identical to a church they’ve railed against for years. And, though it may come as a surprise to many outsiders, Mormons are similarly nonplussed about rhetoric that morphs them into just another non-distinctive mainstream Christian church. If Romney were to erase the lines dividing these groups, he’d risk the ire of both, and needlessly.

The differences between mainstream Christianity and Mormonism are substantial, and neither group has any interest in ignoring them. Mormons follow modern prophets and believe in modern revelation; they view their church as a divinely instituted restoration of ancient Christianity with exclusive authority to officiate in God’s name. You can see how it might be disingenuous to say that Mormonism is just like Lutheranism and Methodism and all the rest, given that it claims to pull rank on them all.

So the problem with the above-mentioned stories is not in their insistence on Mormon differences. It is in how far they take those differences. For instance, the Bloomberg story quotes Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family as being relieved to find that, despite his fears, Romney didn’t turn the Massachusetts Governor’s Mansion into a Mormon Temple. Wow. Because, you know, every other Mormon in politics, business, law, the arts, etc. turns every place they inhabit into a Mormon Temple. The mind boggles at this kind of juvenile prejudice.

Even worse, Richard Land, the now-ubiquitous commentator on the evangelical zeitgeist, is quoted as follows: “When [Romney] goes around and says Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior, he ticks off at least half the evangelicals. He’s picking a fight he’s going to lose.”

You heard right- be careful who you tell about your conversion to Jesus- for many people, apparently, them’s fightin’ words. Coming from an intelligent and usually moderate mind, this statement sounds surprisingly close to naked bigotry. Is Richard Land really suggesting that evangelical nation would deny to Mitt Romney the ability to claim Jesus as his savior? It’s certainly not a theologically suspect claim– evangelicals preach that Jesus is everyone’s savior. The problem then must be that they doubt Romney’s sincerity in making such a claim. And yet it’s been well-documented (and is entirely true) that Mormons believe devoutly in the Savior Jesus Christ. To argue against Romney’s right to make such a claim parochializes the Christian God and approaches the New Testament as if it were written by evangelicals for evangelicals alone. You could hardly have a more closed-minded view.

There’s been an argument raging for years about whether Mormons are Christians. Notably, the topic has never been broached in these pages, but here’s an executive summary. “Christian” means a lot of things to a lot of people. To evangelicals, it means a creed-accepting, trinitarian, sola scriptura Bible Literalist who follows Christ. To everyone else on earth, it means a person who follows Christ. Mormons believe strongly, devoutly, purely, in Christ and his salvation, and believe that one may arrive in Heaven only by his power. But, say the evangelicals, because Mormons hold different views regarding theology, they are not fully Christian, despite their faith in the Savior.

It’s a fight that cannot be won by either side, given that it bogs down in such trite questions of semantics. So let’s set aside the question of whether Mormons are Christians. They clearly are not a part of that movement referred to today as the evangelicals. And they do not wish to be. Mitt Romney would be stupid to try to blur that line (Hint: He’s not stupid). However, Mormons believe in Jesus Christ. Mitt Romney deserves to be taken at face value when he says he does too. And if Land is right, that half of evangelicals would be ticked off if Romney were to be so brazen as to admit to following Jesus, then half of evangelicals are closed-minded rubes too insecure in their faith to share with others a heretofore universal deity.

For the record, I don’t believe that to be the case. More likely, Land is just projecting.