Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jeffress on Romney and Mormonism: Back to the Future for Evangelicals?

Last week the race for the Republican presidential nomination briefly resembled the shape it took in 2007. Four years ago it was Mike Huckabee who raised concerns about fellow Republican Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. The same sentiments about Romney’s religion were raised again more recently at a Values Voters Summit sponsored by conservative evangelical organizations. Governor Rick Perry was a speaker at this event where he was introduced by Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Jeffress turned an opportunity for Perry to rally evangelical voters into a national controversy when he used the event to label Mormonism a “cult” and to claim that Romney “is not Christian.”

This is not the first time that evangelical concern over Romney’s Mormonism and allegations of its incompatibility with presidential office has been raised on the national stage. Several months ago Warren Smith made headlines in a piece he wrote for Patheos where he stated that “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church,” a title that echoed that of another evangelical in 2008 who warned then that “a vote for Romney was a vote for Satan.”

In the 1960s Protestant America was concerned about the possibility of a Roman Catholic president in John F. Kennedy. Having navigated that religious hurdle it is clear that other religions are still of great concern, not only for Protestants and other evangelicals, but also many other Americans, particularly when it comes to Mormonism. In a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum 53% of Americans had a favorable view of Mormonism, while 27% viewed the religion negatively. Among Protestants the impressions were slightly more negative, with the positive views at 46%, and the unfavorable ones coming in at 39%. When respondents were asked to summarize Mormonism in a single word, negative ones were offered more than positive, with terms like “polygamy” and “cult” topping the list. These largely negative opinions of Mormonism are all the more striking when they are compared to American opinions about Islam in the same Pew poll. Tellingly, the positive and negative views of Mormonism and Islam are almost identical, even while many in the poll acknowledge they had little awareness of and no personal contact with Mormons or Muslims.

In the wake of the controversy over Pastor Jeffress’ comments about Mormonism we are reminded of the impact of religion on politics, and that many evangelicals have concerns over the religion of presidential candidates, particularly those that find their headquarters in Salt Lake City. But it would be a mistake to think that all of evangelicalism understands the Mormon religion as a cult and seeks to relate to individual Mormons in terms of cultism. Two elements among evangelicals need to be considered, including the mindset of the “younger evangelicals,” as well as those engaged in dialogical approaches.

In 2002 Robert Webber wrote a book titled The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Baker Books, 2002). In this volume Webber discussed the diversity of Protestant evangelicalism, and developments in this subculture’s religious landscape. He defined “younger evangelicals” to include anyone “who deals thoughtfully with the shift from 20th- to 21st-century culture.” Although Webber had primarily generational mindsets in mind, his definition rightly moves beyond age considerations. These shifts involve different attitudes to theology, culture, and other religions.

Some of these differing attitudes are evident in certain evangelical approaches to Mormonism. In 2002 Salt Lake Theological Seminary produced a resource called Bridges, which framed Mormonism as a religious culture with a unique social identity. Although its producers recognized significant theological differences with Mormonism, they discouraged the use of the term “cult” and the corresponding theological category. More recently, this shift in understanding has continued in evangelical publications such as the book Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor (Zondervan, 2011) by Ross Anderson. In the Introduction, Anderson answers the question “Is Mormonism a Cult?.” After noting the association of cultism with groups like Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown in popular media, Anderson states that, “This kind of labeling leads to a narrow, inaccurate view of the LDS people. I believe that Mormonism is theologically in error, but we don’t need to assign a pejorative label to sustain that claim.” Additional examples could be cited, but these illustrate that a new mindset is present within evangelicalism that includes a willingness to consider Mormonism in less pejorative terms, even where substantial theological disagreement is recognized.

In addition to the “younger evangelicals” and their desire to understand Mormonism more in terms of religious culture than cult, there is also an evangelical move that demonstrates more interest in dialogue than denunciation. A number of examples can be cited in this regard. For several years a group of evangelical scholars have been meeting on an annual basis with their Mormon counterparts. The venues for these meetings differ, but relationships have developed and a deeper understanding of their religions has occurred on both sides of the divide. Such dialogue has also taken place on a grassroots level in various places in Utah where small groups of evangelicals and Mormons have met in homes. These meetings began with shared common stories of personal testimonies of faith, and have then progressed to more difficult and in-depth issues of doctrine and practice.

Beyond these dialogical activities, the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (FRD) also promises to contribute positively to evangelical and Mormon interactions, as well as to America’s broader interreligious environment. Founded by Charles Randall Paul, a Latter-day Saint, FRD describes its efforts as involving “[i]nterreligious diplomacy [that] builds respect and trust between people of integrity who hold opposing religious or ideological beliefs. The goal is not to resolve inevitable differences but to sustain them in peaceful tension by engaging in dialogue that includes sharing personal testimonies and respectful contestation.” FRD has established chapters within various religious traditions so as to help train those within these traditions in more appropriate and effective forms of dialogue. Recently, the Evangelical Chapter was formed as it seeks to involve evangelicals on academic and grassroots levels in dialogue.

American evangelicals have a long way to go in navigating the challenging waters of American pluralism and post-Christendom. For years it was a given that America’s presidential candidates would bring some kind of traditionally Christian background to office. The presence of candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman bring a renewed awareness of the diversity of America’s religious landscape, and the implications for the political sphere. Although many evangelicals still bristle at the idea of president from a religion with a long history of conflict with the religious mainstream, a small and growing movement is present within the evangelical subculture that must also be considered for a complete understanding of this significant facet of America’s religious and political landscape.

No comments: