Editor's note: The following essay is by Orson Scott Card, a member of the LDS Church best known as an award-winning writer of science fiction, as well as other fiction, screenplays and commentary.
Poor Mitt Romney.
Well, not actually poor, but you know what I mean.
Little did he know that in order to run for president, he was going to have to take America to Sunday school class.
Officially, of course, there is no religious test in order to hold public office. But in practical terms, if a candidate believes in something completely insane, people have a right to take that into consideration before voting for him.
Besides, we Mormons spend a lot of time and effort trying to get our message out there. We can't become suddenly shy about our religion just because one of our number is running for office.
Our first senator, Reed Smoot, had to go through a grueling investigation before he could be seated in the Senate. We can hardly expect the first serious Mormon candidate for president not to face a similar gauntlet.
The doctrine that our opponents would love to hang around Romney's neck is the one about human beings having the potential to become like God.
Or, as our opponents like to put it because it sounds more insane Mormons believe that they're going to become gods.
Now, that's just not accurate. We believe that those who repent of their sins and become perfect of heart will be, by the grace of Christ, exalted. But how many people have you known who are truly perfect of heart, desiring nothing but to serve God and their fellow humans?
I've known a few. But I'm most definitely not one of them. I'm in the category called "sinners," and I have a pretty good notion that most of us are.
We also believe that people who never heard the gospel during mortality can accept it in the next life. Certainly many who were never "Mormons" in their mortal lives will be exalted.
But that's quibbling over their phrasing. The point of contention is whether anyone can become Godlike.
It all comes down to what we mean by "God."
In one sense, we're in perfect agreement. We all point to the Bible and say, "We believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he is divine himself, and that only by his grace can we be cleansed of our sins and return to the presence of the Father.
As far as I'm concerned, anybody who believes that is a Christian. You can be wrong about a lot of the details, but all who accept Christ's divinity and try to live by his teachings are Christians.
However, something happened between the writing of the Bible and the settling of the traditional Christian doctrine of God. What came between them was Plato.
Technically, it was Neoplatonism. But I'm not writing a book, I'm writing a newspaper essaycolumn, and a lot of fine distinctions are going to be left out.
For a thorough treatment of the details, read "How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God," by Richard R. Hopkins.
Plato taught that all physical objects are unreal because they're corrupt and imperfect and doomed to change and die. The perfect chair or star or stone or man has no tangible existence only the "idea" of these things can be real because only the idea does not change or corrupt or break or die.
Likewise, whatever we call true, beautiful or good in this world is merely a shadow of the ideal, and therefore real and unchanging Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
In Plato's view, the only god worth worshipping is the perfect ideal of the True, the Beautiful and the Good.
That god cannot have any physical presence in time and space because physicality and duration would diminish its perfection.
The Bible, however, is thick with references to the physical existence of God. We are made in his image, says Genesis. Christ went to some trouble to show his disciples that he had become a resurrected being with a body of flesh and bone. Yet somehow, within a few generations after the writing of the New Testament, "traditional Christianity" had adopted Plato's definition of the perfection of God, and treated the biblical physicality of God as metaphor.
The main point of disagreement between Mormons and traditional Christianity is that we believe in the biblical God the God in whose image we were made, the resurrected Christ with a perfect body of flesh and bone and they don't.
Or, rather, their theologians don't. Most ordinary Christians ignore the creeds; when they pray, they're thinking of God as a person with a face, with arms and legs, who actually exists in space and time.
They believe in the biblical God, as we do. You have to go to college to accept the paradoxes of the platonic God that traditional Christianity has embraced.
To help make the difference clear, let me use, as a parable, some "doctrines" we all learned in high school geometry class: A line is perfectly straight and infinitely long.
All lines in the same plane either touch or they don't touch. If they don't touch, they are parallel and they go in the same direction, infinitely.
Those are the only two choices with lines in the same plane: They're either parallel or they intersect somewhere.
Now here's a theological argument between a traditional Christian (TC) and a biblical Christian (LDS):
TC: The Trinity consists of three parallel lines, which touch each other.
LDS: If they touch each other, they're not parallel.
TC: Nevertheless, they are parallel, and they touch. They touch at every point.
LDS: If they touch at every point, they're the same line. Not three.
TC: They touch at every point, yet there are three.
LDS: That doesn't make any sense. Lines can't be different yet the same, parallel yet intersecting. The words stop having any meaning when you say such things.
TC: That's because you have a finite, mortal mind, which cannot comprehend the nature of geometry.
LDS: That's just crazy. The Trinity is three lines, completely distinct, perfectly parallel, so they go infinitely in the same direction. That's simple, it's clear, and it's true. In fact, we've seen the lines.
TC: That's blasphemy! You can never see the lines! They're only imaginary!
LDS: Your lines are imaginary. The lines we've seen are real.
TC: Then you are not Geometers!
And that's where the discussion always ends.
There's no way any human being could become like the platonic God. By simply existing, we are infinitely inferior to that perfection. To be perfect, we would have to shed everything that makes us individual human beings and approach the same nonexistence that epitomizes the platonic God.
The biblical God, by contrast, is approachable and embraceable. We are forever his children and will never be his equals; everything we are comes as his gift; our hope comes entirely from the grace of his Son; our understanding comes from the Holy Spirit.
After this life, all who have become perfect in their obedience to God and are forgiven their sins by the grace of Christ will spend eternity serving God in his great work of continuing creation. Only thus can the best of us humans obey Christ's commandment to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
We believe that all of God's children who serve him and embrace the atoning sacrifice of Christ (in this life or the next) will be taken into God's service and trusted by him with a portion of his eternal creative work. They will be like him, as adult children are like their parents.
It's why you have children, isn't it? So they can eventually take their place as adults?
That's what we Mormons believe about the nature of God. That's the God we find in the Bible. We can't find the platonic one there. They found him somewhere else.
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But when it comes to choosing a president, does a person's opinion about the nature of God make any difference at all?
What makes a difference is the candidate's character: Does he actually live by the rules he professes to believe in? Does he keep his word?
Character is the only issue that matters, in my opinion. A person who professes correct opinions but has no honor won't be much good as president, while a person of honor can believe what he wants about God and still be a president we can trust.