Evangelicals and Mormons: Can we talk?

By Jason Poling

The Baltimore Sun

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to the traveling press corps after arriving in Atlanta, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Associated Press

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When you make as many mistakes as I do, it's good to get in the habit of learning from them. Just over four years ago, I made a big one about Mormonism, and I thank the good folks at The Baltimore Sun for giving me a chance to make it right.

During the 2008 primaries, a Sun reporter interviewed me about evangelicals and Mitt Romney. Why, he asked, does a candidate with his squeaky-clean character and demonstrated family values generate so little interest among the Republican Party's evangelical base?

Dusting off my old poli-sci major hat, I suggested a few non-theological reasons: a pro-choice record while Massachusetts governor, a seeming lack of authenticity (a quality evangelicals found especially important in their leaders in the 1990s and 2000s) and ready identification with the Southern Baptist minister and then-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. But the real reasons, I said, come down to theological differences.

Evidently, I did not make it clear that I was articulating the theological differences between Mormonism and traditional Christian theology; in the article I was portrayed as somebody who wouldn't vote for a Mormon because I don't think his theology is up to snuff. For the record, I affirm the Constitution's prohibition on any religious test for public office. With Luther, I would rather be governed by an honest and capable man of a different religious faith than by a corrupt and ineffective politician who attended my church.

At the same time, what I tried to convey remains true: There are unbridgeable gaps between traditional Christian orthodoxy and the theological positions taken by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As Brigham Young University professor Robert Millet notes, "Latter-day Saints are not in the line of historic Christianity and ... do not accept the concepts concerning God, Christ, and the Godhead that grew out of the post-New Testament councils." The theological affirmations contained in the great creeds of the historic church are held by Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants alike; the Mormon church teaches that all of these branches of the historic Christian family tree are apostate and not authentically Christian.

I know many individual Mormons and historic orthodox Christians who believe people in one another's communities to be genuine followers of Jesus Christ. But the religious movements of historic Christianity on the one hand and Mormonism on the other do not recognize one another's movements as Christian. That doesn't mean individual people within those movements reject one another as citizens, or as political leaders — let alone as friends and colleagues. But it does mean that these religious traditions have things to say about one another.

Different religious communities mean different things when they say words like "Christ" and "salvation" and "Scripture" and "God." Sometimes they appear to an outside observer to be referring to the same thing. But if you ask the people using those words, they'll be adamant that when they say "saint" they mean something quite different from what that other fellow over there means when he says "saint."

Among the fruits of recent Mormon-evangelical dialogue is greater clarity about where Mormons and evangelicals are using the same word to mean different things theologically, and where they are using different words to mean similar things theologically.

Evangelicals have had four years to reflect on our community's response to Mitt Romney's candidacy in 2008. I think many of us have recognized that anti-Mormon prejudice colored our initial responses to Mr. Romney's candidacy in 2008, that it should not have then, and that it should not now. That doesn't mean I support the man's candidacy — or, for that matter, that I don't. But it does mean that I look at the candidate, not the sacred book under his arm.

The Rev. Jason Poling is pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, Md. His website is jpolingournewhope.org. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.