To members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who view Mitt Romney's successful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination as a significant step toward acceptance of the church as a mainstream American religion, respected Harvard professor Noah Feldman has these words of caution: "Be careful what you wish for."
In early 2008, Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard, wrote a long essay in the New York Times titled "What Is it About Mormonism?" in which he speculated that "the soft bigotry of cultural discomfort may stand in the way of a candidate whose faith examplifies values of charity, self-discipline and community that we as Americans claim to hold dear."
Less than a month later, Romney announced the end of his campaign.
Still, Feldman wrote in that 2008 essay, "The day will come when we are ready to put prejudice aside and choose a president without regard to what we think of his religion."
Without suggesting that, four years later, the day has come, Feldman observes in a column published Sunday on Bloomberg View that "the death of bigotry is a good thing" and that Romney's recent "embrace by evangelicals is a great day for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
And yet, he warns, "Great days have unexpected consequences."
According to Feldman, "The consequences of turning Mormonism into just another denomination are epochal for Mormons."
"On the one hand, Mormons no doubt believe, with reason, that their evangelizing efforts will be enhanced by a broad public perception that they are Christian," Feldman wrote. "On the other hand, seen through the lens of history, entering the mainstream poses major risks. If Mormons think of themselves as another Christian denomination, the risk of defection rises. The distinctive Mormon beliefs in a new scripture and in the possibility of joining the supernal realm for eternal life will come into jeopardy precisely because they mark differences with the Protestant mainstream. If you believe you are not that different from others, there will be a tendency to downplay those practices and beliefs that suggest otherwise."
For its part, the LDS Church doesn't seem to be downplaying its distinctive practices and beliefs as much as it is trying to help journalists understand how to approach them. On Monday the church republished on its Newsroom website an article on "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," which was first distributed in 2007.
"Much misunderstanding about (the LDS Church) revolves around its doctrine," the article states. "The news media is increasingly asking what distinguishes the church from other faiths, and reporters like to contrast one set of beliefs with others."
To help reporters sift through the huge volume of information that is available about Mormonism from both its enemies as well as from believing Latter-day Saints, the article offers "a few simple principles that facilitate a better understanding" about the LDS Church and how it understands, interprets and teachings its own doctrine:
"Not every statement made by a church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole church."
The official doctrine of the church "resides in the four 'standard works' of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations (by church leadership) and the Articles of Faith."
"Some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines." For example, the article notes that "the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice." The article indicates reporters and commentators often make the mistake of "taking an obscure teaching that is peripheral to the church's purpose and placing it at the very center." This happens frequently, the article says, when reporters rely on people outside the church for their interpretation of LDS doctrine.
Critical to understanding LDS doctrine, the article suggests, is understanding the church's belief in continuing revelation through living prophets.
"Because different times present different challenges, modern-day prophets receive revelation relevant to the circumstances of their day," the article states, adding that "the church does not preclude future additions or changes to its teachings or practices. This living, dynamic aspect of the church provides flexibility" in meeting ever-changing challenges and opportunities.
"Journalists, academics and laymen alike are encouraged to pursue their inquiries into the church by recognizing the broad and complex context within which its doctrines have been declared, in a spirit of reason and good will," the article concludes.