Beliefs of Mormon religion becoming an inescapable issue
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The Rev. R. Philip Roberts, the president of a Southern Baptist seminary in Kansas City, Mo., is an evangelist with a particular goal: countering Mormon beliefs.
Mr. Roberts has traveled throughout the United States, and to some countries abroad, preaching that Mormonism is heretical to Christianity. His message is a theological one, but theology is about to land squarely in the middle of the Republican presidential primary campaign.
As the Republican voting moves South, with primaries in South Carolina on Saturday and in Florida on Jan. 31, the religion of Mitt Romney, the front-runner, may be an inescapable issue in many voters' minds. In South Carolina, where about 60 percent of Republican voters are evangelical Christians, Mr. Romney, a devout Mormon and a former bishop in the church, faces an electorate that has been exposed over the years to preachers like Mr. Roberts who teach that the Mormon faith is apostasy.
Many evangelicals have numerous reasons, other than religion, for objecting to Mr. Romney. But to understand just how difficult it is for some to coalesce around his candidacy, it is important to understand the gravity of their theological qualms.
"I don't have any concerns about Mitt Romney using his position as either a candidate or as president of the United States to push Mormonism," said Mr. Roberts, an author of "Mormonism Unmasked" and president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said he had no plans to travel to South Carolina before the voting. "The concern among evangelicals is that the Mormon Church will use his position around the world as a calling card for legitimizing their church and proselytizing people."
Mormons consider themselves Christians -- as denoted in the church's name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet the theological differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity are so fundamental, experts in both say, that they encompass the very understanding of God and Jesus, what counts as Scripture and what happens when people die.
"Mormonism is a distinctive religion," said David Campbell, a Mormon and an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in religion and politics. "It's not the same as Presbyterianism or Methodism. But at the same time, there have been efforts on the part of the church to emphasize the commonality with other Christian faiths, and that's a tricky balance to strike for the church."
On the most fundamental issue, traditional Christians believe in the Trinity: that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all rolled into one.
Mormons reject this as a non-biblical creed that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries. They believe that God the Father and Jesus are separate physical beings, that God has a wife whom they call Heavenly Mother.
It is not only evangelical Christians who object to these ideas.
"That's just not Christian," said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, a liberal Protestant seminary in New York City. "God and Jesus are not separate physical beings. That would be anathema. At the end of the day, all the other stuff doesn't matter except the divinity of Jesus."
The Mormon Church says that in the early 1800s, its first prophet, Joseph Smith, had revelations that restored Christianity to its true path, a course correction necessary because previous Christian churches had corrupted the faith. Smith bequeathed to his church volumes of revelations contained in scripture used only by Mormons: "The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ," "Doctrine and Covenants" and "Pearl of Great Price."
Traditional Christians do not recognize any of those as Scripture.
It is the blurring of the lines between God, Jesus and human beings that is difficult for evangelicals to swallow, said Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif., who has been involved in a dialogue group between evangelicals and Mormons for 12 years and has a deep understanding of theology as Mormons see it.
"Both Christians and Jews, on the basis of our common Scriptures, we'd all agree that God is God and we are not," Mr. Mouw said. "There's a huge ontological gap between the Creator and the creature. So any religious perspective that reduces that gap, you think, oh wow, that could never be called Christian."
First Published January 16, 2012 12:00 am