One particularly interesting development regarding the 2012 Presidential Election is the possibility that Americans could elect a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known to many as a Mormon. Personally, I’m quite surprised that the issue of Mitt Romney’s religious faith has not played a larger role in public discussions.
If we turn back the clock a few decades, when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the fact that he was a member of the Catholic Church was a cause for concern for many citizens throughout the nation, sparking fears that he would owe his greatest allegiance, not to the United States and her people, but rather to a pope in the Vatican. Recently, in response to this potential 2012 Mormon controversy, the perhaps best-known evangelist, Billy Graham, tried to defuse the situation, offering some tactic support of Mitt Romney’s candidacy and his church. This news was a bit of a shock to many, given Graham’s previous declarations that the Mormon Church is a “cult”.
I assume that there is generally little widespread knowledge regarding the Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS Church. Before spending considerable time learning about the religion and meeting many Mormons while living in Charlottesville, VA, in the mid 2000s, I’ll confess that Mormonism put me at unease; this concern did not stem from a reasoned theological disagreement with the church, but rather a lack of understanding and general widespread prejudice. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I’ll start off by saying that there are a number of issues that set Mormonism apart from what is generally regarded as traditional Christianity. Some of the best well-known distinctions of Mormonism include the Book of Mormon and the church’s previous support of polygamy.
Let’s start with the Book of Mormon. According to Mormon theology, Joseph Smith, the founder and first prophet of the LDS Church, through the assistance of the angel Moroni, discovered a number of golden plates on a hill in upstate New York. With the aid of “seeing stones”, Smith translated the writing on many of these plates into what is now known as The Book of Mormon. The text describes the ancient people of America as a lost tribe of Israelites and explores their history and theology. In addition, after his death in the Middle East, Jesus appeared to these early Americans to impart teachings, many of which are similar to the concepts found in the Bible. Some time later, two factions within these ancient peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites came into brutal conflict. The last Nephite, the then human Moroni, wrote the final portion of the Book of Mormon and buried the text only to be discovered by Smith about 1500 years later. Besides the Book of Mormon, the LDS have additional extra-biblical texts including the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrines and Covenants.
Polygamy, (more specifically polygyny, the practice of a man taking multiple wives), was an early custom in the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith had a number of spouses as did Brigham Young, who led the Mormons on their trek to what is now the state of Utah. Perhaps not surprisingly, polygamy caused considerable tension with the non-Mormon population and the United States government, which was one compelling reason for the Mormons to move westward, away from the established American communities. Perhaps not surprisingly, Utah was not admitted as a state in the union until the Mormons renounced polygamy, which they did in the Manifesto of 1890.
Besides the Book of Mormon and early support for polygyny, there are a number of other aspects of the Latter-day Saints, which set them apart both in theology and in practice from traditional Christianity. For example, there is baptism for the dead, where a member of the Church can, by proxy, be baptized for a deceased person. The reasoning in doing so is to allow the deceased person an opportunity to enter into heaven, which would previously be denied to someone who had not participated in this rite while alive.
Most people consider a fundamental element of Christianity is the idea of Trinitarianism, the belief that God exists simultaneously in three separate but united persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, Mormons believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three separate gods. In addition, Mormons believe in the concept of eternal progression where men and women can become like God. As former LDS President Lorenzo Snow stated, “As God now is, man may be.” This theological distinction could lead some to claim that Mormons are not monotheistic, but rather either polytheistic or henotheistic.
Interestingly, I have found that many socially conservative Christians, like Billy Graham, who, all things being equal, I would assume would reserve the greatest criticism for Mitt Romney’s Mormon ties, are some of his more ardent defenders. Then again, I’ve also heard some of these very same people use the line that it is better to elect “a Mormon than a Muslim”; playing upon the fear that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim and threatens to subvert our national interest to Islamic terrorists. Do they dislike Mormons still, but reserve a greater distrust of Muslims? For some people, is it simply another case of choosing the “lesser of two evils”?
One overarching question that needs to be asked is what makes a person or a church Christian? It is simply holding the belief that Jesus is the messiah sent by God for the redemption of mankind and that following him is the only path to salvation? Does it require a literal or figurative understanding of the Bible? What about acceptance or rejection certain texts like the deuterocanonical portion of the Bible, also known as the Apocrypha, or the Book of Mormon itself? Is baptism required and, if so, how and when should it be done? Must Christians adhere to follow the leadership of a certain spiritual leader? So, are Mormons Christians? How about other groups often labeled as cults such as Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, or Unitarians? Given their veneration of Mary and other differing beliefs, are Catholics Christian? Does supporting predestination preclude calling Presbyterians Christian? And can a person be a Christian even if the church to which he or she belongs is outside the traditional definition of the term? What about those who have no official church membership? Is there one simple answer to this question and can it be universally applied?
Anyway, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is quite possible that, like the 1960 election, this contest will re-define the American perception of what it means to be a Christian. Mormons, like Catholics before them, once viewed with suspicion and hostility, might slowly be welcomed into the larger Christian fold.
Although I appreciate the chance to improve religious dialogue, I am disappointed that this conversation seemingly arose, not from a desire to promote understanding, but rather as an afterthought to advance a particular candidate. Do conservatives, like Billy Graham, honestly now believe that Mormonism is simply another branch of Christianity and not a cult? Or are they willing to cast aside their longstanding beliefs for political gain? If the answer is the first, then I’m hopeful that this change will permit more people in this country to openly practice their religious convictions without fear of societal persecution. However, if the answer is the second, which I worry is the case, then the state of organized religion and politics in America is in a much more sickly state than I previously imagined.
Regardless of the circumstances and any particular personal preferences, as a result of the 2012 elections, Mormonism is being mainstreamed. Whether you adhere to a more traditional Christian tradition, you are a Mormon yourself, or you chart a path separate from either, this development does make for a lot of important theological and political ramifications in America today.