Mormons, Christians and American Presidents.
We are in the throes of another presidential primary season, which means, among other things, that religion and politics are being uncomfortably joined together, and candidates are enduring the headaches that result from tearing them asunder. Last time it was Christianity as understood by white Americans in suburbs clashing with the Christianity of urban African-Americans. This time the contrast is evangelical Christianity and the cult of Mormonism, or the Religion of Mormonism, or the Christian Denomination of Mormonism, depending on whom you ask.
Front-runner for the GOP Presidential Nomination, Mitt Romney, is a Mormon. Everyone knows this. Some people, like evangelical Christian and former front-runner for the GOP Presidential Nomination, Rick Perry, may not be comfortable with Romney’s Mormon faith. There is wide swath of opinions, apparently, on whether Mormon’s belief in Christ makes them Christians, or whether their religion is outside the bounds of Christianity, and is thus a false religion.
Growing up in the Midwest, I knew several Mormon families, and they seemed to be generally viewed as slightly odd if not kooky, but certainly not as a threat. They were our friends and their Mormonism was known and not commented upon. It was just kind of weird. (Originally I wrote down some of the beliefs of the Mormon Church that seem strange, but when you write them side by side, Christianity’s beliefs really aren’t any less kooky.) This is not news to the Mormon Church, which has been making great strides to advance its image of normalcy in the US in recent years. I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials (which I’m not going to link to, but you can watch them all at mormon.org).
But the Midwest tries hard to be nice. There’s seems to be a little more worry regarding the Mormon Church in other circles, such the centers of the Evangelical Church. It seems fair to say that (correct me if I’m wrong) Evangelical Christianity does not accept Mormons into the fold, and as Evangelicals have a strong voice in American Politics, problems are bound to appear when someone, like Mitt Romney, tries to blend the two. The most recent uproar comes from Pastor Robert Jeffress, who introduced Rick Perry at a speaking engagement. Jeffress described Mormonism as cult, called Planned Parenthood a slaughterhouse, and asked, ““Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person — or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?””
Small uproars ensued. Mitt Romney asked Perry to publicly decry the claim that Mormonism is a cult, which Perry did not do, because Jeffress is not an associate of Perry’s, which then turned out not to be the case, so Rick Perry did acknowledge his belief that Mormonism is not a cult, shortly after describing Jeffress as having “knocked it out the park” with his introduction. These are the binds one will inevitably find in the mixture of presidential politics and religion.
Many journalists/bloggers/rabble-rousers ran with the Perry-Romney-Cult dust-up, since they love writing about the consequences of these kind of religious intervals into presidential politics. And who doesn’t? It’s great fodder for complaining; that’s what we’re doing right now. The question I have and I haven’t seen addressed is: why should anyone be surprised that a Southern Baptist Pastor believes, and would say, that Mormonism is a cult? Of course that’s what Jeffress thinks, along with a lot of evangelicals around the world. Because Mormonism isn’t Christianity, at least not to Jeffress. What else does it take for a religion that is not Christianity to be considered a cult by Christians like Jeffress? This is religion we’re talking about. It’s not acceptable (possible?) to dispute the Truth when one’s religion has a different capital-T than another religion. Overlapping Truths, I can understand, and promote. But exclusive Truths don’t overlap. And if you are outside, your options are few and unpleasant.
Remember that uproar over Reverend Wright and Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign? I wondered the same thing about that issue. Why wouldn’t Reverend Wright, a black preacher in a black community in Chicago, preach what he preached? And why wouldn’t white suburban Christians not feel threatened? That makes perfect sense. It’s all considered Christianity, to the Christian who believes it.
So here’s a little rant: The shock people feel at the exclusivity or the rigidity or the offensive nature of someone else’s beliefs is either false, or misplaced. Religion has no place in politics, whether you think Mormonism is a cult, or think that evangelical Christianity is oppressive, or Reverend Wright’s Christianity is anti-white, or that Religion impedes the progress of society. If you adhere to the strict notion of capital-T religious truth, then the others have to be wrong, by necessity, and you are free to condemn them to hell or to accept the differences. Either way, it shouldn’t matter, because none of this has a place in politics. The only way that these conversations serve the presidential process is to demonstrate how candidates handle bad press. If you are President Obama, you give a speech on religion and race and handle the problem with poise and grace. If you are Mitt Romney, you keep your hands clean and stay above the fray. And if you are Rick Perry, you continue your fall from relevance, because, unfortunately, religious discrimination in politics does not play outside of a small community of religious hardliners.
Regardless, keep your religious muck out of the political process. There is plenty of muck gumming up politics as it is.