Evangelicals, Mormons, and Mitt Romney

The New York Times runs an op-ed headlined “Why Evangelicals Don’t Like Mormons,” which takes on an important issue but glosses over the critical role fundamentalism plays in the phenomenon.

David S. Reynolds is writing about the political woes of Mitt Romney in evangelical-heavy primaries in Iowa and South Carolina and trying to explain how evangelicals think in that way that drives flyover folks crazy. Evangelicals are leery of Latter Day Saints, he says, because of the “insecurities of the establishment denominations” faced with a powerful competitor.

Okay, this isn’t a usual Audit subject, but I can’t resist. I claim a bit of authority having been raised an evangelical in Tulsa (Nazarene church three times a week, no dancing, no drinking, etc.), and, yes, my best friend as a kid was Mormon, so I followed church teaching on LDS particularly closely. As fourteen-year-old nerds, we sat around nights sparring about theology when we probably should have been smoking weed or something. I’d begun rejecting fundamentalism by the time I was eleven or twelve, but it sure was fun to argue about that stuff.

I don’t doubt that, at least at the clerical level, competition, as Reynolds says, is not welcome. But it’s worth remembering that mainstream Christian churches have disliked the Mormon Church from the time it had just a few hundred followers. That’s how Brigham Young & Co. ended up in Utah.

And Reynolds gets it wrong when trying to figure how why evangelicals are supposedly more freaked by Mormons than other sects:

Christian Scientists, for instance, eschew doctors and medicine. Seventh-day Adventists have often set dates for the end of the world that have come and gone, while Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the doctrines of the Trinity and eternal punishment.

But neither those nor other American-bred religions arouse nearly the degree of anxiety that Mormonism does. Why?

For one thing, no Jehovah’s Witness has yet become a leading candidate for president (unless you count Eisenhower, who ran from his mother’s religion), so we don’t know what kind of anxiety that would create.

But, let’s break it down: Evangelicals are mostly Biblical fundamentalists. That’s the real issue here. They take a literalist view of the Bible and see Mormons (and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for that matter, though not so much Christian Scientists and Adventists) as heretics, who follow a false prophet and believe in a different holy book—a big no-no to people who believe Genesis through Revelation is the Word of God. So the resistance to a Mormon candidate isn’t about competition, at least at base. It’s about theology.

Some Mormon beliefs just diverge dramatically from core Christian doctrine in the eyes of evangelicals who see the idea that “man can become God-like” and that God once had a god above him, for instance, as akin to blasphemy (For their part, Mormon doctrine holds that the mainstream Christian churches were corrupted by a Great Apostasy*, shortly after Jesus’s death).

And so, most evangelicals see Mormonism as basically a different religion, a non-Christian one (and one that angers them by claiming Christianity). And evangelicals, or at least the ones I know, just aren’t much interested in voting for a non-Christian to be president, at least in a primary with other Christians. It’s that simple. Some evangelicals still believe that Catholics, you know, the ones who started the whole thing in the first place, aren’t really Christians. They’re not going to vote for a Muslim candidate for president, and certainly not an atheist (a Jew would be more complicated. Let’s just say there were three banners on stage at my church: the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Israeli flag). They just believe a Christian, preferably one just like them, should be president. My late East Texas grandfather, for one, voted Democrat every election from 1936 to 1992, except for 1960, when he pulled the lever for Nixon because Kennedy was Catholic.

Amy Sullivan nailed all this writing for The Washington Monthly way back in 2005:

His obstacle is the evangelical base—a voting bloc that now makes up 30 percent of the Republican electorate and that wields particular influence in primary states like South Carolina and Virginia. Just as it is hard to overestimate the importance of evangelicalism in the modern Republican Party, it is nearly impossible to overemphasize the problem evangelicals have with Mormonism. Evangelicals don’t have the same vague anti-LDS prejudice that some Americans do. For them it’s a doctrinal thing, based on very specific theological disputes that can’t be overcome by personality or charm or even shared positions on social issues. Romney’s journalistic boosters either don’t understand these doctrinal issues or try to sidestep them. But ignoring them won’t make them go away. To evangelicals, Mormonism isn’t just another religion. It’s a cult.

Which is why Reynolds’s closing sentiment, much as I agree with it, is just preaching to the right-thinking NYT-readership choir who thinks all this true-believer stuff is silly:

Amid the passions of this election season, it’s time to revive the tolerant spirit of the founding fathers. Religious competition of any kind, they believed, can breed bigotry, repression and hatred. The founders made an earnest effort to keep religion out of politics. Let’s do the same as we carry out the important work of choosing our next president.

The reason Romney hasn’t done much worse with their votes is that Mormons and evangelicals share nearly identical political views and because there hasn’t been a standout social conservative candidate this year.

There are varying degrees of fundamentalism, and polls have shown that most evangelicals would vote for a Mormon in the primary. But they’ve also shown that there’s a significant group that won’t.

There are limitations, of course. If Romney wins the nomination, they’ll fall in line (most of them, I should say).

For evangelicals, just about anything’s better than a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights Democrat, even if it’s a formerly pro-choice, formerly pro-gay-rights Mormon Republican.

* fixed spelling

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,