"According to a new poll, 42% of Americans say they
are uncomfortable with the idea of having a Mormon president. When
asked why, the people said, 'We're still getting used to having a
Conan O'Brien,Talk show
While O'Brien is certainly going for the laugh, his
comment is revealing as to how important a role faith still plays in
American politics. One Republican presidential candidate who clearly
grasps its significance is Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon. Those who
support his candidacy, as well as his detractors, are also aware of
this "political truth" about faith and politics.
"Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been
considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Robert Jeffress, pastor First Baptist
Jeffress made this comment to reporters at the Values
Voters Summit shortly after introducing Texas Governor, Rick Perry,
the Republican candidate he was backing. Unlike O'Brien, he wasn't
going for a laugh. He was expressing a sincerely held belief. He probably
could not have imagined the controversy that would follow. Even more
incredible, rather than bringing Romney under closer scrutiny (as one
might have thought it would), Jeffress found himself and his remarks
to be the center of attention.
Political pundits jumped upon it, candidates quickly
distanced themselves from it, and the media flocked to Jeffress for
an explanation; including, well-known atheist, Bill Maher who managed
to book Jeffress as a guest on his show. Romney and his campaign
staff discredited it as having no place in politics and then, wisely,
ignored it; choosing to let others fight this battle on his behalf.
GOP candidate, Jon Huntsman (also a Mormon), to comment on it and
reported, "Huntsman [noted], it's a shame that with
so much real news in the 2012 election cycle 'the fact that some
moron can stand up and make a comment like that' and drive the news
narrative for a number of days is a real shame."
Huntsman: Mormon Critic Is A
Perhaps, the story would have had a shorter shelf life
or, none at all, had Jeffress simply left it at "Mormonism is
not Christianity". Instead, he identified it as a
"cult" - a word which many hearers tend to equate with
aberrant suicide groups like as those at Jonestown and Heaven's Gate.
Certainly, the Mormon Church would not be identified with such
groups, in that regard. However, in fairness to Jeffress, on numerous
occasions he has clarified this is not his position. Rather, he says
that when applying the term cult to the Mormon Church he was speaking
of it from a theological perspective rather than a sociological one.
In numerous interviews he has supported this position
stating his view is based on such facts about the Mormon Church as:
"[it] was invented 1800 years after Jesus Christ and the
founding of Christianity, and it has its own founder, Joseph Smith,
its own set of doctrines, and its own book, the Book of Mormon."
Jeffress has also gone so far as to imply that, given the choice, he
would vote for a Mormon - in this case, Romney - over Obama.
Huntsman and others might think him a "moron", many
Christian leaders have expressed their support of his view. In a
Huffington Post interview, Lifeway Research President, Ed Stetzer
referred to a recent Lifeway poll of 1,000 pastors, stating,
"The view that Mormons are not Christians is the widely and
strongly held view among Protestant pastors. That does not mean they
do not respect Mormons as persons, share their values on family and
have much in common. Yet, they simply view Mormonism as a distinct
religion outside of basic teachings of Christianity." [Read Article]
Considering where we are as a nation, one might think
Americans could care less about a candidate's religious persuasion.
This would seem to be borne out by the fact that, prior to Jeffress'
comment and despite such polls as Lifeway's, Romney's faith had not
been a major point of discussion. Interestingly, this was not the
case when Romney sought the Republican nomination in the last
In fact, during the 2008 election I was often asked if I
thought Christians should vote for a Mormon. Without question, many
Christians were concerned about whether it would be "okay"
to vote for a Mormon. But, they weren't the only ones with concerns.
Unlike in this election, in 2008 the mainstream media was also
looking for answers about Romney's Mormon faith.
In an article I wrote during the 2008 election cycle (A Mormon White House?),
I noted the media seemed focused on two aspects of Romney's faith:
first that Mormonism was different from the beliefs of other
candidates professing to be Christians; and, secondly, that the polls
were reflecting a significant percentage of the population had
reservations about the Mormon faith.
Interestingly, when the Jeffress story broke, this same
media now seemed to be insisting that such questioning is
inappropriate and that a candidate's faith is not part of the story.
However, Conan O'Brien's joke and the storm created by Jeffress'
comment are revealing in that they indicate a significant number of
people in the culture would disagree with the media on this point.
For example, O'Brien's comment loses all comedic value
if there were not those who have and/or are still promoting the idea
that the President is a Muslim (If he is, he is a very poor example
of one since he publically and consistently identifies himself as
Christian). Those who continue to propagate this story do so because
they understand the idea of a Muslim candidate, and even more so a
Muslim President, is not going to be embraced by a significant
percentage of the American electorate. Those who opposed Romney's
election in 2008 understood the same was true of a professing Mormon.
This is still true today, as evidenced by polling such
as the recent 2011 American Values Poll (October
2011) by the Public Religion Research Institute. This poll found that
two thirds of voters say it is very important (39%) or somewhat
important (28%) for a presidential candidate to have strong religious
beliefs. It also found this desire for strong religious beliefs in a
candidate does not translate to a level of comfort with all
religions. For example: 64% said they would be, at least, somewhat
uncomfortable with a Muslim serving as President; 67% with an atheist
as President, and 42% said they would be at least somewhat
uncomfortable with a Mormon President. Only 28% said they would be
somewhat or very uncomfortable with an Evangelical as President.
Polling, such as the Public Religion Research
Institute's, suggests that if a candidate is going to talk about
their faith, they will be better received if identifying themselves
with the Christian faith. Perhaps this is why it is so important to
Romney that Mormonism be identified with Christianity; and, why so
many candidates who had little interest in religion, prior to running
for office, suddenly become frequent Church attenders. While I may
not agree with such tactics, I find both completely understandable;
after all, the candidate wants the best chance to be elected
Less clear, at least in this election cycle, is why so
many media pundits seem determined to back off religion and give
Mormonism a free pass in presenting itself as being part of the
Christian Church; something they did not allow during the 2008
election. In fact, had Jeffress made his comment during the 2008
election, based upon how the media handled the issue of Romney's
faith then, Mormonism would be much more central to the coverage.
Instead, the media now seems much more focused on trying
to marginalize Jeffress, and those who hold his viewpoint, than on
asking the hard questions about the compatibility of Mormon beliefs
with those of Christianity. And, as Jeffress surprisingly discovered,
when it comes to Romney's Mormon beliefs, many in the media;
including some professing Christians, seem to be going out of their
way to try and convince their readers and/or viewers that Mormonism
is part of the Christian Church.
During the interview with Bill Maher, Jeffress stated,
"Since I made those comments, the left has been pretty kind to
me. It's the conservatives who have been after me with a meat
cleaver...Laura Ingraham, Karl Rove...what they feel like I am doing
is hurting their candidate...They think, 'Jeffress if you'll just be
quite [whispers] they won't know he is a Mormon'." [Watch the Maher Interview]
MSNBC host, Joe Scarbrough, (a Republican and
self-attested Southern Baptist) also took Jeffress to task for his
comments and used them to seemingly, express a broader view of
Christianity that might better allow for the inclusion of Mormonism.
Scarbrough stated: [Watch Scarbrough's Comments]
"Jesus was asked by his disciples, "Who is
getting to heaven? How do we sit on the right hand of the
father?" This is what Jesus Christ said, and, by the way, Pastor
Jeffress, if you open your Bible to Matthew, it's in red letters.
That means Jesus said it. This is what Jesus said:
'Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you
who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom
prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry
and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me
something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed
clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was
in prison and you came to visit me.' Mt 25:34-36
And that was not Jesus talking about some side issue,
some sidebar to his ministry - that was Jesus talking about when
asked what his ministry was about, it was about taking care of the
poor. And yet we don't see that from the very people who wave their
Bibles around the most."
As Scarbrough states, he was directing these comments
particularly to Pastor Jeffress. The inference seems to be that as
Mormons do these things, they fit within the definition of being
Christian. Of course, by the same measurement, so would many who do
wonderfully good works and don't even claim to be Christian - even
While I generally enjoy Mr. Scarbrough's commentary and
often find myself in agreement with him, in this instance he has
taken Jesus' words out of context. The reality is, Jesus was not
answering a question about who is getting to heaven; nor, was he, in
the passage Mr. Scarbrough quotes, responding to a question about how
one sits on the right hand of the father. (Although, five chapters
earlier, in Matthew 20:21 a mother does ask that her sons be allowed
to sit on the right and left of Jesus, but her question had nothing
to do with getting into heaven.) Rather, Jesus makes the quoted
statement in reference to his judgment of the "sheep" and
I would agree with Mr. Scarbrough's assessment that
those who wave their Bibles around the most, are the ones who often
do the very least. However, how high one raises their Bible, how many
good deeds they do, their family background, and/or the religious
organization they belong to, has nothing to do with determining if
they will stand on His right or left at the judgment. That is solely
based upon faith, not in our own works but in the person and work of
Christ on our behalf.
As the Apostle Paul stated: "For by grace you have
been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift
of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."
This is in complete agreement with Jesus teaching
concerning who will enter heaven - have eternal life. In fact, had
Mr. Scarbrough truly desired to communicate the essence of the
gospel, as taught by Jesus, he would have done better quoting from
the third chapter of John; also, in "red letters":
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only
begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have
eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to
judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He
who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged
already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten
Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
Jesus makes it clear that the determining factor for
becoming "a sheep", and standing on his right at the
judgment, is faith in him - in his work. It is those who reject this
or place their faith in another - the unbelieving - who are found on
Despite the attempts to turn the discussion from issues
of religious beliefs, it is obvious that a candidate's faith still
matters to the American voter. And, while a candidate is guaranteed
the right to embrace any religious view they choose, the fact is,
most Americans still prefer their candidate's religion of choice to
be the Christian faith. This may very well change one day, maybe
soon; but, for now, a Mormon, Muslim, or atheist will probably not be
elected to the office of President.
Political figures understand this and, if not a
Christian, they tend to either distance themselves from discussing
their faith or try to make their faith fit within Christianity.
Christians could help diminish this practice by not gravitating to a
candidate simply because he claims to be a Christian. Candidates need
to know that, first and foremost, we expect them to be qualified and
competent, to share our common values and a shared vision for what is
best for the nation and its people. If such a candidate also shares a
common faith with the voter, that is even better.
The reality is, being a Christian candidate does not
guarantee one is the best candidate any more than the Christian
surgeon is automatically the most gifted surgeon to operate on one's
child, or the Christian dry cleaner is the best one to get the spot
out of your new suit. When candidates understand their faith will not
be the primary criteria for our vote, perhaps they will begin to feel
the freedom to be truly candid about their beliefs, rather than
having to duck the issue.
observed in 2007, "When Mr. Romney says he
holds to the same beliefs as other Americans, perhaps he does.
However, if he holds to the teachings of his [Mormon] Church then his
is a different God, a different Jesus, and a different view of the
Scripture than that of the Christian Church. Until the record is
clear on this, it is understandable that the media and Evangelicals
will continue to question him on these points of difference."
underlying concern then, as it is now, is not so much that Mr. Romney
is a Mormon. It is the simple fact that, in promoting his candidacy,
the essential beliefs of the Christian faith are being altered so a
candidate can be presented as Christian; regardless, of what he truly
believes. Christians must be careful that in their debate over
whether a Christian should support a candidate of another faith - be
it Mormon, or some other - the gospel is not being altered or
misrepresented in hopes of making a candidate more electable.