COLLEGE STATION, Texas Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, hoping to quell persistent concerns about his Mormon religion, lamented the escalation of “religion of secularism” in a Dec. 6 “Faith in America” speech.
“The notion of separation of church and state has been taken by some beyond its original meaning,” the candidate said during a stop at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
“They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in Americathe religion of secularism. They are wrong.”
The former Massachusetts governor also pledged to protect faith in the public square.
“I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from ‘the God who gave us liberty,’” he vowed.
Likened to a speech delivered in the Mormon Temple in 1960 by Catholic John F. Kennedy, it received mixed reviews from evangelicals who are weighing the consequences of a potential Romney presidency.
“Gov. Romney’s speech was a magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy," Dr. James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family Action, said in a statement released after Romney’s speech. “His delivery was passionate, and his message was inspirational. Whether it will answer all the questions and concerns of evangelical Christian voters is yet to be determined, but the governor is to be commended for articulating the importance of our religious heritage as it relates to today.”
While Romney, in keeping with his Mormon religion, holds many of the same traditional family values as conservative evangelicals, many born-again Christians take issue with the teachings of the church, some of whom believe it to be a cult.
“If we elect a Mormon president, I think it’s not so much what it says about Mormonism, but what does that say about us?” said Bill McKeever, director of the Mormonism Research Ministry and author of numerous books on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“To have a Mormon president would tend to give a sense of legitimacy of his religion. … I think it may lead people to put down their guard and not make them as critical as they should be about this thing.”
Assessing the speech
McKeever, who moved his evangelical ministry from San Diego to Draper, Utah, several years ago to more closely work with Mormons, said he believed the Romney speech did little to allay evangelical fears.
“His speech was a no-win situation,” he said. “If he was too candid, he would scare away his current, non-Mormon supporters. If the speech was too vague, he would come off as being evasive. Mormons seemed to love the speech. He doesn’t explain himself; he just throws out these terms and expects us to know what he means.”
McKeever added that he believes religion, like politics, reflects a person’s ideology and that a candidate’s ideology must be scrutinized.
He stressed that while Mormons are wonderful people with similar pro-family values, there are essential distinctions between Christianity and Mormonism that are too fundamental to discount. McKeever said the Mormon faith has adopted a lot of the same terminology of Christianity, but, taken in context with its teachings, can be heretical.
For instance, he cited Romney’s statement, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”
But in the Mormon context, McKeever said, “this is understood in a most literal sense. Several LDS leaders have taught that their physical God literally impregnated Mary. Jesus is savior in that he makes it possible for all mankind to be resurrected. Exaltation or godhood, must be earned by good works."
But Cal Thomas, a FOX News contributor and nationally syndicated columnist who writes from a conservative evangelical perspective, said he believes too much is being made of Romney’s Mormonism.
“Mormons are good people,” Thomas said. “They reflect, in most cases, the family values that are espoused by evangelicals.”
Thomas argues that a candidate should be vetted for competence, not ideology and faith.
“Jimmy Carter was a born-again believer, but he was a lousy president in my opinion,” the commentator said. “I think we make a mistake when we transpose our own faith with those who don’t share it, and when we don’t require the kind of competency that it takes to be a good president.”
In arguing for competence over faith, Thomas said he does not minimize the traditional-marriage and pro-life issues that are close to the hearts of most evangelicals.
“Abortion and homosexuality and gay marriage are not the cause of our decadence; they are a symptom,” he said, adding that recent scandals in Congress have shown a pattern of “graft and moral corruption among politicians who cannot police themselves.”
“How are they going to impose it on the rest of the country?” he asked. “No church-going, God-fearing, Bible-reading president is going to keep teenagers from getting pregnant, keep heterosexual marriage together and stop abortion outright.”
Thomas also warned that electing a strong evangelical candidate offers no guarantees, he said, citing Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both have irked evangelicals with some of their more moderate opinions on the high court.
“It’s not a slam dunk when you get ‘one of your own’ in office,” he said. “We put too much emphasis on princes and kings, which the Bible tells us not to do.”
Craig Huey, a Southern California author and speaker who hosts the electionforum.org Web site, said Romney’s candidacy does evoke serious moral and strategic questions. Is it OK to support someone whose essential religious beliefs clash with my own? Should I abstain from voting to make a moral stand? Is it OK to support someone as the lesser of two evils?
“The lesser of two evils is still evil,” said Huey, who has offered election analysis on KBRT, KKLA and KWVE. “For evangelical Christians they need to be able, in good conscience, to vote without thinking they are endorsing Mormonism.”
Huey echoed McKeever, saying many evangelicals are afraid of adding credibility to a religion they view as a cult. Will a Mormon presidency encourage more missionaries? Such questions, though, have brought “bigot” labels from members of the Mormon Church who are unhappy with the evangelical scrutiny, Huey said.
“People don’t want to ask that, but you need to ask it,” he said. “It’s not a politically correct question.”
While viewing the Romney candidacy as a dilemma, Huey also calls it an extraordinary opportunity.
“The challenge for evangelical Christians is they really need to know what a Mormon is, and what they believe. Mormonism is seductive. Mormonism is deceiving.”
“So that’s where the discussion is. To a non-Christian you really can’t see the difference. Evangelicals hold to the inerrancy of the Scriptures while the Mormon Church deviates from that, adds to that, expands on that. It goes back to the theological issues that divide Mormonism from orthodox, historical Christianity. They are huge.”
Even so, Huey agrees with Thomas that the moral, familial values of Mormon believers make the issue less cut and dry.
“No matter what happens with the election, as for the church, now is the time to reach out to Mormons in truth and in love.”