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"I'll never vote for the Mormon guy," said my friend back in 2008, when Mitt Romney was chasing John McCain in the Republican primaries. Her first concern was that an LDS candidate and possible president would grant legitimacy to a false religion. Second, if his Mormon identity superseded his American identity, we would end up being governed indirectly from Salt Lake City.
That was then, this is now. With Mitt Romney as the presumptive Republican candidate for 2012, should we be gnashing our teeth?
I don't think so. For the first concern, a religion that's already the fourth-largest in the United States, and the fastest-growing, doesn't lack legitimacy. And for the second, the two identities don't necessarily clash. Mormonism is as American as the Second Great Awakening, that nationwide 19th-century evangelical revival that spawned dozens of home-grown sects, from Disciples to Adventists. Those revival fires burned several times through western New York, where young Joseph Smith was supposedly agonizing over which rival Protestant group to join.
Conveniently, God Himself appeared and told him that none of the churches had it right-Smith was to become the prophet of a latter-day revelation. Divinely guided to golden plates which he was divinely aided to translate, Smith said he learned that Christ had come to the New World after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, in order to preach his gospel to the native Americans, who happened to be descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
However fanciful the story behind it, Mormonism developed into a spiritual expression of the work-hard-and-play-by-the-rules ethic that allows ordinary people to amass fortunes. As a group, Mormons outwork and outplay-by-the-rules just about every other American demographic, and their church has amassed a fortune, as have many of its adherents. Mitt Romney is an exemplary Mormon, which does not interfere with being an exemplary American.
It does interfere with being a Christian, and I understand my friend's concern. Too many Christians carelessly assume that LDS believers are true believers, even if mistaken about some of the fine points. But they're fatally mistaken about the big point, Christ Himself.
I have in my possession a booklet called "What the Mormons Think of Christ," published by the LDS church in 1976 and given to me decades ago by a pair of LDS missionaries. I was surprised to find very Christian-sounding terms in the booklet: Messiah, Creator, Mediator, Redeemer, Savior. Those stood out; what faded into the background was a sense of what Christ saved anybody from. "Adam brought temporal and spiritual death into the world. The atonement of Christ ransoms us from the effects of both temporal and spiritual death." But how? And why? The booklet is hazy on how Adam's fall came about; sin is mentioned in passing, but never defined. And grace? "Grace is simply the mercy, the love, and the condescension God has for his children, as a result of which he has ordained the plan of salvation so that they may have power to progress and become like him."
Power to progress is what America is all about. Mormonism is not at odds with America; only in America could such a faith spring up and prosper. A Mormon president is no political threat. But he could be a spiritual threat if Christians have nothing to say about LDS beliefs. Since nothing happens outside the Lord's control, better to see it as a challenge, a way for Him to sharpen us, to bring us to think more deeply and speak more boldly. Who is Jesus? Why is He called savior, and what does He save us from? The presence of a counterfeit in the public square opens opportunities to examine and expound the genuine article.
The Mormon candidate is from all appearances a decent family man, relatively conservative, with a record that may raise some eyebrows but doesn't strike fear in my heart. I will pray for God to grant him wisdom, and salvation, and be grateful: We could do worse.