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What they believe

The United States has had presidents from unorthodox religious groups before, and after the election it will again: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama court religious voters though both come from traditions far from Christian orthodoxy

What they believe

(Obama: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images • Romney: Charles Krupa/AP)

For those still wondering whether evangelicals will support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney this fall, a September poll by Pew Research Center offered a resounding answer: Nearly 74 percent of white evangelicals said they support Romney.

The survey reported that 19 percent of white evangelicals said they would support President Barack Obama. (Nearly 95 percent of black Protestants support the president.)

If those figures are accurate, it means at least 7 percent of evangelicals are either undecided or might not choose either candidate. It’s a small percentage, but in battleground states where the race is tight, it could make a big difference.

At least some of that 7 percent attend churches like Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in North Carolina, a state where Obama held a 1-point lead over Romney in late September.

Earlier last month, Christ Covenant senior pastor Mike Ross wrote a letter to his congregation about an unprecedented dynamic: “More than any time in my 30 years of pastoral ministry, people are talking to me about whom to vote for,” he wrote.

In a phone interview from his office in Matthews, N.C., Ross said one concern prevails for many in his predominantly conservative congregation of 2,500 members: “They’re really not happy that Mr. Romney is a Mormon.”

Religion hasn’t always been a prominent topic in presidential elections. Indeed, a handful of past presidents have embraced religious movements outside the pale of orthodox Christianity: Presidents John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft were Unitarians. Presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were Quakers.

Some Protestants noted John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism during his presidential campaign in 1960, but it was Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter’s declaration in 1976 that he was a born-again Christian that launched the modern-day discussion of candidates’ religious affiliations.

Obama’s religious beliefs have drawn less attention from evangelicals during this cycle, perhaps because many say they don’t plan to vote for him. The president professes Christianity, though some evangelicals say many of his policies don’t reflect Christian principles.

That subject resurfaced during the Republican National Convention when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said that Obama was the only “self-professed evangelical” in the race. (Obama hasn’t publicly declared that he’s an evangelical.)

Back in Matthews, N.C., Ross says that some in his congregation wrestle with whether a Christian should vote for a Mormon. He says they worry Romney’s victory could promote Mormonism. Ross—who doesn’t endorse candidates—told his congregation he believes Christians may vote for a non-Christian if he’s the best choice in the race.

WORLD has presented both sides of that debate (see “Can a Mormon be a president?” July 1, 2011). But the concern that Romney’s election would legitimize Mormonism as distinctly Christian points to an undercurrent that’s drawn less attention this election season: Some evangelicals do equate Mormonism with Christianity.

In 2011, a Pew Forum survey asked the question: “Is Mormonism Christian?” Fifty-one percent of respondents said yes. Even more striking: Thirty-nine percent of white evangelicals and 43 percent of black Protestants said the Mormon religion is Christian.

Prominent evangelicals have addressed the subject during this election season. Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson—who died in April—wrote last year: “Is the Mormon faith Christian? No. It is not.” (Colson—who didn’t endorse candidates—also wrote that he would prefer a competent non-Christian candidate over an incompetent Christian or non-Christian.)

Other Christians have been less clear. Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw has said that Mormonism isn’t orthodox Christianity, but in a panel discussion that included Mormon professor Bob Millet of Brigham Young University, Mouw said: “I have no question in my mind that Bob worships the same Jesus that I worship.”

Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan—a Catholic—characterized the difference between his faith and Romney’s during his convention speech by saying: “Mitt and I go to different churches. But in any church, the best kind of preaching is done by example.”

And David French—a member of a PCA church and founder of Evangelicals for Mitt—wrote that while doctrine is vital, “I rarely hear anyone seriously ask, ‘Are Methodists Christian?’” He continued: “Perhaps that’s not so much because the theological differences aren’t real and profound but because we’ve made our historical peace through shared understanding of our faith in Christ. Perhaps it’s time that we make that same peace with Mormons.” In a phone interview, French said that while Mormon doctrine isn’t orthodox Christianity, individual Mormons could be Christians because they follow Christ.

If the discussion surrounding the candidates’ religious beliefs sounds like evangelical hair-splitting, the implications run far deeper. Owen Strachan—a professor at the evangelical Boyce College who has written about both candidates’ beliefs—says such discussions challenge evangelicals to articulate clearly the truths of the Bible and “to esteem and guard the gospel.”

WORLD has written about both Mormonism and Obama’s religious background in the past. We revisit those subjects here as a brief—though not exhaustive—guide to approaching important Christian themes during the 2012 elections and beyond.

Mormon distinctives

When reporters attended a Mormon church service with Romney and his family in New Hampshire this summer, the congregation sang a familiar Christian hymn written in 1787: “How Firm a Foundation.”

In the first verse, the hymn writer declares: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!” He then asks: “What more can He say than to you He hath said?”

According to Mormon teaching, God began saying much more in 1820, nearly 33 years after that hymn was written. That’s the year when a 14-year-old Joseph Smith said he had his first vision in Palmyra, N.Y.

Three years later, Smith said an angel named Moroni told him that ancient Hebrews in America had written a sacred history that was engraved in Egyptian dialect on tablets of gold and buried in a nearby hill. Mormons believe that Smith obtained those plates in 1827, and translated them into English using a rock with mystical powers. Smith said he compiled the teachings and published them in 1830 as The Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon teaches that a group of Israelites traveled to America around 600 B.C. After Jesus’ resurrection, He visited America and chose disciples. Mormons consider Smith the prophet who restored the priesthood and the true church after it declined shortly after the New Testament era.

Since Mormons believe in continuing revelation, many doctrines—including polygamy and the barring of blacks from the priesthood—have come and gone through the declarations of “living prophets.” But other teachings have remained, and though Mormons profess to hold to many of the same beliefs as orthodox Christians (like the death and resurrection of Jesus), the differences remain stark.

Ask James Anderson, a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, about the differences between Mormonism and Christianity, and he says: “It’s hard to narrow down because Mormonism differs profoundly from orthodox Christianity on almost every point—its understanding of God, mankind, Jesus, the Bible, sin, salvation, and hell.”

Anderson’s list is a helpful outline for looking at some of the basic teachings of Mormonism that diverge from Christianity.

On God: Mormons believe that God the Father has an exalted body and dwells in heaven with a wife called Heavenly Mother. They don’t embrace the Trinity, but believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate Gods.

On Jesus: Mormons believe that Jesus was the first of billions of spirit children of the Heavenly Father, and that He was chosen to come to earth and become a savior for mankind. Former Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley once said, “The traditional Christ” of other churches “is not the Christ of whom I speak.”

On mankind: Every human being existed before his earthly life as a pre-mortal, spirit-child of God. At birth, spirit children take earthly bodies, and have an opportunity to progress and become like God. Families “sealed” in temple rituals will remain in the same relationships for eternity.

On the Bible: Mormons believe the Bible is a holy book, but they do not believe it is the only Word of God.

On sin: The fall of Adam and Eve—the first man and woman—was a blessing because it made them fully mortal and paved the way for pre-mortal spirits to be born to earthly parents. Without the fall, Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had children.

On salvation: Jesus died for the sins of mankind, and provides the way to salvation. But the highest degree of salvation—an eternity in the full presence of the Father and the Son—is a heaven reserved for those who follow Mormon teaching and do enough good works.

On heaven and hell: Mormons believe in three heavens—the highest is reserved for devout Mormons. Christ’s sacrifice atones for the sins of everyone, and most people will eventually go to some form of heaven. An eternal hell only exists for Satan, demons, and certain “sons of perdition.”

Despite its radical departure from orthodox Christianity, Mormonism is growing. That’s likely due in part to its emphasis on strong families, productive living, and care for the needs of others. “You could say they offer the American dream in the form of religion,” says Anderson. (Mormons also teach that homosexuality and abortion are wrong—views that align with evangelicals.)

Those similarities are worth noting, but downplaying the fundamental distinctions is harmful, says Anderson: “If you love people, then you have their best interests at heart. And to blur the boundaries between a biblical gospel and a false gospel is not loving at all.”

Postmodern piety

If President Barack Obama was watching the Republican National Convention, he might have been surprised to hear former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee refer to him as “the only self-professed evangelical” in the race. (Huckabee used the moment to suggest that Romney’s positions align better with most evangelicals, even though he’s a Mormon.)

But if the president is an evangelical, he hasn’t stated it. In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Obama resisted the label. Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC)—his church home in Chicago for 20 years—is part of one of the most liberal Protestant denominations in the country. The UCC was the first denomination to ordain homosexuals openly. In 2005, the UCC passed a resolution supporting “gay marriage.”

Obama left Trinity Church in 2008 after a series of incendiary sermons surfaced featuring Jeremiah Wright, a longtime pastor, friend, and mentor to the Obamas. Wright’s sermons included scorching rants against “the Great White West,” and conspiratorial accusations of racism against whites in America.

Obama distanced himself from Wright, but not from the thread of black liberation theology that interprets the Bible as a story of the struggles of black people and emphasizes social justice. Since living in Washington, the Obamas have visited a handful of churches, but haven’t joined another congregation (a dynamic often typical for presidents while they live in the district).

Still, the president has underscored his Christian profession, and spoke at a 2011 prayer breakfast of how he came to “know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my Lord and Savior.” He has described visiting Trinity Church after college, and hearing Wright preach. “And in the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ,” he said. “I learned that my sins could be redeemed.”

But while Obama professes Christianity, he has publicly resisted some of its orthodox tenets. In his political memoir The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote: “When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must continually be open to new revelations.”

Viewing the Bible as changing text may have paved the way for the president’s shift to support gay “marriage.” Obama invoked Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 (known as “the golden rule”) to endorse a practice that most evangelicals consider unbiblical.

The president has also rejected the exclusive claims of Christianity. He told the Chicago Sun Times in 2007: “I believe that there are many paths to the same place and that is a belief there that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.”

In his book The Faith of Barack Obama, author Stephen Mansfield tracks Obama’s language about Christianity, but also quotes evangelical advisers who say some of Obama’s views have changed. Joel Hunter—pastor of Northland Church in Florida and a spiritual adviser to Obama—told Mansfield that Obama is in transition on some of his Christian views, and insists the president is a born again believer.

But if the president has changed his views, he hasn’t mentioned it publicly. That’s troubling to Strachan of Boyce College, a former White House staffer under former President George W. Bush. Strachan says a mark of positive spiritual growth would entail repudiating serious error. Instead, Strachan sees growth in the opposite direction, particularly with the president’s support for abortion and “gay marriage.”

Even Mansfield—whose book paints an often positive picture of Obama’s faith—admits that the president’s views reflect a broader trend: “He is the product of a new, postmodern generation that picks and chooses its own truth from traditional faith, much as a man customizes his meal at a buffet.”

Theologian J. Gresham Machen warned against that kind of spiritual buffet in Christianity and Liberalism—a 1923 classic work that resonates today. For Machen, the proposition was simple: “Christianity is founded upon the Bible … Liberalism is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.” But the proposition was also hopeful: “The Bible, to the Christian, is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty.”

—with reporting by Marvin Olasky

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


  • Rob's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 06:56 pm

    Clearly we should support the candidate who most likely will uphold truth and justice in the civil realm... and that is clearly Mr. Romney in my opinion.It is more troubling that there are many evangelicals (like the PCA church member quoted) who are minimizing the difference between christianity and mormonism.  Mormonism is a christian heresy - and a dangerous one at that since some of their doctrines sound similar on the surface and their practice is many times praiseworthy.

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 06:56 pm

    Who will likely nominate Justices more in line with your own views on marriage, abortion, expanding the power of the state beyond constitutional limits (as we historically have understood those limits)? Think long and hard how you would answer that question when you step into that ballot booth in 4 weeks.