WASHINGTON — The Southern Baptist Convention website categorizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a ”cult” that is ”radically” different from historic, biblical Christianity.
A faith guide issued by the influential Christian right group Focus on the Family declares that ”God cannot be identified . . . with the Mormon religion’s notion of god.” And each year, evangelical organizers behind the National Day of Prayer bar Mormons from speaking at their proceedings.
As Governor Mitt Romney mulls a race for president in 2008, his strategists expect their ”family values” candidate — who opposes gay marriage, abortion, and some forms of embryonic stem cell research — to find a natural base of support among religious conservatives. ”As Mitt’s traveled the country and tested the waters, he’s gotten very strong responses, including from religious conservatives,” said Michael Murphy, a political consultant who advises Romney.
But an examination of the views of powerful Christian right groups suggests that, even as some of these voters might appreciate Romney’s lifelong commitment to his church, the governor’s Mormon faith could become an obstacle for others among this same group, who make up a large and vocal segment of Republican primary voters.
”It would be extraordinarily hard for mainline denomination people in the South to openly and strongly politick or be involved in a Mormon’s run for office,” said Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination and a fixture of the Christian right.
A Romney run for president would test the unity of a Christian right voting bloc that for the past five years has demonstrated remarkable solidarity on issues ranging from sexuality and family life to President Bush’s first choice as Supreme Court justice. An estimated 40 percent of Republican primary voters are conservative Christians.
Romney strategists are reluctant to speak about a potential presidential run until the governor has made up his mind, but they remain attuned to how Romney’s faith plays with these voters. Last March, the governor invited Southern California evangelical pastor Rick Warren to breakfast in Cambridge after reading his bestseller, ”The Purpose Driven Life.”
Romney has also appeared on syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show, a megaphone to religious conservatives, three times in the past three months.
Protestant evangelicals commonly overlook vast theological differences to form political alliances with people of other faiths, particularly conservative Catholics and Jews. But the Mormon Church, in particular, faces an activist opposition from a faction of conservative Protestants.
Most anti-Mormon activists come from ”the right wing of the evangelical community,” said Robert L. Millet, professor of religion at Brigham Young University. The Southern Baptists are a key piece of the right wing, which also contains a range of Christian fundamentalists.
The early Mormons faced violence and persecution for their religious beliefs and practice of polygamy, which the church has long since outlawed and now vigorously condemns. Today, expressions of anti-Mormonism manifest themselves on websites, in books and documentaries, and through invective sometimes hurled by Christian fundamentalists at temple-goers in Salt Lake City.
That’s not to say Romney can’t attract votes from evangelical Protestants by advertising his success running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, his experience running a major state, and his increasingly conservative views on social issues such as abortion — the three building blocks of his potential candidacy, according to advisers and other political leaders.
”There are key doctrinal differences between Mormons and Baptists — and most other evangelicals,” said David S. Dockery, board chairman of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. ”But I don’t see that that would be an issue [in a presidential bid] because he would share many of the same views on political and cultural issues, especially related to life and family, the economy and the environment.”
Dockery, president of the Baptist-affiliated Union University in Tennessee, called Romney an ”outstanding governor and a wise leader who has an opportunity for a larger platform beyond Massachusetts.”
And Murphy, whose national track record includes Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, said religious conservatives ”tell me that they’re impressed that Romney has stood up on values. They admire his courage, on stem cells and gay marriage and other issues. They think he’s shown more courage than a lot of other Republicans.”
But for some Protestant evangelicals, casting a vote for Romney will be a hurdle, particularly if they like his stands on social issues but have concerns about his church’s teachings.
”Evangelicals are going to have a conundrum on their hands with that one,” said the Rev. Greg Johnson, a Utah pastor who co-chairs Standing Together Ministries, a national effort to improve relations between the faiths.
Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor’s spokesman, said Romney will make a decision this fall whether to run for reelection in Massachusetts. If he declines, he is widely expected to throw his hat into the presidential ring. Until those decisions are made, Fehrnstrom said, the governor is focused on his job in Massachusetts and ”this type of chess game” over presidential politics ”is not something we want to participate in.”
Romney, who oversaw the Boston area’s Mormon congregations for nine years, is not the first church member to seriously consider a run for president. Others include his own father, George Romney, the popular governor of Michigan who dropped out shortly before the 1968 primaries; former representative Morris K. Udall of Arizona, who lost his bid for the Democratic nomination in 1976; and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who dropped out of the 2000 Republican primary race after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses.
Even Joseph Smith Jr., the self-proclaimed prophet who founded the church in 1830, made a bid for the Oval Office. His campaign in 1844, the year James K. Polk beat Henry Clay, ended with his murder in June at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob.
The Mormon church boasts a range of high-level political figures; its 17 members of Congress are mostly Republican, but also include Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. The church is known for a strong network that Romney can draw on for fund-raising and support.
But political power doesn’t guarantee an open door to Washington’s religious social world of Bible meetings and prayer groups, said John M. Haddow, a member of the Mormon Church and a Washington attorney who once served as Hatch’s legislative director and remains close to a number of leading Mormon political figures.
Last year, Haddow protested with calls to friends on Capitol Hill after reading news reports that Mormons weren’t permitted to speak at National Prayer Day events organized by evangelicals associated with the wife of Rev. James Dobson, the politically influential Christian psychologist and leader of the activist group Focus on the Family. ”I said, ‘It’s National Prayer Day [and] you decide who can pray and who can’t?’ ” Haddow recalled asking.
Each year in May, Congress, the president, and most state governors proclaim a National Day of Prayer, inviting Americans of all faiths to pray. But Dobson’s wife, Shirley, heads a National Day of Prayer Task Force that mounts its own events nationally — including at the Capitol — which are ”specifically limited to the Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Michael R. Otterson, media relations director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that despite an outpouring of angry e-mails from members, ”We don’t consider it an issue.” Mormons, he noted, can sponsor their own events.
Comparisons are often made between acceptance levels of Mormons and of Catholics in political life; Protestant political foes of Catholics once branded the papacy ”the mark of the beast.” Last March, President James E. Faust, whose title is second counselor in the First Presidency, compared doubts about a Mormon’s chances of capturing the Oval Office to the election of the first Catholic in 1960. ”That day came,” he told local reporters. ”I expect that day will come for a Mormon.”
But scholars say Protestant evangelicals who form the base of the Republican Party have more profound theological conflicts with the Mormon Church. (Despite his efforts to improve the dialogue between Mormons and Protestant evangelicals, Johnson said he doesn’t believe Mormon beliefs are a ”Christian doctrine.”)
Chief among those is the Mormon Church’s assertion that early Christian leaders fell away from God’s truth (a waywardness called the ”Apostasy”) and that it took Smith’s discovery of the Book of Mormon — a historical account that asserts ancient Hebrew tribes landed here and became the ancestors of Native Americans — to ”restore” true Christianity. The Book of Mormon refers to two churches: the Mormon Church is ”the church of the Lamb of God” and the other is ”the church of the devil.”
”One of the first things that puts off traditional Christians is the idea of a restoration [of Christianity] being required,” said Millet. ”Catholics and Protestants would believe in a continuation of Christianity without a break.”
Mormons believe that ”although there were wonderful truths and people” during that nearly 2,000-year period between the death of Christ’s apostles and Smith’s revelations in 19th-century America, ”that divine authority was lost,” Millet added. ”That belief places people in a defensive position.”
While Mormons rely on the Old and New Testaments, they also consider the Book of Mormon — the revelations of prophets that came to Smith — to be the word of God.
Another distinction is the Mormon conception of God, including a belief that in the afterlife humans can become divine — in Smith’s words, ”what God is.”
”This is the kind of belief that can be very much made fun of,” said Jan Shipps, a leading historian of the Mormon Church and professor emerita at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. ”The Southern Baptists and others in the religious right have done a lot with this.”
Dobson’s Focus on the Family website features a guide for teaching Christianity to children that lumps Mormons in with pagan worship. ”God cannot be identified with an object, such as a metal or wooden idol, or with some aspect of nature, such as a star or tree, or with a person, such as Japan’s Emperor Hirohito in World War II or the Mormon religion’s notion of god,” the guide declares.
There have been recent efforts to bridge the divide between evangelicals and Mormons. Millet notes he and other Mormons are invited to join scholarly sessions. ”There’s a new breed of evangelical who is at least willing to put Mormonism on the table,” he says.
Millet and Johnson speak together at sessions around the country in an effort to create better understanding on both sides. Last year their group, Standing Together Ministries, helped organize an event in which evangelical philosopher Ravi Zacharias was invited to speak at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City — the first appearance by someone of another faith in more than a century.
In a Romney race for president, where Christian evangelicals see in the Massachusetts governor a like-minded leader on moral questions, some evangelical leaders say the issue may come down to a basic political question: Who’s the competition? ”If he were running against Bill Frist or George Allen — if [evangelical voters] have a choice between a social conservative who is an evangelical or a social conservative who is a Mormon — most are going to choose a social conservative who is an evangelical,” said Richard Land, who runs public affairs for the Southern Baptist Convention.
”But if Mitt Romney were running against Rudy Giuliani,” Land added, referring to the socially liberal former mayor of New York, ”he’d probably get a lot more votes than Rudy.”