Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Can a Mormon be president?
Vail, CO, Colorado
Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain likes to duke it out with opponents, even contenders from his party. Cain verbally slugged front-runner Mitt Romney, trying to pound him into the mat because he’s a strong Mormon. He bluntly declared Romney’s religion “is an issue with a lot of Southerners.”
Below the Mason-Dixon Line, Southern Baptists wield political clout. These Baptists believe Mormons deviate from biblical truth on key doctrines about scripture, God and the way of salvation.
Is Cain correct about a Southern anti-Mormon vote against Romney and fellow presidential contender former Utah Gov. John Huntsman? Because many evangelicals vote straight Republican, doesn’t it seem certain that they wouldn’t endorse either of these Mormon candidates?
Forty years ago, Cain’s evaluation would have been on target. Then a huge divide existed about basic biblical belief between Mormons and evangelicals. But in recent decades, doctrine means less to voting Americans. Judging candidates on other merits has seeped into the evangelical camp, too. Bias against Mormonism, even in the South, isn’t as formidable as it formerly was.
A Pew Research Center poll reports 68 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t hold a Mormon candidate’s faith against him or her, with 25 percent saying they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon for president. Evangelicals’ caution rose higher: 34 percent said they wouldn’t support a Mormon running for president. That Romney and Huntsman can’t win the presidency because of Southern evangelicals’ rejection isn’t valid if pocketbook concerns trump religious principles.
Evangelicals might vote as they did in the 1980 presidential election – the dollar bill won over doctrine. Then-President Jimmy Carter appeared to be a sterling born-again candidate, the type evangelicals wanted in the White House. He witnessed about Jesus Christ as personal Savior. Carter taught Sunday school in his home church. He showed fidelity to his wife and raised a daughter who respected him as a Christian parent.
From doctrinal and family perspectives, what more could evangelicals hope for?
Along came Ronald Reagan, who rarely attended church, was divorced, distanced himself from his children and starred in Hollywood, which mocks family values. Even though he wasn’t one of their own in Christian practices, evangelicals believed Reagan would fatten their wallets and introduce fiscal policy to keep Big Government off their backs.
Doctrine lost. Dollars won. Evangelicals helped sweep Ronald Reagan into the White House.
Mormons and evangelicals usually are Republicans. Once bitter religious adversaries, they’ve forged common bonds in regards to patriotism, honor for the Constitution and respect for authority in the home. All three create a stable society, they believe.
Mormons make good citizens who salute Old Glory. They’re hard working, tout education and are devout toward church and traditional family. Evangelicals show similar traits. Both groups like freshly scrubbed youth who aren’t afraid to engage in mission work.
Mormons and evangelicals link arms around the Constitution, too. They remind our nation it has strayed from constitutional principles of limited government, low taxes and lean business regulation. In fact, Mormon founder Joseph Smith elevated the Constitution, saying it was divinely inspired.
Though Baptists reject the rigid authoritarian structure of the Mormon empire, they do respect traditional families where dad wears the pants and mom works in the kitchen. Mormons display Boy Scout virtues. Their families regularly pray together. Such strengths forge a God-fearing nation, say evangelicals and Mormons.
Still, if the evangelical vote swings on doctrinal purity, Mormonism remains a hard sell. It speaks of God as father, who has an actual body and used to be a man. “God the Father himself was once as we are now,” taught Joseph Smith, “and is an exalted man and sits enthroned in yonder heaven. If you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form.”
Evangelicals judge such teaching as heresy. They remind Mormons of Jesus’ instruction to a woman who visited him at a well, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
If evangelicals’ loyalty remains anchored in doctrines about God, it’s unlikely they’ll vote for Mormon presidential candidates. But if their commitment turns to the dollar bill, business tycoons Romney and Huntsman might win evangelicals’ support at the polls.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.