Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Romney, Tebow say the same things, but …
Vail, CO, Colorado
To capture cultural legitimacy, Mormons advertise on prime-time TV. Plain-spoken Americans testify to the practical benefits of their faith. Exuding a John Wayne kind of rugged sincerity, these people tell how their faith furnishes ballast when life goes bust. The advertisements end with a believer declaring, “I am a Mormon.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly dubbed Mormonism, wants America to know they’re regular citizens, not cultists. Their faith is thoroughly American because it’s practical, useful and doesn’t split doctrinal hairs. It works.
Martin E. Marty, retired University of Chicago historian, unpacks Mormonism’s made-in-America appeal. “This is the only religion with scripture set partly in America. It’s an American book, ready to go. They know their slot, and it’s a huge market: the Norman Rockwell, Lawrence Welk, Boy Scout, anti-gay, anti-ERA world. They are so American – after being so hated.”
Mormons run TV ads to convince viewers that they are part of mainstream religious America, the same as Protestants and Roman Catholics. This marks a major shift in how Mormonism deals with other Christian groups.
The church’s founder, Joseph Smith, insisted that Mormons were not only Christians but the only true followers of Christ. Formerly, Mormonism separated from other Christian traditions. Now Mormons are doing an about-face. Instead of isolating themselves, they desire to be included with Christian groups.
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Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, who’s Roman Catholic, opens her arms to Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “(Conservative icon) Bill Buckley once said he’d rather be governed by the first thousand names in the Boston phone book than by Harvard faculty. I’d rather be governed by Donny and Marie,” gushes Noonan, “than the Washington establishment. Mormons have been, in American history, hard-working, family-loving citizens whose civic impulses have tended toward the constructive.”
“Good enough for me,” cheers Noonan. “He’s (Mitt Romney) running for president, not pastor. In any case his faith is one thing about Mr. Romney I haven’t questioned” (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8/9, 2007, page W13).
Evangelical Christians believe Romney’s Mormon faith deviates from conventional Christianity. Romney defended Mormonism in a speech in Texas at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on Dec. 6, 2007. He confessed, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.”
Romney used historic creedal language that the Christian church recites to identify Jesus. He sounds like Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, an ardent evangelical. When asked how he yanks victory from jaws of defeat in the last quarter of a game, Tebow answers, “I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and my teammates for clinching fourth-quarter victories!”
Since Tebow and Romney use the same creedal language to describe Jesus, many Americans assume they mean the same, too. It’s American to take a person at his word. We lose interest when pressed to delve deeper into how Tebow and Romney attach widely different meanings to their confessions of Christ’s identity.
Practical Americans shun complex religious discussions. They detest theological nit-picking. Most endorse the Constitution’s prohibition against political candidates having to pass a religious test in order to run for office.
Still, it’s important to understand why Tebow and Romney use the same words about Jesus, but their meanings diverge.
Remember the Christmas story about an angel visiting father Joseph in a dream? The angelic visitor announced, “(Mary) will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Biblical Jews knew that only God is able to forgive sin. Therefore, baby Jesus is God. Such a mystery of Jesus Christ being divine and human is called the “incarnation.”
Jesus came from God, lived as God on earth, and returned to God at death. That’s Tim Tebow’s brand of evangelical Christianity.
Mormonism takes this divine-human dynamic of Jesus a step further. Mormons believe that before birth, they existed with God and Jesus in a prenatal state as “spirit children.”
Mitt Romney regards life on earth as a practice field where we learn from challenges and excel at hard work. Earthly endeavors are a warm-up for the eternal game of human achievement that kicks in after death.
Mormons believe they copy Jesus’ path from heaven to earth and back again, becoming gods. “As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become” is the couplet coined by Lorenzo Snow, the fifth Mormon president.
The incarnation doesn’t stop with Jesus, say Mormons. It’s repeated by “spirit children.” This robs Jesus’ incarnation of its unique status, conclude Christians. It’s heresy.
Mormonism’s unconventional belief that humans become gods in the afterlife is enormously appealing to spiritual searchers. American optimism, based on our basic goodness and a bright future when we become gods, is bolstered. “It (Mormonism) was (and is) a religious version of the American dream: Everyman presented with unlimited potential,” observes Richard Ostling, Time magazine’s former religion correspondent (“The Power and Promise of Mormon America,” page xix).
Thoughtful listeners decipher meanings embedded in words. What people mean, not what they say, often leads to divergent beliefs.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.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.