(Originally published by Florida Voices)
Now that Mitt Romney is officially the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination – and Florida’s primary on Jan. 31 could assure him the prize – he faces winds of religious prejudice. And that’s a pity.
Romney is a Mormon and some evangelical Christian leaders publicly oppose him based on his beliefs.
On Monday, St. Petersburg Internet preacher Bill Keller, the evangelical version of Ann Coulter, said, “Romney and Mormons lie when they claim to be a Christian, since the teachings of Mormonism are inconsistent with biblical Christianity.”
Keller’s remarks parallel those of the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, who said in October: “Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”
At an ad hoc meeting last weekend at the Texas ranch of Judge Paul Pressler, a stalwart in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders looked for an alternative candidate. Romney’s faith was not mentioned, according to one report, but after prodigious prayer and three ballots, they settled on former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
At a time when the American economy is at a critical point and we should be having a serious debate about Afghanistan, appropriate levels of government spending and a host of other issues, obsession with Romney’s religion is a distraction.
Just what problem do evangelicals have with Mormons? The short answer is the doctrine of the Trinity – the Christian doctrine that says God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all “of one substance.” The Mormons, part of a 19th century movement that questioned the use of ancient creeds, claim to be Christian, but believe God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate physical beings.
Traditional Christians also reject the claim that The Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith, regarded as a prophet by Mormons, as holy scripture. And until 1890, there was that little matter of polygamy.
The U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for public office, but you can’t forbid deeply held religious prejudices that have dominated politics for decades.
However, prejudices are subject to change. Before John F. Kennedy ran for president, many Protestants said they would never vote for a Catholic. In more recent times, opposition to abortion and gay marriage have bridged the divide between evangelicals and Catholics, hence the evangelical leaders’ support for Santorum, a staunch Catholic.
America has elected many presidents who, like Romney, did not believe in the Trinity. Among them were Deists like Thomas Jefferson, Unitarians John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, and Quakers Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Their theology was not an obstacle to their governance.
Religious creeds have a place as markers of belief, but they should not matter in evaluating presidential candidates. And indications are strong that Romney’s beliefs do not matter to most GOP voters, no matter how much some evangelicals wail and gnash their teeth.