Speaking in support of GOP Presidential Contender Rick Perry, Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress recently declared that
“I think Mitt Romney is a good, moral man...But I think those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.
In media follow-ups, GOP contenders Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain ducked the question of whether they thought Romney was a Christian, with Cain saying that “I believe they believe they’re Christians.” That Romney was not a Christian was openly insinuated by 2008 GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee.
The theological case for why Mormons are not Christian mostly boils down to the role of Jesus Christ in the Mormon cosmology. Mormons believe that Jesus is a separate person/God, distinct from God the Father. They also believe that both God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ were once mortal, just as we are today, and that in the afterlife (if we are worthy) we can eventually become Gods with our own worlds, populated with our own children. That is certainly a distinctive take on the New Testament and God’s plan for our salvation. Nevertheless, Mormons still accept the divinity of Jesus Christ and the critical role that his crucifixion played in the redemption of humankind. The Mormon Christ is the Christ of the New Testament, which they revere as sacred scripture.
Given all of this, it is hard to see why Mormons are so beyond the Christian pale, given that there is no unified cosmological view among the various Christian sects. Indeed, that is exactly why there are various Christian sects. Even the Catholic Church, the standard bearer of the Christian faith for millennia, has changed its view of the Trinity (among other things) over the centuries.
I argue that it is no more legitimate to ask whether Mormons are Christians than to ask whether any self-proclaimed Christian sect is Christian (as if there is some objective arbiter of what qualifies as Christian). Mormons are Christian after their fashion (unorthodox), just as any Christian church is Christian after their fashion. Whatever some Christians may believe about the right- or wrong-ness of Mormon doctrine, if a person identifies as a Christian and commits herself to following the teachings of Christ as set out in the Bible, that person has earned the right to call herself Christian. It is faintly outrageous to suggest that such a person isn’t really a Christian merely because the Mormon Christ is not consistent with one's own conception of Christ.
Refusing to acknowledge a person’s religious identity is a hostile act. And since Protestant Christianity is the dominant ethno-religious identity in contemporary American society, denying this label to other self-identified Christians is a way of policing the boundaries between the cultural dominant ethnic core of society and non-dominant ethno-religious groups in order to keep them marginalized. These out-groups and their unfamiliar, alien, and therefore hostile cultures are perceived as threatening to the national core and must be kept at a distance.
Besides being hostile, it is also fairly odd to question whether Mormons are Christians, given that Christ is central to all ceremonies in the Mormon Church and is routinely invoked in fasting and prayer. Every Mormon prayer concludes “…in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen”; baptisms are undertaken in the name of Christ, as is the weekly Sunday sacrament, where Mormons (like Catholics) bless and consume water and bread, which represent the body and blood of Christ. With this in mind, one might reasonably ask what Mormons have to do to prove to others that they are followers of Jesus Christ.
He is even in the Church’s name.
Called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints from its founding in 1830, the term “Mormons” was merely a slur invented by haters that ended up sticking. One would think that the name of the Church alone would serve as a reliable indicator of its orientation. Apparently not. Over the past several decades, the Mormon leadership therefore undertook a concerted effort to mainstream their image as a conservative Christian faith, emphasizing the strong family values in the Mormon Church as well as the centrality of Jesus Christ in their beliefs. They even redesigned the Church logo in order emphasize their Christian identity. Prior to 1995, at every Mormon meeting house, you could find the sign:
Church PR flaks later fiddled with the font to emphasize the Church's Christian identity:
The Church has made other PR overtures as well, for example, to get the media to refer to the entire name of the Church or by its abbreviation LDS rather than the more perjorative Mormon nickname (a futile effort, as it turned out). They renounced the doctrine of plural marriage (polygamy) in 1890 in return for Utah statehood because mainline Protestant activists didn’t like it; in 1978, in response to pressure by Civil Rights groups, the Church opened the priesthood to Mormon males of African descent (whom early Mormon doctrine had had banned from holding the priesthood). By the early 1990s, the Church had also excised the more cultish-seeming portions of the vows taken in temple ceremonies (including the marriage and sealing ceremonies) that had their roots in Masonic rites (Joseph Smith, the designer of these ceremonies, had been an enthusiastic a Free Mason).
Of course, what matters to many conservative Christians is the weirdness that announces Mormons as unbiblical and unsaved, possibly unholy or even Satanic. The Mormon doctrine that God was once a man is, for example, kryptonite to Evangelical Christians, who can barely tolerate such heresies. Secular Americans, on the other hand, mostly don’t give a crap, and that is what is rather funny about the whole thing. Mormons are like that kid in high school who tries to hang out with the popular kids (mainline conservative Christians), who make fun of him but tolerate him because he comes in handy for running errands (lobbying for a conservative agenda). When it comes down to it, though, the kid is unlikely to be chosen as Homecoming Queen or King.
In the end, this argument is not about abstract doctrinal subtleties, but about the fact that the Mormon Jesus does not resemble the Jesus of conservative (mostly Evangelical) Christians, therefore the Mormon Jesus is not Jesus at all, and Mormons are not Christians.
When Evangelicals question the Christian creed of Romney or Huntman, what they are basically saying is that Romney and Huntsman do not belong to the tribe. They may be better than the black Kenyan usurper currently in the White House, but they will always be vaguely suspicious to the Evangelical Christian base.
This is also, in a funny way, justice. For this is how many Mormons have treated Africans, feminists and gays. Many in the Mormon community view members of these groups as just as unfit for leading the country as do mainline conservative Christians, simply because of what they represent. Muslims and atheists are out of the question; their moral compass cannot be trusted, even if they (as individuals) have every appearance of moral rectitude. Since their fellow social conservatives have the same primordial method of selecting political leaders, it would make sense that Mormons (with a polygamous background and strongly differentiated cosmological beliefs) would be cast in the very same category of “Others” by their fellow GOP voters. Competing for the median bigot vote is a dangerous game when you yourself are not exactly a member of the tribe.