It looks like evangelicals—at least many of those in the evangelical world who normally vote Republican—have made their peace with the Mitt Romney candidacy. Not that their support is necessarily enthusiastic. Romney will get their votes, but it isn’t clear that they will mobilize on behalf of his candidacy. They will end up deciding on the basis of “anyone but Obama.” But that doesn’t mean they will feel clean about voting to put a Mormon in the White House.
Anti-Mormon sentiment runs strong among evangelicals. We differ on this from mainline Protestants and Catholics. Those two groups don’t necessarily like Mormons, but the evangelical version of the dislike is more intense.
Evangelical hostility toward Mormonism has been there from the beginning. And it has typically been reciprocated. Joseph Smith saw himself as restoring true Christianity from the distortions that had run rampant for almost two thousand years. And the kind of “false church” that loomed large in his mind was represented by the various strands of evangelical Christianity that dominated the religious scene in his part of New York state. The angry denunciations flowed freely in both directions.
Unlike our mainline Protestant and Catholic counterparts, we evangelicals actively seek converts, and this means that we see Mormons—also passionately committed to evangelization—as direct competitors. In fact, we often compete for the loyalties of the same groups of people. In some regions of South America, for example, missionaries from both movements are aggressively seeking to bring exactly the same villages—whose residents may hold to a form of animistic religious—into our respective folds.
I have experienced the anti-Mormon hostility personally from my fellow evangelicals. A dozen years ago I helped to organize an ongoing dialogue group of evangelical and Mormon scholars. In the context of those discussions I have also formed friendships with some key LDS church leaders in Salt Lake City. We agree that many of our theological differences go deep, but we also have seen some important areas where we have misunderstood each other.
Hoping to reduce the level of angry rhetoric on the evangelical side, I have encouraged my fellow faithful to engage in friendly give-and-take with Mormons before simply making uninformed pronouncements about their church’s teachings. Some evangelicals have thanked me for taking up the cause. They have friends—even close family members—who are Mormons and have been looking for a more positive approach. But others continue to reproach me. They tell me that I am aiding and abetting an “evil cult.”
Nothing that I have learned about Mormonism in the past twelve years of serious engagement with Mormon life and thought leads me to question the ability of a Mormon to serve as president. I don’t worry that Mitt Romney will be unduly influenced by the leaders of his church. In fact, there is at least one issue on which I wish that he were a better Mormon—his church leaders have expressed a much more humane approach to immigration issues than his stated positions on the subject. It might even be a good thing if Mitt would stop by Salt Lake City once in a while for a refresher course on some of his church’s teachings!
Mouw, a philosopher, scholar, and author, is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.