“With these feelings, though, comes a nagging fear that their beliefs, often misunderstood, will again be subjected to scrutiny, even ridicule, on a national scale.”
If the past is any indicator, their fears may be founded. In 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City, the symbolic and organizational heartland of Mormonism. Some 3,000 Southern Baptist volunteers went door to door with the intent to evangelize Mormons; and the denomination even produced a book called “Mormonism Unmasked,” which promised to “lift the veil from one of the greatest deceptions in the history of religion.”
When Romney delivered his “Faith in America” speech in 2007, the Southern Baptist response was to label Mormonism a “theological cult” and “false religion.”
What’s surprising in 2012 is the relative lack of anxiety on the other side, among evangelicals who for years considered Mormonism a “cult” that was to be feared, not embraced.
In fact, the relative ambivalence among prominent evangelicals about this new “Mormon moment” — and the fact that Romney’s campaign could mainstream Mormonism right into the Oval Office — could radically shift the dynamics on America’s political and religious landscape.
“You can already see the change in thinking among many evangelicals who see Mitt Romney more as the Republican candidate for president and less as a Mormon,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who declined, when asked, to label Mormonism a “cult.”
Joanna Brooks, a prominent Mormon writer at Religion Dispatches, agreed with Anderson, noting the already visible difference between the level of evangelical anxiety created by the Romney campaign in 2008 and 2012.
“Since his inevitability as a candidate this spring, you’ve seen evangelical leaders who took pleasure in calling Mormonism a cult come to his side,” Brooks said. “Things are changing.”
Brooks doesn’t believe that a Romney candidacy will eliminate the serious theological distinctions between evangelicals and Mormons, but she does expect we’ll see fewer Christians willing to label Mormonism as a “cult” as the mainstream media and many Americans now interpret the use of the phrase as an expression of bigotry.
Last October, Christian columnist Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative that it’s “offensive” to him when Christians speak of Mormonism as a cult. His words echo the sentiments of Richard Mouw, prominent evangelical scholar and president of Fuller Theological Seminary, who penned “My Take: This evangelical says Mormonism isn’t a cult” on CNN’s Belief blog.