Robert Jones, president of the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute, sees parallels to the warming thaw between evangelicals and Catholics in the 1980s and 1990s — a pragmatic political alliance that grew out of shared opposition to abortion.
“It was really political affinities that began to break down that wall between Catholics and evangelicals,” Jones said.
More recently, evangelicals have been more than willing to work with Mormons in the fight against gay marriage. The growing Mormon-evangelical political alliance could have real religious (and political) implications: Recent PRRI polls of white evangelicals show that as the group’s awareness of Romney’s Mormon faith increases, his favorability among the group also rises.
In short, what was once a liability might now be seen as a political asset — especially in the GOP’s crucial base of conservative Christian culture warriors.
Still, not all evangelicals seem to be softening their stance. Southern Baptist researcher Ed Stetzer defines Mormonism as a “theological cult,” not the classic “sociological cult.” His research shows that a full 75 percent of Protestant pastors believe that Mormonism is either a cult or simply a different religion.
Stetzer says he’d be concerned if the significant theological distinctions between Mormons and mainstream Christianity are blurred or overlooked in the name of political expediency.
“I think it is more helpful to call Mormons another religion, distinct from biblical or historic Christianity, as just about everyone from Catholics to Methodists to Baptists have clearly stated,” Stetzer notes. “It’s a different religion that uses the same words to describe very different things.”
In the 2012 presidential race, “very different” doesn’t seem to matter very much at all. And that — regardless of whether Romney wins in November — may be the most important legacy of America’s Mormon moment.
(Jonathan Merritt is author of “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.”)
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