SHORTLY BEFORE THE Southern Baptist Convention met in Salt Lake City in 1998, the SBC missions board distributed over 45,000 evangelistic kits titled "The Mormon Puzzle: Understanding and Witnessing to Latter-day Saints." The kit included a video that depicted a typical Mormon family enjoying the weekly LDS ritual of "family home evening." The video commentator noted that the Mormon family "could be the family across the street--wonderful, law-abiding people who adore their children, instilling values we all love and cherish." But, the commentator continued, this family would be "lost for eternity" without theological direction. The message was that though Mormons may look clean and righteous on the outside, on the inside they are in the grip of dark forces; their actions mask the heresy within.
I recall those SBC materials when I read some media reports about Mitt Romney's campaign for president. Photogenic, successful and dynamic, flanked by a large, close-knit family, Romney appears to be a viable candidate. But deep-seated suspicions remain about his affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Journalists trace his political stances to his theological beliefs and his fund-raising to his church connections. A Romney presidency is not simply a vehicle for one man's political aspirations; it is the opportunity to have "a Mormon in the White House." The LDS Church, anxious to represent itself positively, has capitalized on the media attention to try to dispel old myths and to garner positive attention.
Mormonism has puzzled outside observers since Joseph Smith founded the faith in the 19th century. It has been called a cult, a Christian heresy and an American form of Islam. Conservative evangelicals such as Franklin Graham and Richard Land recently quizzed Romney to determine whether his beliefs square with their own. No less anxious are the queries posed by mainstream journalists in the Wall Street Journal and Time about practices such as polygamy and the wearing of temple undergarments.
In the September 2005 Atlantic Monthly, for example, Sridhar Pappu reported that he had asked Romney if he wore temple garments--and admitted he was uncomfortable asking the question. The issue of a candidate's religion "should have died with the election of Jack Kennedy." But Pappu did ask the question, along with another strange question that seemed to encode more than Pappu was willing to admit: "How Mormon are you?" Pappu never explained why undergarments might be pertinent to Romney's candidacy--nor what constitutes being exceedingly Mormon. Mormonism remains mysterious to many Americans, according to Kenneth Woodward's recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, which leads to the notion that, like John F. Kennedy, Romney should reassure us about his faith by unequivocally declaring that his primary loyalty is to the Constitution rather than to the LDS Church hierarchy.
But even if Romney were to explain his religious beliefs at length, I doubt that most people would feel more at ease. It is hard to imagine that anything Romney says on the subject would be taken at face value by the many Americans already predisposed to be suspicious of the LDS Church.
What does Mormonism suggest about the character of a potential president? This question is challenging principally because, as is the case with any religious tradition, there is not necessarily a direct correlation between Mormon beliefs or doctrines as enunciated by church leaders and individual practices. Just as one can't tell very much about the behaviors of individual Catholics just by listening to the pronouncements of the pope or even reading passages of scripture, we cannot easily predict the behaviors of Mormons by examining particular teachings. Variety among Mormons is as common as in many other Christian traditions.
THE LDS CHURCH itself is only one of dozens of diverse Mormon groups that claim the Book of Mormon as authoritative. …