This week, evangelical Christian author Warren Smith made waves with his essay “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church,” a candid and forthright exposition of evangelical Christian objections to the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and, by extension, Jon Huntsman. (The headline for Smith’s essay was modeled after evangelist Bill Keller’s famous 2008 campaign commentary that “A vote for Romney is a vote for Satan.”) Given historical tensions between Mormons and evangelical Christians in the United States, it set off strong reactions in LDS communities. Today, Smith graciously agreed to speak with me about the article and his views on the Romney campaign.
WS: Let me start by saying that the original title of my article was “Does Romney’s Mormonism Matter?” The editor changed the title to “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church.” That is the editor’s prerogative. To be frank, a lot of people are reacting to the headline without reacting to the article itself. The article is more nuanced.
JB: Let’s turn to the article. In your essay, you call Mormonism a “false and dangerous religion.” I can understand from an evangelical perspective why you view our religion as “false.” But why do you think we are “dangerous”?
WS: Let me ask you. Is anything that is false not dangerous? Anything false is dangerous. Falsehood leads to danger.
JB: So is Judaism dangerous?
WS: Well, Judaism… I’m not prepared to talk about Judaism. The difference between Mormonism and Judaism is that the Christian view of Judaism is that Judaic belief is incomplete. The difference between Judaism and Mormonism is that everything that Judaism actively affirms, historical Christianity believes to be true.
JB: Is Catholicism dangerous?
WS: The historic view of Christianity is that the essential views of the Christian faith—the views affirmed in the Nicene Creed—both Catholics and Christians affirm those essentials.
JB: Is there any other religious sect in the U.S. you would call dangerous?
WS: There are religious sects that do not affirm the Nicene Creed, and I would say the LDS Church is one of those. I would turn that question back on you: if there is no difference between you and the Baptist Church, why not join the local Baptist church?
JB: That’s easy: I really like being Mormon. I recognize that there are differences between our beliefs, but I don’t view them as dangerous. Let’s move on. As a minority faith in the U.S., Mormons (especially Mormons outside Utah) usually have no choice but to vote for people with whom we differ theologically. We tend to be pragmatic on that matter. Help me understand how evangelical Christians view their role in U.S. elections and in shaping public policy.
WS: Evangelicals are actively involved and believe that active involvement in politics is an important part of the expression of our faith; part of being “salt” and “light” in the culture. There are other evangelicals that believe that it is not necessary. Can a Republican presidential nominee win the presidency without the active enthusiastic support of the religious right? I think the answer to that question is no. If a candidate can’t say, “I have a worldview like yours and you can feel safe voting for me,” he cannot win.
JB: So you see evangelical participation as decisive and you’re interested in levying that influence to achieve outcomes?
WS: Yes. Whoever is the Republican nominee must have evangelical support. That’s why the title of my article was “Does Romney’s Mormonism matter?” He must make the case to evangelical Christians that he shares their fundamental beliefs and views on history. I think that the answer to that view is no. My personal view is that if Romney is the nominee, Obama will win.
JB: You also criticize the Mormon tradition of “continuing revelation”—that is, the openness to what we understand to be inspired changes in theology and practice as Mormons collectively seek greater truth and understanding. You compare this to Mitt Romney’s infamous “flip-flopping” on issues like abortion rights and health care. Is it part of your worldview as an evangelical that God has finished speaking to human beings and that change is always a symptom of declension?
WS: In general, the answer to that question is yes. Evangelicals believe that God in his mercy and good providence gave us the Bible as his primary revelation. As a Christian, I pray to hear “God’s voice.” I hope to be obedient to God’s leading in my life. That’s different than continuing revelation. We would not view the Book of Mormon and other documents of the Mormon Church as being equal to and on par with revelation of scripture. Furthermore, evangelical Christians have historically believed in the inerrancy of scripture. We believe that the Bible is inerrant in its original writing. It is possible to read scripture and see what God meant. In general, revelation is a mechanism by which Church bodies over the years have departed from the truth. The LDS Church is not the only church over the ages that has been led away by revelation. History teaches us that the doctrine of continuing revelation leads away from truth not to the truth as a general principle.
JB: You set out a scenario of Mitt Romney having to defend Mormonism’s “idiosyncratic view of history” as president. This seems unrealistic to me, as both Romney and Jon Huntsman have shown no evidence in their public conduct of seeking opportunities to discuss, let alone promote, particulars of Mormon belief. Can you identify another instance in American history when an American president utilized the office to showcase the particulars of his faith? If not, why do you believe Romney (or Jon Huntsman) will do so?
WS: Let me answer that question by questioning some of your presuppositions. Romney’s and Huntsman’s past history addressing Mormonism is not going to be an indication of future behavior. Romney or Huntsman must make evangelicals comfortable. For that reason, Romney will not have a choice. He is going to have to actively address his faith to evangelical voters—I don’t know when that’s going to happen. But it’s going to happen. I promise you. Like Obama’s famous race speech: I promise you Romney and or Huntsman will have to give a similar speech if their campaigns get traction. That’s going to be the decision of evangelical voters who are going to have to get comfortable with them.
Second, there has never been a president [who is] of the Mormon faith. There are some very idiosyncratic practices in Mormonism. For example, right now, there are hundreds of thousands of Mormon missionaries around the world… I can guarantee you that they will use Romney or Huntsman as a perfect opening for a conversation. It’s not really a question of Romney using the bully pulpit, but missionaries will use Romney. As an evangelical Christian who has deep concerns about Mormonism, my decision-making matrix runs not just through politics—like can Romney balance the budget—but through what kind of world I want to live in, and my personal belief is that I don’t want to support false belief.
JB: In your article, you do propose the scenario of Mormon missionaries around the world using a Mormon president as a proselytizing tool. But everything I’m hearing on the Mormon grapevine tells me that the Church—and you should know the Church closely manages the speech and conduct of Mormon missionaries—is not involved in the Romney campaign and feels that both presidential campaigns are as much of a potential headache as a benefit. What evidence do you have to suggest otherwise?
WS: If I was the LDS Church hierarchy and had a guy in the race, I’d say that too.
JB: Closing thought. You believe Mormons are theologically errant, weird, and unreliable. I have no quarrel with evangelical theology but I find evangelical Christians to be anti-pluralistic, mean, and arrogant. Can we ever get along?
WS: Don’t put words in my mouth. I have tons of Mormon friends. I spent a lot of time in the West. I welcomed the Mormon Church’s involvement in Proposition 8. But the doctrine and worldview are flawed and dangerous, and they will ultimately derail Romney’s presidential campaign. I promise you that if Romney’s campaign persists, the issues will come out. My understanding is that Mormons believe Lost Tribes of Israel came to the Americas, and that Jesus came too. Is that not accurate?
JB: There are many Mormons who take non-literal views of Mormon scripture. And the Mormon beliefs you call “idiosyncratic”—like ancient peoples from Israel coming to the Americas (or the Garden of Eden being in Missouri, and so forth) are a part of our Mormon heritage. But if you review the Church’s messaging and Mormon practice today, you will find that they don’t constitute the core of contemporary Mormonism.
WS: You would agree with me that evangelical Christians and Mormons differ on theology?
JB: Of course we’re different. But I don’t see difference as dangerous.