Somewhere, J.F.K. chuckles

SaltLakeTempleOur founder tmatt is too busy today to do an end-zone backflip, so I will comment on the news of Mitt Romney's impending speech about his faith. Most media coverage touches all the important bases: evangelical skepticism about Romney's beliefs (which for some reason reporters think is limited to the South), months of debate within the Romney campaign and inevitable comparisons to John F. Kennedy's speech to Protestant ministers in 1960. The Politico's story drills deeper than most, including these two paragraphs:

For all the Mormons' wholesomeness, and even though the church's formal name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, many Christians in the South focus more on the theological differences than the similarities. That makes it easy for opponents to make wild, false charges about the church in mailings and other hard-to-trace outlets.

Among the key points of contention is the church's canonization of "The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ" as a scripture alongside the Bible, when born-again Christians believe the Old and New Testament are infallible and complete.

Reporters Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin offer no clear examples of such wild or false charges, unless they consider it irresponsible to disagree about The Book of Mormon's canonical authority. An earlier report by Martin mentioned the church's practice of baptisms for the dead, which is common knowledge among religiously literate Americans.

Martin's earlier report also quoted an Iowan as saying a push poll of undetermined origin was "equating [Mormonism] to a cult." That's certainly a point of tension between the LDS and some evangelical Protestant critics. It was common practice among evangelical Protestants for many years to use cult as shorthand for what they concluded was aberrant theology (see Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults). Such labeling is a less common practice today, but it certainly lingers as a reflexive response. Christianity Today has condemned loose usage of cult (and former editor Terry Muck condemned it in 1990). Evangelical Hugh Hewitt (author of A Mormon in the White House?) is among Romney's most outspoken admirers.

From my perspective, the least predictable reporting on this topic was in a Romney profile by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on Oct. 29:

Many commentators have suggested that Romney will need to make a speech akin to the one that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he promised to resign if there was ever a collision between his beliefs as a Catholic and the national interest. Jan Shipps is skeptical of the idea that Romney could do something similar. "Mormonism was a cult, just as Christianity was a cult in the beginning," she told me. "But a cult, when it grows up, becomes a culture, and the people who are a part of it take on an ethnic identity, a peoplehood. Romney is not Mormon the way, say, Ted Kennedy is Catholic. Romney is Mormon the way Ted Kennedy is Irish. That's the difference. And, when it's that much a part of who you are, it's very hard to explain it to other people, because you can't figure out why they can't see it. He can't do a J.F.K., because when J.F.K. did his thing on the Catholics there were people who knew that they were afraid of Catholicism, but at least they knew what it was."

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