As we slide closer and closer to election day, some political reporters are looking ahead to 2008 and the status of "value voters" and the evangelical vote. This keeps leading people to Mitt Romney, of course, and the M word.
But reporters are still afraid to talk about the real issues here. They keep pointing at the wrong doctrines. Here's a Los Angeles Times story from earlier in the week that shows what I mean.
So, reporter Elizabeth Mehren, why are evangelicals so worried about Romney's faith? Here is a scene on the non-campaign trail in Iowa:
... Romney faces a potential obstacle that has not confronted a presidential hopeful for almost 50 years. As a devout Mormon -- and a onetime bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- Romney adheres to a faith that makes many Americans uncomfortable. Not since John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, sought the White House in 1960 has the religion of a potential president been an issue. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that most religious barriers to high office had crumbled, but that 35% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon president.
. . . Since he announced in December that he would not seek a second term as governor, Romney has campaigned in key primary states -- steadfastly decreeing that his faith was a private matter. He deflects most inquiries by stating that Jesus Christ is his savior. A favorite Romney quip is that in his church, "marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman."
This laugh line, and his reluctance to delve deeper into his beliefs, only add to the mystery of a faith that many Americans associate with polygamy -- although that practice has long been outlawed by the church -- and with customs such as marrying people after they have died and converting the dead.
I have heard lots of traditional Christians discuss this issue and I have never heard anyone discuss polygamy. Maybe it's the crowd I run with, people who've read a lot of religious history, but what I hear people talking about is the very nature of God in Mormon theology.
They are worried about a P word, but it's not polygamy. It's polytheism. (Click here for a flashback to my own interviews with top Mormon leaders on this topic.) The P word then leads to the big concept that the press is going to have to face -- the E word.
That word is "exaltation," and its concept that what man now is, the God of this creation once was. Thus, there are many worlds, creations or spheres that have their own gods (and the gods have many wives) who are humans who have evolved to divinity. Click here for a typical evangelical Protestant discussion of this conflict.
That's going to be a tough one to handle in a press conference when it comes up. Romney needs to open that question up on his own turf, on this own terms and, to use that old Washington phrase, "hang a lantern on his problem."
Mehren almost gets to this issue, via an itnerview with the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Sure enough, he uses the word "cult" in a doctrinal sense of the word.
"We evangelicals view Mormons as a Christian cult group. A cult group is a group that claims exclusive revelation. And typically, it's hard to get out of these cult groups. And so Mormonism qualifies as that." In addition, Haggard said, evangelicals do not accept Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith as a prophet. "And we do not believe that the Book of Mormon has the same level of authority as the Bible," he said.
When Romney says that he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior, "we appreciate that," Haggard said. "But very often when people like Mormons use terms that we also use, there are different meanings in the theology behind those terms."
And there you have it. Mormons and traditional Christians are often using the same words, with different definitions. And then there is the big divide and that is the word "exaltation." Mehren's story is better than most I have seen on this topic so far, but it still has a gods-shaped hole in it.