The Los Angeles Times recently ran a commentary piece that perfectly captured in a single word the reason that Mitt Romney will -- sadly -- continue to face questions about his Mormon faith. I say "sadly" because there may be a very good reason that Romney cannot give the speech that he needs to give in order to put this controversy to rest, which needs to happen if Mormons are going to play the role that they have every right to play at the highest level of national politics.
The article by Sally Denton, author of American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857, ran with this double-stacked headline: "Romney's cross to bear -- Questions about his religion could doom his campaign. He needs to face them head-on." Here is the crucial background paragraph, as far as I am concerned:
To understand Romney and the unique political obstacle his religion imposes, and to determine if the Mormon vision for America has relevance in a 21st century presidential campaign, one must explore the fundamentals of the religion -- both where it's been and where it is today. The Mormon Church -- officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- is perceived as a fringe religion by many Americans, yet it is perhaps the most homegrown of American faiths. Founded in 1830 in upstate New York by a charismatic farm boy named Joseph Smith Jr. -- the sect's "prophet, seer and revelator" -- the religion was not Judaic, Christian or even monotheistic, at least not in any traditional sense.
Did you catch the key word?
The land-mine word is "was," in that last sentence. In other words, Mormonism once held beliefs that were clearly heresy to traditional Christians in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant sanctuaries. But are there beliefs in Mormonism that have changed, yet the church's leaders cannot openly discuss those changes?
And there is another reality at work, I think. All churches contain people who no longer hold the doctrines that are "on the books" in their faith. Anyone who reads headlines about the wars in various Christian flocks knows this. Every time that one of the GetReligionistas writes about this topic, the comments pages soon include puzzling comments by Mormons who, clearly, do not agree with one another about some of the church's most controversial teachings. Search this weblog for the word exaltation and you'll see what I am talking about.
Meanwhile, you may remember that strange Time encounter between religion writer Richard Ostling and LDS President Gordon Hinckley, back in the mid-1990s.
"At first Hinckley seemed to qualify the idea that men could become gods," according to Time, "suggesting that 'it's of course an ideal. It's a hope for a wishful thing,' but later he added, 'yes, of course they can.'"
On whether the LDS Church holds that, "God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, 'I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it ... I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it,'" Hinckley told Time.
This issue is at the heart of the tension between Mormon believers and traditional Christian believers -- the doctrine of God itself. Is this a doctrine of God or Gods or gods? It will be hard for Romney to say anything about this issue if the leaders of his own church are reluctant to discuss it on the record, with tape recorders rolling.
I bring this up, yet again, because of a new piece -- "Romney's Run Has Mormons Wary of Scrutiny" -- by one of the mainstream media's top religion reporters, Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times. Let's look at two crucial sections of the piece:
At the core of these tensions is that Mormons consider themselves to be Christians who believe in Jesus Christ and the Bible, but many of their tenets and practices have been denounced by other churches as heretical.
Some Mormons have watched with concern how Mr. Romney has responded to grilling by interviewers about his church's distinctive doctrines.
Mr. Romney has been questioned about the Mormon definition of God, polygamy, the location of Jesus's arrival when he returns to earth, and even a mysterious saying attributed to Joseph Smith Jr. called the "White Horse Prophecy," which some interpret as a prediction that when the American Constitution is hanging "by a thread," a Mormon will rescue the nation.
Mr. Romney's tendency to gloss over Mormonism's history and distinctive tenets has upset some fellow Mormons.
Fear not, the question here isn't whether there are mainstream Mormons who still believe in polygamy, because that is a non-issue. The question is whether Romney has gone too far to repudiate his own family's past.
And that is not the only issue discussed in this piece. Here is one that has not received much ink, until this article in the most powerful newspaper in the world. Note the reaction of Tom Grover, a Mormon who is a talk-radio pro.
Another case arose when George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Mr. Romney about a Mormon teaching that Jesus will come to the United States when he returns to reign on earth. Mr. Romney responded that the Messiah will return to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, "the same as the other Christian tradition."
Mr. Grover said some of his radio listeners were astounded.
"They were just in disbelief, saying that's not true, Jesus is coming back to Missouri," Mr. Grover said. "It's the L.D.S. Church's 10th article of faith that Zion will be built upon the American continent."
Attention Romney staff members: Now there is a question with legs in evangelical and charismatic megachurches in South Carolina.
Goodstein's article raises several crucial questions for Romney and for the journalists who cover him. Question No. 1: Is there unity among Mormons on some of their most controversial doctrines? Question No. 2: Have some of these doctrines been quietly changed or "modernized," making them hard for leaders to discuss in public?
And, finally, question No. 3 is political: What happens if Romney, in his quest to pacify evangelical Protestants in the Republican Party, waters down his beliefs so much that he ticks off other Mormons and is exposed as a "liberal" or a compromiser?
In the end, the problem may not be what tradititional Christian believers think of Romney's pronouncements on his faith, or lack thereof, but what Mormons think of what he has to say. What a twist that would be. Once again, please focus your comments on the issues raised in the New York Times piece. Doctrinal warfare is out of bounds.