OK, we've waited long enough. Nearly a week after the news from EthicsDaily.com that Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, described Mormonism as "the fourth Abrahamic faith," little has been said of this rather significant statement. The statement came on one of those Sunday political talk shows (Bloomberg's Political Capital with Al Hunt) where celebrity journalists interview other famously important people about the big issues of the day. Perhaps that limited the media's appetite to cover this? My deeper suspicion is that this is a tricky issue that has no clear boundaries or context for what this statement means.
Time's David Van Biema picked up the issue on Wednesday and published an analysis that rather deftly covers the issue and raises an important question:
This raises all sorts of interesting questions. One, is it a promotion or a demotion? "Abrahamic religion" sounds a lot grander than "cult." However, Land also seems to suggest that Mormonism is no more Christian than is Islam. The second is whether it makes it any easier for a Southern Baptist concerned with theological niceties to vote for Romney. A third is whether Land, an extremely well educated and articulate man, is crediting Mormonism with being monotheistic, which is arguably what Abraham was all about. Many evangelicals contend that the LDS are polytheists, believing in plural Gods. Mormons respond that their tenets are no more polytheistic than the Christian belief in the Trinity.
What explains Land's venture into religious taxonomy? Perhaps the fact that as the Wall Street Journal noted last April, he is "a man waiting to be courted, [who] on behalf of religious conservatives is playing hard to get." Land has repeatedly hinted that he might be able to vote for Romney, who reportedly came to him and asked for advice on how to handle the religion issue; Land told him, in effect, that he needed to de-fang the issue much as John Fitzgerald Kennedy did with his famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. As the columnist E.J. Dionne points out, however, JFK's speech clearly separated his Catholicism from his politics. It will be much more difficult for any G.O.P. candidate to relegate his religion to the sidelines in the same way.
Until Romney can pull off that trick, Land must walk his own tightrope between his theologically conservative Convention and his pragmatic desire to see an electable socially conservative Republican presidential candidate. The Abrahamic remark can be understood as an impressive act of political equipoise: being less snarky about Romney's status without letting him totally off the hook. At some future point in time, perhaps Land will come back and work out the theological niceties.
Van Biema is on top of the theological issues raised in Romney's attempt to appeal to conservative evangelicals despite his Mormon faith, and recognizes their significance. The story, as Van Biema indicates, is not even close to trailing off the pages, but the trickiness of the story is not going away either.
Stories showing this or that percentage of evangelicals willing to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate in this or that state are significant, but an equally important story is whether evangelical leaders are willing to bend or finesse theological definitions in order to endorse Romney. The big question, after the election is over, is how this clever theological dancing will affect evangelicals' opinions about Mormons.