Don't call him Brother Romney just yet

If you've not followed the decades-long theological debate between apologists for evangelical Protestantism and apologists for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, brace yourself. You're probably in for an extended mass media discourse on those differences, at least until the primaries settle who will be the Republican nominee for president. Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio prepared a generally good story about the resistance Mitt Romney is meeting from some evangelicals in South Carolina. There were two glaring problems in Wertheimer's report, however.

"They wouldn't even allow black people in their church until ’78," said Cindy Mosteller, who serves on Fred Thompson's advisory committee. It's true that the LDS did not welcome black men and boys into its priesthood (which was otherwise open to men and boys) until 1978. The website provides a fascinating page on the history leading to what the church considered a new revelation from God.

The other glaring problem is in how religious historian Kathleen Flake (who is a Latter-day Saint) leaves the impression that only evangelical Protestants have declared the canon of Scripture to be closed. While Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy cannot be characterized as taking a sola Scriptura stance, neither has either communion agreed that any other book be added to the canon of Scripture since it was codified.

Those problems aside, Wertheimer's report makes two wise observations: There's nothing Romney can say to change the minds of some evangelical voters before the primaries; but, in the event of a Clinton vs. Romney election, those theological differences may fade in their importance to evangelical voters.

On another front, Josh Patashnik of The New Republic has found an interesting new angle in Romney's candidacy: the disappointment of his fellow church members that he's sounding too much like an evangelical Protestant. Patashnik cites the strong example of Romney's downplaying historic LDS teaching about where Jesus will return to Earth:

Mormons, he said, believe "that the Messiah will come to Jerusalem. ... It's the same as the other Christian tradition."

This was both technically correct and completely misleading: The church's position is that, while Christ will indeed appear at the Mount of Olives, he will also build a new Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri, which will serve as the seat of his 1,000-year reign on Earth. Romney had conveniently neglected to mention this part of his church's doctrine.

Patashnik reaches the bizarre conclusion that Romney's trying to sound evangelical "cannot help but vindicate evangelical feelings of superiority." It is more likely to agitate evangelicals who know even the basics about the profound theological differences between Protestantism and the LDS, such as whether Heaven will involve eternal procreation. Any Protestant who has ever welcomed LDS missionaries inside a home for a theological discussion will recognize that Romney did not invent the practice of describing the LDS as simply another manifestation of the Christian church -- but one that believes Joseph Smith Jr.'s new revelations restored a primitive Christianity that had been lost for centuries.

Patashnik's refreshing story gets beyond the familiar headline of "Evangelicals and Mormons Disagree." The LDS voters he interviews will not play a crucial role in who snags the Republican nomination, but it's good to know they exist, and to hear their frustrations.

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