It's about the theology, of course, not the politics. There are plenty of Catholics, Orthodox, evangelicals and mainiline Protestants out there who plan to vote for Gov. Mitt Romney or who can contemplate that issue without getting into discussions of heaven and hell. There are, of course, many believers out there who are also a bit miffed that people are saying they are bigots if they have trouble buying into the decades of public relations work proclaiming that Mormons are now officially part of mainstream Christianity (as they clearly are part of mainstream American culture). By the way, how many people on the political and religious left are planning to reject Romney because of the content of his religious and moral beliefs? Just asking.
But the press is absolutely positive that this is all about the dreaded fundamentalist Christians and the fundies alone. Heck, even Peggy Noonan seems to think that and offers an off-the-record quote from a Romney aide to back that up.
Thus, Stephanie Simon's crisp Los Angeles Times news feature on the Romney speech ends with this provocative passage about the people who still struggle to embrace the Prophet Joseph Smith and his unique revision of ancient Christianity:
When a candidate "believes things most Christians believe to be heresy -- doctrinally, just plain wrong -- that poses problems for [voters'] comfort level," said David Gushee, an evangelical theologian at Mercer University.
But Mormons counter that they accept the same fundamentals as other believers -- namely, Christ as savior. And they say it's unfair to brand Smith crazy.
"The foundational story of Christianity, that [Christ] was raised from the dead, is also not rational," said Scott Gordon, president of a Mormon theology group called FAIR. "We consider ourselves Christian. What right do you have to say we're not?"
Well, Trinitarian Christians have the same right to say that Mormons are not Christians as the Mormons have the right to make the case that they are. That creates sparks, of course, but that's the reality.
So it is striking, as Simon notes, that Romney -- laying at least one vague card on the altar -- did a bit more than hint at this reality in his speech. He admitted that the Jesus Christ of Mormon faith is not, according to creedal Christians, the Jesus Christ of traditional Christianity. That is a positive step forward in making peace with the people who want to vote for him, or are seriously considering voting for him, but want to see him be more candid.
Here is the top of Simon's story, which is dead on target:
In a much-anticipated speech about his Mormon faith, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney avoided discussing theology -- except for this: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind."
That is an accurate statement of Mormon belief, and with it, Romney could claim common ground with evangelical Christian voters. But as he noted in the very next sentence: "My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths."
That's a start.
Romney knows, of course, that his faith's teachings about Jesus Christ are sharply different from all other streams of Christianity. In fact, he knows that his faith's teachings about the very nature of God and, yes, the gods, are different than traditional Christianity and its understanding of the Trinity.
That's the whole exaltation issue, which is the pivotal theological issue for Catholics, the Orthodox, evangelicals and mainliners. I discussed this long ago, drawing on my discussion of that issue with two of the 12 apostles at the top of the Mormon chain of command, in which they candidly discussed the issue of exaltation and the reality of multiple gods. Or flash back to this discussion in Time.
Simon offers a brief but provocative summary of some of the issues causing this conflict:
The nearly 6 million Mormons in the United States consider that translation, the Book of Mormon, a holy text, on par with the Bible. Its theology has some striking elements:
Mormons hold that God and Christ have physical bodies. They believe that man can become God-like after death, a concept called ultimate deification. They also believe that heaven has more than one tier; only those baptized and married in a Mormon temple can achieve the most exalted realm.
The only question is the choice of the term "God-like." If that is the Mormon teaching, today, that would be a major change in doctrine. That would, indeed, be a huge story.
Meanwhile, does any of this have anything to do with going into a voting booth and pulling a lever?
For millions of people, it does not. For millions of people, it may. For some, it clearly does.
Simon did readers a service by helping them understand a few of the key issues at the heart of this media storm, which is not over. And Romney did what he had to do. He at least hinted that he knows there are people who can respect his faith, and respect him, while knowing that their beliefs are radically different. Let's hear it for true, informed, tolerance.
And the press? Long ago, a Mormon press aide told me that he thought journalists should consider describing members of his church with this term -- "Mormon Christians." It's hard to put that in a headline, but it would work nicely in news reports.