I realize that this is strange, but I continue to read press reports (wink, wink) containing evidence that Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that this could cause him trouble with evangelical Protestant Christians. Am I alone in reading about this?
I am not sure precisely why this Mormon element of his history is so problematic, even to these strange evangelicals folks, since the mainstream media coverage rarely, if ever, publish factual material about what Mormons believe and how their beliefs do or do not clash with those of evangelicals (as opposed the beliefs of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers, United Methodists, Presbyterians, etc., etc.).
Frankly, based on my graduate work in church history, I had always thought that these tensions had something to do with doctrinal differences on the very nature of the Godhead and the Trinity -- which would certainly mean that we would not merely be talking about tensions between Mormons and evangelicals, but between Mormons and all Trinitarian Christians. I have also heard that liberal Christians are actually more likely to oppose a Mormon candidate than conservative believers, but that must have to do with moral theology instead of doctrine. As all news consumers know, issues of moral theology -- such as the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, etc. -- are no longer considered matters of theology by many in the press, but are now simply political issues. Right?
I bring this up because of a fascinating New York Times story about the delicate religious dance Romney is said to be performing during the Republican National Convention. The big question: How Mormon should this man be? Here's the top of the report:
After years of largely resisting public discussion of his Mormon faith, Mitt Romney will embrace it on Thursday night when the Republican convention will stage a carefully chosen tableau of speakers who are expected to offer accounts of the candidate as a man of compassion, character and deep beliefs.
For most of his political career, Mr. Romney has said that his life in the church has nothing to do with politics, and he has offered only clipped discussions of his religious views, privately worrying about the impact of his faith on his electability. But he has changed course because of an urgent problem: voters who find him distant and unlikable have become a greater threat to his political fortunes than those who may be biased against Mormonism.
Once again, are these biased voters on the left or the right? From context, it seems that only the conservative voters matter. Why is that? More on that later.
In addition to Romney upping his Godtalk game, it appears that the GOP is letting some other Mormons and Mormon-friendly people into the mix up there on the convention platform. This leads to the bizarre reference that caught my attention:
Mr. Romney’s friends, colleagues and old classmates -- women and men, Republicans and even some Democrats -- have remarked throughout the campaign that they do not recognize the aloof, seemingly callous man that has been depicted by the Obama campaign.
To counter the argument that he is an indifferent elitist who hides his religious beliefs, the Romney campaign has invited Kenneth Hutchins, an old friend from church who is a retired police officer and is suffering from cancer, who will offer a Mormon prayer from the podium.
Whoa. Are we talking about a "Mormon prayer" or a "prayer by a Mormon"?
What's the difference, you say? Look at it this way. I have long be fascinated by the wars over what is and what is not "Christian music." Take U2, for example. The band's primary songwriters are Christians and many of their songs contain clear Christian content. But does the band produce "Christian music"? Toss that question into the mix in some Christian gatherings and you will have a fight on your hands, pronto.
This is where I would like some help from our many GetReligion readers who are Mormons. What, precisely, would be the distinctive elements of a "Mormon prayer"? The implication here is that there will be language in this prayer that would serve as a kind of high-tone canine whistle, alerting some listeners -- but not all -- to the presence of real, live, Mormon content. If so, what might Hutchins say?
I would assume that this brief moment of podium drama will center on a "prayer by a Mormon," not a "Mormon prayer." As a reporter, however, I remain fascinated by this Times reference. You have to wonder what someone in the Romney camp said -- the precise words that were spoken -- that were interpreted in this manner.
After all, a real, life, doctrinal, "Mormon prayer" would almost certainly upset those legions of nasty evangelicals who are waiting in the wings to judge Romney. As this story notes:
... The Mormonism that Mr. Romney is expected to share on Thursday night will almost certainly be a carefully edited version, scrubbed of anything that might raise theological issues -- especially among evangelical Christians. No one is likely to mention that as a church leader, Mr. Romney enforced policies like excommunication or limiting leadership positions for women.
“What they will do, I expect, is simply present Mitt Romney as Mike Huckabee, a pastor who has used religion as a vehicle who served his community,” said Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People,” speaking of the former Arkansas governor.
Mr. Huckabee, speaking to convention delegates on Wednesday night, played down the issue of Mr. Romney’s faith. “I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church than I do about where he takes this country,” he said.
So tune in, if you will, and help your GetReligionistas (Hello Mark Hemingway!) listen for whatever high-pitched whistling takes place. Will all of those evangelicals rise up and walk out?