— Four years ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took time from his Republican presidential campaign to talk at length about the role of religion in America and in his life.
It is entirely appropriate to ask "questions about an aspiring candidate's religion," Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a sober, here's-what-I-believe address in College Station, Texas, in December 2007.
This time around, the same questions are being asked: Are Mormons really Christians? Should evangelical Christians refuse to even consider voting for them?
But this time, Romney's response is very different.
"Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause," Romney said Monday in comments at the
Values Voters Summit, a conservative gathering in Washington.
That's the same venue where an influential minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of
First Baptist Church in Dallas, told reporters that he was endorsing Texas Gov. Rick Perry because Romney is "not a Christian" and the LDS Church is "a cult."
Perry said he disagreed with Jeffress,
but he also refused Romney's demand that he "repudiate the sentiment and the remarks."
To which Romney replied Tuesday: "I just don't believe that that kind of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country."
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday suggests that such questions also may no longer resonate with voters as loudly as they once did.
In the poll, 66 percent of Republican primary voters said they had no concerns about Romney's faith or its effect on his potential presidency; only 13 percent said they were concerned. The rest said they didn't know enough to judge or weren't sure.
(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meanwhile, declined to comment on the controversy, referring reporters to church materials on its
Skepticism since the 1820s
As Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the
Faith & Freedom Coalition, a prominent religious conservative political group, said in an interview this week on CNBC: "The fact is, Romney's been around this track before."
Skeptics of Mormonism "have been around since the church started" in the 1820s, said Scott Gordon, dean of the business school at Shasta College in Redding, Calif., and president of the
Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, an umbrella organization of nonprofit groups that seek to answer critics of the LDS Church, as the denomination prefers to be called.
That's why the same questions keep "coming up over and over again," Gordon, a ward mission leader and former bishop in the church, said in an interview this week. "Part of the difficulty is most people don't know what a Mormon is."
The church is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and its American members are disproportionally distributed in the western United States. Consequently, Gordon said, Mormons tend to be more often misunderstood in the eastern half of the country.
"Those are the folks who have beards and drive buggies — oh, wait, those are the Amish," he said.
Unfamiliarity combined with portrayals of the church "as being cultish, as being secretive — I think it makes some people nervous," he said, even though "we're fairly traditional Bible-believing Christians."
"The idea that we're somehow not traditional Christians because we don't believe exactly like a Southern Baptist believes ... seems very small," he said.
But Philip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a leading Southern Baptist institution in Kansas City, Mo., said the evangelical distinction was drawn over much more than differences of opinion that developed a millennium after Jesus' crucifixion.
The LDS Church "radically reconstructs the historic Christian doctrines on God, Jesus and salvation," said Roberts, the author of " The Counterfeit Gospel of Mormonism" and for many years a senior leader of the
Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second-largest denomination.
"I think evangelicals look at Mormons as basically having a belief in God and the 10 Commandments, and Mormons are generally known to be morally traditional and to confirm much of the Judeo-Christian ethic," Roberts said in an interview this week.
But "they deny the confessions of the church," he said, referring to a series of statements of fundamental Protestant beliefs about salvation over the centuries.
The common thread through those writings is that Jesus is the only intermediary with God in salvation from spiritual death, which can be received only by confession of faith in God through the sacrifice of Jesus. In other words, evangelicals and other Protestants believe salvation is "faith-based."
Mormons believe that faith in God and the atonement of Jesus are part of salvation, but they also put significant emphasis on living a kind and productive life on Earth. In that sense, salvation in the LDS Church is said to be "works-based."
And Roberts said that while evangelicals and many other Protestants believe the Bible is literally true, Mormons "say it's full of errors ... and had to be supplemented with their three books."
"There's an obvious disconnect with historical Christianity," and on that ground, it's appropriate for evangelicals and many mainline Protestant denominations to consider the LDS Church a "theological cult," Roberts said.
"Their claim to be the only true church is a radical reconstruction of the Christian faith," he said. "If the Mormon Church were to say 'we are a separate world religion,' like Islam, we'd say: 'Fine. They're not a cult.' But there's no common basis for identity with other Christian groups."
Jeffress: 'My comments are not fanatical'
In interviews after his comments at the Values Voters Summit, Jeffress made the same point, saying he regretted that his remarks had been misinterpreted as a dismissal of the LDS Church as a "sociological cult like David Koresh," who was killed along with 21 followers of his Branch Davidian sect in a confrontation with federal authorities in 1990. He stressed that he was speaking of it as "theological cult" in doctrinal terms.
"There are people out there who want to try to paint me as the Jeremiah Wright of the right," Jeffress told Chris Matthews in an interview on MSNBC-TV's "Hardball," referring to President Barack Obama's controversial former pastor. "But my comments are not fanatical — it's just true that Mormonism is not a part of historical Christianity," particularly in its teachings on salvation, he said.
Jeffress acknowledged that, on that basis, "I don't believe all Baptists are Christians or all Catholics are Christians."
"Nobody goes to heaven in a group," he said. "We go individually to heaven or hell personally based on what we believe in Jesus Christ."
While some reports have characterized Jeffress' views as outside the mainstream, research shows that it is the dominant philosophy among evangelicals and other Protestant.
In a survey of
Protestant ministers (.pdf) released this week by LifeWay Research, 75 percent disagreed with the statement "I personally believe Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to be Christians." Sixty percent said they "strongly disagreed."
The results were relatively consistent across age groups, years in church leadership and levels of theological education. (The poll, which interviewed 1,000 senior ministers across the country, reported a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.)
Evangelical ministers were more likely to "strongly disagree" that Mormons are Christians than were mainline Protestant ministers — that is, pastors of Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and other non-Catholic, non-evangelical churches. But even half of those pastors said they, too, "strongly disagreed."
Such views are not new.
In 2000, for example, delegates to the the United Methodist Church's General Conference
voted without debate to declare that "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by self-definition, does not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of Christian faith."
And in 1998, Lifeway — which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention — published Roberts' book " Mormonism Unmasked," part of a convention-led campaign called The Mormon Puzzle. Another book in the program, " The Mormon Puzzle: The Challenge of Mormonism," declared: "Regardless of what the Mormon missionaries or television commercials say, the Mormon church is anti-Christian."
Gordon, head of the Mormon apologetics group, said: "No, we're not Tulip Calvinists, and we're not Southern Baptists. (But) we are Christians.
"We believe in the Bible. Do we have some differences? Yes. Otherwise, there'd be no need for a Mormon church.
"I wonder how the Jews felt about early Christians — 'They can't be Jews, because they have the New Testament'?"
Will doubt translate to votes?
Whether the revival of such decades-old discussions will have a significant impact on the 2012 presidential campaign is not clear.
Whether evangelicals should vote for Romney or any other Mormon for president is a separate question, Jeffress said. His endorsement of Perry, he said, was based not just on Perry's personal confession of faith but also on his more conservative stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
"I think you've got a Christian in Barack Obama ... and a non-Christian in Mitt Romney, and I've said publicly I would vote for Mitt Romney if it comes down to that," Jeffress said.
Roberts, of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he would be "concerned" if Romney became president, but "I would not stand up in the pulpit and say you must not vote for him."
"Although (Romney) affirms his Mormon faith," he said, "when you punch the ballot," the real question becomes 'Does this man have the judgment I follow?'"
It was Gordon, the former LDS bishop — not Mormon critics — who said Romney should have real concerns about whether evangelicals and other Protestants would be willing to vote for him.
"Making it through the primaries will be difficult because of the Southern evangelicals," said Gordon, who called invocations of "traditional Christianity" by Mormon skeptics simply "code for Southern Baptist."
"And when we turn to the General Election, you're going to run into a whole other set of questions that Republicans wouldn't ask," he said, among them:
"That's no big issue among Republican primary voters," Gordon said. "It could be with independent and women voters."
At the same time, there's a risk of a backlash vote in Romney's favor if opponents focus too much on his faith, he said.
"Mormons hold a lot of power in Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico and Colorado, and all those could be swing states," Gordon said. "If people alienate the Mormon vote — and Mormons are truly active voters — they may be tipping the balance."