The New Republic has a lengthy and interesting piece by Molly Worthen about the differences between evangelicals and Mormons. Entitled “Sects Appeal,” the article goes into some detail about Mormon theology, provides some historical background on Joseph Smith, and even highlights the lack of historical evidence for the stories in the Book of Mormon. So it’s a bad piece for Mormons, right? It shows how Mormons are so far out of the mainstream that evangelicals won’t embrace the governor, correct? Well, no. Actually, the article demonstrates that in any public spat between evangelicals and Mormons it is evangelicals who have the most to lose.
First, look at Worthen’s description of the segment of the evangelical world that takes on Mormonism full-time:
[Tom] Jones’s organization, Christian Research & Counsel, is one of dozens of anti-Mormon groups–ranging from hobbyists, who manage websites from their living rooms, to professional ministries with full-time staff members that publish books, newsletters, and documentaries and send protesters to the opening of every new LDS temple or ward (the LDS equivalent of a parish). Some organizations, such as the Institute for Religious Research in Grand Rapids, Michigan, run mentoring programs for Mormons who want to leave the church. A group called Mission to Mormons maintains a revisionist exhibition on Mormon history in Nauvoo, Illinois, an important site in the church’s early history. Tactics range from sophisticated theological arguments to junior-high lunchroom name-calling: One anti-Mormon site refers to its chief opponents as “annoying, smelley [sic] trolls.” At the Hill Cumorah Pageant, too, methods vary. Jones’s volunteers prefer to stand quietly with tracts and signs. On the other side of the road, street preachers–mostly middle-aged, unshaven men with Bible verses printed on their baseball caps–screech through megaphones, wave Mormon temple garments in the air, and hoist signs that say ask me why you deserve hell.
As our Notable Quotes page demonstrates, the vast majority of thoughtful evangelicals who’ve addressed the idea of a President Romney have echoed some version of Richard Land’s comment: “We are not electing a theologian-in-chief. We are electing a commander-in-chief.” With sophisticated evangelicals again and again stating that they will evaluate Governor Romney on his political positions and moral values (and not his view of the Trinity or the nature of man), who will the media turn to as the primary spokespeople of the alleged “anti-Mormon” wave? Well, look no further than the folks featured in Worthen’s article. By featuring the fringe, the media will get to engage in two of its favorite sports, exacerbating differences in the Republican coalition and making evangelicals look bad.
Second, check out how Worthen (a thoughtful critic) reads the evangelical community’s arguments against the truth of Mormonism:
To strict Calvinists, the ancestors of modern American evangelicals, theology was a practical science devoted to discerning objective truth. By the nineteenth century, these theologians had to respond to the challenge that religion was not “true” in the same way that science is. To debate humanist philosophers on their own terms, they developed a rationalist style and an evidentialist approach to scripture. But, while conservative Calvinists adopted the language of science to defend biblical inerrancy, they shrank from a second challenge: that of the German historical critics, who marshaled the latest historical and literary research to challenge the authority of the Bible. Conservative theologians crouched behind the creed of sola scriptura–”by scripture alone”–the mantra of the Protestant Reformation. They eschewed history and theological tradition, focusing only on biblical text. The combined effect of these two developments was to produce an evangelical Christianity obsessed with logic and scientific proof–but only when such evidence confirmed a literal reading of the Bible.
While I don’t agree that evangelicals “shrank” from the challenge of the “German historical critics,” this comment does reveal one undeniable truth of the debate: Just because we view ourselves as truthful and objective does not mean that the non-evangelical public will see this conflict as anything other than a hypocritical contest between two sides with their own faith and reason-based blind spots. In other words, much of the country would see evangelicals as launching a volley of stones from a glass church. To be clear, I don’t think there is equivalency between the fact and faith claims of evangelical Christianity and Mormonism, but I also don’t think that a political race (with a hostile MSM acting as referee) is the best place to settle such a debate.
Between now and 2008, we will read many more stories about Joseph Smith, polygamy, anti-Mormon street preachers, and, yes, even Intelligent Design versus evolution. If the article above is any indication (and it is), evangelicals would do quite well to echo Richard Land’s comments and focus on Governor Romney’s demonstrated character, talent, and leadership abilities. If we do, then The New Republic will be writing a different kind of story in late November two years hence–a story about how two faith communities united to elect the best person as president and how that unity is leading our culture to respect and value human life, stand for liberty, and defeat a global jihadist threat.
Now that’s a story I want to read.