A few years back the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sought membership in the San Diego County Ecumenical Council, an organization of more than 100 Christian churches. The petition for membership was received while I was Council president.
While I favored the Mormons' membership the Catholic members of our board said you can have Catholics as members or you can have Mormons, but you can't have both. Their opposition did not arise out of animosity but theology. Mormons reject the Trinity, a fundamental Christian creed. I too embrace the Trinity, but having long admired the Mormons' social ethic, I thought the Council would benefit by their inclusion, but I was outvoted.
All of which came to mind last week during a Values Voters Summit in Washington, DC, when Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas' First Baptist Church, spoke passionately against Mitt Romney as a Republican candidate for president. Rev. Jeffress said Romney, a Mormon, isn't a "Christian," and belongs, not to a church, but a "cult."
Having made Romney the non-Christian among Republicans running for president, Rev. Jeffress endorsed Texas governor Rick Perry; saying, "He's an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ."
Rev. Jeffress described Romney as a "good moral person, but...not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Theologically and historically Rev. Jeffress is right, but in these politically correct times, a time of heightened sensitivity toward others perceived as "different," employment of the "cult" word is ill-advised; it is seen, not without cause, as pejorative.
But while being pummeled by media for denying Romney his Christian faith, Rev. Jeffress raised an issue that may prove decisive in 2012 -- how will Fundamentalist Christians vote?
Will Romney's conservative principles, not different in kind from Rick Perry's, trump the peculiarities of Mormonism? If Rev. Jeffress' concerns are reflective of what others within the Fundamentalist/Evangelical camp believe, then the former Massachusetts governor has a major political problem; one borne not by an absence of religious faith but because it is a different religious faith.
But the real issue is far greater than Mitt Romney's personal religious beliefs. The issue is why did it become an issue?
Article VI, paragraph 3, of the United States Constitution reads:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
Does Article 4's guarantee of "no religious test shall ever be required" include everyone? Will the "strict constructionists" among us, those who affirm fidelity to the Constitution and conservative values, stand up and be counted? Will they tell us any religious test is Constitutional heresy?
And what about liberals. Will they stand up for the Constitution, too? Or will Romney's religious problems silence them because it serves their political interests?
But let me frame the question somewhat differently:
What if Mitt Romney were other than Mormon? A candidate still holding to his conservative voters values, still calling for an increase in the defense budget, still wanting 100,000 additional troops under arms, still insisting we need a fence from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico to keep immigrants out, still insisting he can grow the economy and create jobs, still blaming Obama for being Obama.
Specifically, what if Mitt Romney were not Mitt Romney the Mormon but Max Rabin the Jew? Would Rev. Jeffress still have suggested he's unfit to be president because he's not a "Christian"? Would he deem candidate Rabin unworthy of holding the nation's highest office because he's a Jew and not a "follower of Jesus Christ"?
No Fundamentalist pastor, conscious of the ties fundamentalism has with Israel, would dare suggest anything of the kind, knowing it would unleash a torrent of criticism and charges of anti-Semitism; that any such suggestion would result, deservedly, in public rejection and ridicule.
So why should Mitt Romney's Mormonism be judged differently?
As a liberal Kennedy Democrat and confessing Christian, Governor Romney won't be getting my vote if he's on the ballot in 2012; but it will be a political decision not a religious one.
Mitt Romney says he's a Christian. I take him at his word and honor his expression of faith. I do so because I haven't been appointed to judge anyone's Christianity or religious beliefs; that in matters of faith such judgments are best left where they belong -- in the Councils of God.
George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader and member of the city's Human Relations Commission.