Mormonism deviates so far from basic orthodox Christianity that I have a difficult time, as a theological matter, considering it authentically Christian, even within an expansive definition of “Christian” that includes believers in this or that heretical doctrine or set of doctrines. Nevertheless, it’s patently absurd to claim that Mormons don’t love Jesus Christ, or are, because of their religion, to be treated with suspicion. In my view, it is an irrational prejudice (and yes, there are such things as rational prejudices) to say a Mormon like Mitt Romney is unworthy of one’s vote because of his LDS faith. The only thing about Mormonism itself that would give me pause in considering a Mormon presidential candidate is the theological role American exceptionalism plays within Mormon thinking. But in truth, the way American politics and culture goes, American exceptionalism may as well be a theological principle for all US Christians. It is an article of faith for most Americans that God has a Very Special Plan for the United States of America, and that we are, in some respects, a Chosen People. I don’t believe this, at least not in the way most people do (if America is exceptional, it’s in a “to whom much is given, much is expected” way, not a triumphalist-nationalist way), but it is quite common. I’m certain that on this point, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Romney and any Republican candidate any Republican candidate who stands a chance of being his party’s nominee.

Anyway, it is especially offensive, at least to me, to hear Christians speak of Mormonism as a “cult.” Usually when you hear that word being applied to a church or religious group, it’s designed not to describe, but solely to marginalize. Was it Tom Wolfe who said that a “cult” is a religious group without political power? That’s mostly right. I think cults really do exist, and can be identified in part by their overweening desire to be secretive and controlling of their adherents — e.g., Scientology. (It should be noted that one can find cultish behavior within mainstream religions too.) But I think the Guardian blogger Andrew Brown is more or less correct when he says  that a “cult” can be defined sociologically as being far from a society’s mainstream — though by that definition, one would have to call the Amish a “cult,” and maybe even cloistered Catholic and Orthodox monks and nuns a “cult”?

Anybody want to do that? Anybody? Didn’t think so. So why so hard on the Mormons? Especially given that it’s hard to find a more idealistically American group of people anywhere in this country. Here’s Brown:

Modern public Mormons are almost parodically conformist and technocratic. The public image of Mitt Romney is not of a man who holds strange beliefs that he will act on if elected, but the opposite – a man who has no principles whatsoever, and almost no personality. Abstinent, frugal, hard-working and rich, the Mormons have moved from the fringe of American life to its centre – not least because their religion is so intensely American. Whether or not it’s crazy, it has worked.

The sociologist Robert Bellah writes in his new book that the test of the truth of a particular religion is the kind of people it produces. Bellah is not really making a theological statement — I doubt very much that Bellah, an Episcopalian, believes in the foundational mythology of the LDS church — but rather a sociological one. Few people are ever converted by rational theological discourse alone. Rather, it’s more common to look at the lives of people who profess that religion, to find them admirable or otherwise inviting, then open oneself up to the beliefs that produce that way of living. From a Bellah interview:

As I have indicated before, I am nervous about thinking of religion primarily in terms of “truth claims,” which seems closer to what is appropriate in science. Religion provides answers to such questions as “How shall I live?” and “What is the meaning of the universe?” that science has no capacity to answer. But because answers to such questions are incapable of empirical testing by scientific methodology, how can we evaluate the answers that various religions give? As I have said above, the truth of religious beliefs can be seen in the lives of people who live by those truths. And if we see remarkable individuals in other traditions than our own we can accept that they have some kind of truth even if it is not completely the same as ours. When Martin Luther King, Jr. found in Mahatma Gandhi a role model for his non-violent protest he was recognizing the truth that Gandhi always claimed to stand for. King could see that there must be some things of great value in Hinduism to produce such a person as Gandhi, while at the same time seeing that Jesus was also a great exemplar of non-violence, though Christians have long evaded Jesus’s total rejection of violence. So Gandhi helped King to understand another religion while also understanding his own in a deeper way. This is not relativism, nor is it saying all religions are identical. Christianity and Hinduism overlap in some areas but differ greatly in others.

In my experience, Mormonism produces exemplary people, the kind who form stable families and strong communities, and who make good neighbors. I do not believe in Mormonism, nor do I have the slightest interest in becoming Mormon. That Mormons tend to be good people does not make their doctrines true. But inasmuch as Mormons — and I’m generalizing here — tend to produce people who are often better Christians, in terms of their behavior, than the more orthodox expressions within the Christian tradition, should make thoughtful Christians consider what truth may exist within Mormonism. and what we may learn about how to live well from the Mormon experience.

For example, while Mormons in general have a divorce rate about the same as everybody else, those Mormons who marry in a temple service are far, far more likely to stay married. The Los Angeles Times once explored the reasons for that, and they’re truly admirable. Note that there is nothing explicitly theological about any of these practices; any Christian who took his or her own tradition seriously could pull this off too. But these Mormon practices leading to strong marriages and healthy families grow out of theological convictions, cultural coherence, and social solidarity. The rest of us have a lot to learn from Mormons on living out marriage and family life. It’s easy for me to see why many Christians strongly deny Mormon theological claims; it is very difficult for me to understand why so many Christians look at Mormons with such hostility and disdain, given the kind of people who tend to be faithful Mormons. To call Mormonism a “cult” is polemical, spiteful, and simply inaccurate — and again, I say this as someone who thinks Mormonism has deviated so far from orthodox Christianity that it is doubtful, to me, whether it can be considered an authentic expression of Christianity. Still, as a matter of life in the public square, Mormons ought to be welcomed, because I look at their lives and works and see people with whom I might disagree strongly, but who also, in the way they live out their faith, strengthen American life.

UPDATE: Though I generally endorse James Fallows’s appeal to voters to put aside anti-Mormon prejudice, I think he’s wrong about this:

To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry. Exactly as it would have been to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity. I also think that if we were reading handicapping stories about any of those other situations, we’d be getting frequent  reminders that what we were talking about was, in the end, simple prejudice.

This kind of mixed-up statement can only come from someone (a well-intentioned someone, in this case) who does not understand religion or take it seriously. Religion is not the same thing as race or gender. Race and gender are not worldviews. Being male or female, or of a particular racial or ethnic background, has nothing to do with what you see as right and wrong, and the way people ought to behave. Religion does — and that’s why the comparison to Joe Lieberman’s Orthodox Judaism is appropriate.

I think it is not only fair, but necessary, to look seriously into what forms the worldviews of our candidates for public office. If they present themselves as faithful to a particular religion, then it is by no means bigoted to consider that religion and its effect on the thought and character of the candidate. The only way it shouldn’t matter is if one believes that religion is a wholly private matter, and says, or should say, nothing about how a politician thinks and acts. My point in this post is that despite having some highly eccentric and unorthodox theological convictions, Mormons tend to produce politicians that are conventionally conservative — for better or for worse.