To give a credible account of the sacred stories and truth claims is no easy task. Not to put too fine a point on it, the founding stories and doctrines of Mormonism appear to the outsider as a bizarre phantasmagoria of fevered religious imagination not untouched by perverse genius. Germinated in the “burntâ€“over district” of upstate New York in the early nineteenth century, where new religions and spiritualities produced a veritable rainforest of novel revelations, the claims of Joseph Smith represent a particularly startling twist of the kaleidoscope of religious possibilities. In 1831, Alexander Campbell, cofounder of the Disciples of Christ, said that Smith pasted together “every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years.” Much of the teaching reflects the liberal Protestantism of the time, even the Transcendental and Gnostic fevers that were in the air: e.g., a God in process of becoming, progressive revelation, the denial of original sin, and an unbridled optimism about the perfectibility of man. Mix that in with the discovery of golden tablets written in a mysterious language, the bodily appearance of God the Father and Son, angelic apparitions, and a liberal dose of Masonic ritual and jargon, and the result is, quite simply, fantastic. The question, of course, is whether it is true.
The question as asked by Mormons is turned around: are nonâ€“Mormons who claim to be Christians in fact so? The emphatic and repeated answer of the Mormon scriptures and the official teaching of the LDS is that we are not. We are members of “the great and abominable church” that was built by frauds and impostors after the death of the first apostles. The true church and true Christianity simply went out of existence, except for its American Indian interlude, until it was rediscovered and reestablished by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, and its claims will be vindicated when Jesus returns, sooner rather than later, at a prophetically specified intersection in Jackson County, Missouri. ~Fr. Richard John Neuhaus
The other question that is often asked of whether it is Christian seems even easier to answer. The answer, of course, is no. Even if you could somehow leave aside the stunningly heterodox theology that makes Areios look moderate and agreeable and the incredible sacred history of the Lamanites that strains the credulity of the most credulous, you would be left with things such as the denial of original sin, something so fundamental to all Christian confessions (though some do not endorse a strict Augustinian view of the matter) and vital to the understanding of the reason for the Incarnation of the Word, that leave a reasonably orthodox Christian of any confession marveling at how such a group could regard itself as being all that terribly similar with Christian churches.
The question about a Romney candidacy is not entirely whether Christian conservatives will vote for a Mormon as such, but whether they can honestly accept someone as their candidate whom they regard as a non-Christian. An important part of voting, as I have said numerous times, is the ability to identify with a candidate. Can Christian conservatives look past the Mormon identity of a candidate and support him because he shares their views on certain social issues? They might, but that is not what voters typically do. They don’t overlook their visceral discomfort with a candidate because he happens to take the right positions; they find candidates who make them feel comfortable and then choose among them based on whether they can identify with one and only then, if at all, do they come to policy questions. If people are predisposed to oppose a Mormon candidate for President because he is not a Christian, it will not matter what he says. If his non-Christian identity doesn’t disturb them, he might appeal to them on common political ground.
For those who are reacting in a hostile manner to Romney, it would not matter what religion Romney followed so long as it is not Christianity, because they would probably not support his candidacy regardless of what kind of non-Christian he was. One thing that sets some Christians on edge about Mormonism is the claim and the presumption of those in the LDS to call themselves Christians and to be offended when others deny them that name; arguably, were it not for the attempt to pretend to be Christian against the considerable evidence to the contrary, Mormons might seem less objectionable to many of their Christian critics. The attempt to claim a Christian identity where none exists, it seems to me, comes across to some Christians as a kind of political strategy, a way to make their religion more palatable to the majority by telling sugar-coated falsehoods. On the one hand, this strikes some as dishonest or calculating; on the other, it strikes others as a worrisome sign that many Mormons may not actually know what their own church teaches and are being profoundly misled by their church authorities, which lends credibility to the anxiety about a rapidly growing cult in our midst. All of this tends to give a very bad impression. Add to that the strange history of Joseph Smith and the LDS itself, and you have a recipe for deep distrust and suspicion.
I suspect that we will all, myself included, be shocked by the strength of the anti-Mormon sentiment that appears in the GOP primaries when Romney is running. We will likely see a powerful anti-Romney campaign in South Carolina and other early primaries that will make the attacks on McCain in 2000 look like a picnic. Worse than turning against Romney in large numbers, Christian conservatives will simply stay away if there are no other credible alternatives. Given the Terrible Trio, many conservatives will not bother to vote in primaries where they are forced to choose between the Belligerent Old Man, the Drag Queen and the Mormon. In practical political terms, Romney will also be too well known in New Hampshire and too much of an established figure to win a primary that tends to go to underdogs and, in two years, will possibly go an intensely populist candidate (Duncan Hunter, this may mean you). The question of whether evangelicals will vote for Romney may be moot when the primaries in which they have a lot of clout come around, as his campaign might well be struggling to stay above water by that point for reasons almost entirely unrelated to his religion.