Mormonism And Its Enemies

In a month-old column on Romney's Latter-Day dilemma, E.J. Dionne put his finger on one under-discussed reason for evangelical hostility toward Mormonism:

Mormons now face criticism as a non-Christian "cult" from some wings of Protestantism. The hostility is aggravated by intense competition between Mormonism and evangelical Protestantism for converts.

It's this factor - that Mormon wards and evangelical churches, despite their vast theological differences, tend to offer a similar sociological appeal to religious seekers, and thus are in direct competition for converts - that undergirds the emails that Jonah's been getting from Christians explaning why they wouldn't vote for a Latter-Day Saint. It isn't about politics; it's about souls. As one of his emailers puts it:

I will not vote for a Mormon because they claim to be Christian, when they are not Christians. Electing, or even nominating, a Mormon continues to send the message to Americans that Mormons are fine and dandy, Christians like everyone else. Thousands of Christians are converted to Mormonism each year, and it is done under false pretenses. From what I have read, Mormons are very good at appearing to be orthodox Christians with new recruits. It's only later that the blatantly non-orthodox views come out. So, I rule out voting for a Mormon not because of actual policies they might pursue, but because of the message their election would send to Americans.

This may be fallacious reasoning: JFK's election, for instance, didn't exactly kick off an era of ever-increasing influence for Roman Catholicism, and you could argue that there's no better way to weaken a faith's appeal to converts than to welcome it into the bland and uncontroversial American mainstream. I don't, however, think that it counts as bigotry. And at the very least, it suggests that Ed Kilgore has it exactly wrong when he writes:

If I were Romney, I'd go right at the conservative evangelical Protestant suspicions about Mormonism by stressing and restressing its culturally conservative teachings and practices, ignoring the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith and formal theological issues altogether. Theology aside, Mormons could be perceived as evangelicals with a much better track record of worldly accomplishments and moral fidelity. And in many respects, the LDS church has built the sort of conservative commonwealth in Utah that many evangelicals dream of for the whole country. I happen to have a family member, a longtime Southern Baptist Deacon, who's travelled to almost every corner of the world. The only place I ever heard him wax rhapsodic about was Salt Lake City. "It's so clean!" he kept saying, reflecting a tanglble envy for what Mormons have wrought in comparison to the messy and hypocritical cultural milieus in which most evangelicals live.

The problem is that it's only a short leap from this "tangible envy" to the "tangible fear" that Jonah's emailers seem to feel - and to the extent that evangelical Protestants see Mormons as their major competitor for the lost sheep of the American religious landscape, I don't think suggesting that the Latter-Day Saints have "a much better track record of worldly accomplishments and moral fidelity" than they do is the way to win their votes.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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