If Mitt Romney is elected president in November, it will be an event of historic significance. Perhaps not quite as historic as in 2008 when Americans elected the first African-American president. Nonetheless, it will be striking: Romney will be the first arguably non-Christian — let’s say “post-Christian” — elected to the office.
Should it come to pass, this would be a significant sea change in a nation that heretofore could barely bring itself to elect a Catholic, i.e. a member of the oldest Christian faith extant.
Yes, I hear you. I hear all the objections, the furious renunciations. Let me just say that I do not make the argument lightly, I am far from the first, and I do not intend it as an insult in any way to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons.
First, let me acknowledge that most Mormons think of themselves as Christians. Many take offense at the notion that they are not and it’s widely agreed that Mormon culture squares neatly with that of conservative Christianity. But they do not get the final word.
Just as Barack Obama represented a kind of a transitional stage between black and white — his father was African, his mother Caucasian American — Romney’s Mormonism occupies a kind of nuanced in-between when it comes to religion. There is no doubt that Jesus, the indisputable center of the Christian faith, figures prominently in Mormonism. But it’s also true that the Mormon understanding of Jesus, God and other tenets varies significantly from those of traditional Christianity.
Mormonism is an evolution and outgrowth of Christianity, just as Christianity was an evolution and outgrowth of Judaism, as Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism. Many faiths that arrived after Christianity flowered give Jesus a role, even a central role, but no one would call them Christian. To say that Jesus is central to a faith is not to say that faith is Christian.
Take, for example, Islam.
Muslims consider Jesus to be a messenger of god and, indeed, the messiah. He is mentioned frequently in the Quran and while Muslims do not believe he was crucified, they do accept that he ascended into heaven to be with God. Some believe he will return on the Day of Judgment.
But there are critical differences. Because Jesus was not crucified, he did not die for the sins of humanity. There is no trinity in Islam and perhaps most importantly, he was a mortal, not the son of God.
Mormonism, founded in the 1840s is different from traditional Christianity in so many crucial ways it’s fair to say that it, like Islam, is an evolution from the earlier faith (making no value judgment on the evolution). Here are just a handful of key differences:
Mormonism disputes that the Bible is a completed work. As Islam added the Quran to the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, the new American religion added the Book of Mormon.
Christianity holds that Jesus is God — inseparable, along with the Holy Spirit. Mormonism teaches that Jesus is a god, in fact, a mortal who achieved the status of a god (which is available to other mortals).
God, in Mormonism, “has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (from “Doctrine and Covenants, 130:22). He was at one time a human being and he has a wife, the Heavenly Mother.
Those are some pretty notable differences.
But I don’t make such a controversial argument simply to provoke. Rather, I make it to celebrate the ever-so gradual shedding of various “tests” we have imposed upon ourselves when it comes to electing presidents. If you aren’t male, white and (almost always) a demonstrative Protestant, you haven’t got a chance.
When it comes to religion, we have chugged happily along in spiritual violation of the Constitution, which reads, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
And frankly, the fact that no woman has ever come close to becoming president is evidence of deep-seated sexism, though I suppose Hillary Clinton in 2008 was progress. Meanwhile, around the world there’s been Thatcher, Gandhi, Merkel, Benazir Bhutto and Megawati Sukarnoputri — even Islamic nations are ahead of us — the list goes on.
Romney clearly feels a need to downplay or hide the religion of his birth, and unfortunately, his instincts are almost certainly right.
In a saner world, that wouldn’t matter. Neither would a candidate’s age, race, sexual identity, creed, class,religion, nor even lack of religion.