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What they believe

Politics | The United States has had presidents from unorthodox religious groups before, and after the election it will again: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama court religious voters though both come from traditions far from Christian orthodoxy

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

For those still wondering whether evangelicals will support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney this fall, a September poll by Pew Research Center offered a resounding answer: Nearly 74 percent of white evangelicals said they support Romney.

The survey reported that 19 percent of white evangelicals said they would support President Barack Obama. (Nearly 95 percent of black Protestants support the president.)

If those figures are accurate, it means at least 7 percent of evangelicals are either undecided or might not choose either candidate. It’s a small percentage, but in battleground states where the race is tight, it could make a big difference.

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At least some of that 7 percent attend churches like Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in North Carolina, a state where Obama held a 1-point lead over Romney in late September.

Earlier last month, Christ Covenant senior pastor Mike Ross wrote a letter to his congregation about an unprecedented dynamic: “More than any time in my 30 years of pastoral ministry, people are talking to me about whom to vote for,” he wrote.

In a phone interview from his office in Matthews, N.C., Ross said one concern prevails for many in his predominantly conservative congregation of 2,500 members: “They’re really not happy that Mr. Romney is a Mormon.”

Religion hasn’t always been a prominent topic in presidential elections. Indeed, a handful of past presidents have embraced religious movements outside the pale of orthodox Christianity: Presidents John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft were Unitarians. Presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were Quakers.

Some Protestants noted John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism during his presidential campaign in 1960, but it was Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter’s declaration in 1976 that he was a born-again Christian that launched the modern-day discussion of candidates’ religious affiliations.

Obama’s religious beliefs have drawn less attention from evangelicals during this cycle, perhaps because many say they don’t plan to vote for him. The president professes Christianity, though some evangelicals say many of his policies don’t reflect Christian principles.

That subject resurfaced during the Republican National Convention when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said that Obama was the only “self-professed evangelical” in the race. (Obama hasn’t publicly declared that he’s an evangelical.)

Back in Matthews, N.C., Ross says that some in his congregation wrestle with whether a Christian should vote for a Mormon. He says they worry Romney’s victory could promote Mormonism. Ross—who doesn’t endorse candidates—told his congregation he believes Christians may vote for a non-Christian if he’s the best choice in the race.

WORLD has presented both sides of that debate (see “Can a Mormon be a president?” July 1, 2011). But the concern that Romney’s election would legitimize Mormonism as distinctly Christian points to an undercurrent that’s drawn less attention this election season: Some evangelicals do equate Mormonism with Christianity.

In 2011, a Pew Forum survey asked the question: “Is Mormonism Christian?” Fifty-one percent of respondents said yes. Even more striking: Thirty-nine percent of white evangelicals and 43 percent of black Protestants said the Mormon religion is Christian.

Prominent evangelicals have addressed the subject during this election season. Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson—who died in April—wrote last year: “Is the Mormon faith Christian? No. It is not.” (Colson—who didn’t endorse candidates—also wrote that he would prefer a competent non-Christian candidate over an incompetent Christian or non-Christian.)

Other Christians have been less clear. Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw has said that Mormonism isn’t orthodox Christianity, but in a panel discussion that included Mormon professor Bob Millet of Brigham Young University, Mouw said: “I have no question in my mind that Bob worships the same Jesus that I worship.”

Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan—a Catholic—characterized the difference between his faith and Romney’s during his convention speech by saying: “Mitt and I go to different churches. But in any church, the best kind of preaching is done by example.”

And David French—a member of a PCA church and founder of Evangelicals for Mitt—wrote that while doctrine is vital, “I rarely hear anyone seriously ask, ‘Are Methodists Christian?’” He continued: “Perhaps that’s not so much because the theological differences aren’t real and profound but because we’ve made our historical peace through shared understanding of our faith in Christ. Perhaps it’s time that we make that same peace with Mormons.” In a phone interview, French said that while Mormon doctrine isn’t orthodox Christianity, individual Mormons could be Christians because they follow Christ.

If the discussion surrounding the candidates’ religious beliefs sounds like evangelical hair-splitting, the implications run far deeper. Owen Strachan—a professor at the evangelical Boyce College who has written about both candidates’ beliefs—says such discussions challenge evangelicals to articulate clearly the truths of the Bible and “to esteem and guard the gospel.”

—with reporting by Marvin Olasky

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