The fact that I'm not worried about the possibility of a Mormon in the White House does not mean that I think religious affiliation has no relevance to the question of fitness for office.
Some voters are convinced that if Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination, we run the risk of ending up with a member of a "cult" in the White House. Many of my fellow evangelicals are especially concerned about this possibility. Some are unhappy with me because I have gone on record as saying that Romney's church, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is not a cult.
It's not that these folks believe that Mormons are unfit for any public office. Many evangelicals voted for Romney as governor of Massachusetts — and in earlier days Mitt's father, George Romney, got strong evangelical support as Michigan's governor.
The presidency, though, is seen as a special case. John F. Kennedy discovered that when he ran for president in 1960. People who had lived contentedly under Catholic mayors and senators suddenly began weaving conspiracy theories about a president who — so the stories went — would have a direct line to the pope in Rome.
The fact that I'm not worried about the possibility of a Mormon in the White House does not mean that I think religious affiliation has no relevance to the question of fitness for office. Religious convictions have political implications. I would have a difficult time voting for candidates with certain religious perspectives that might preclude them from open and self-examining conversations, or from a commitment to scholarship and the pursuit of truth, working alongside those of other traditions.
Most scholars who study religious movements have long abandoned the use of the "cult" label with reference to Mormonism. With about 14 million adherents around the world, the church has moved into the religious mainstream. Mormons are outstanding business leaders, world-class academicians, novelists, authors of bestselling leadership manuals, influential members of Congress and much more. Not the kind of community we ordinarily associate with a cult.
This is not convincing, though, to some of my fellow evangelicals who are writing critical emails to me. Yes, they say, Mormonism has become quite sophisticated. But a sophisticated cult is still a cult. I am naive to think otherwise, they tell me. I am urged to read books that will provide me with the truth about Mormonism.
I have read most of those books, and I have studied and taught about cults for many years. I have also spent the last dozen years meeting with Mormons — scholars and church leaders — to engage in lengthy theological discussions. These dialogues have included several other prominent evangelical Christian leaders.
Based on these conversations and my own careful study, I do not believe Mormonism is a cult. However, I am not convinced that Mormon theology deserves to be classified as Christian in the historic sense of that word. I have serious disagreements with my Mormon friends about basic issues of faith that have eternal consequences. These include issues regarding the nature of God, the doctrine of the Trinity and the character of the afterlife. But I have also learned that in some matters we are not quite as far apart as I once thought. In any case, such theological differences don't preclude a Mormon from being a viable presidential candidate, in my view.
From a historical perspective, the evangelical antagonism toward Mormons is understandable. The two groups got off to a rocky start in the 19th century. Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founder, claimed to have it on divine authority that the professions of faith of the historic churches were "an abomination." And evangelical Christians responded in kind, characterizing Mormonism as Satan-inspired.
As Mormonism moved into the 20th century, however, Mormons began to show a friendlier face. In recent years this has meant a willingness to engage in give-and-take dialogues, cooperative enterprises and explorations of common ground with those of other faiths. We evangelicals, however, have not always responded in kind.
The seminary that I lead is the largest evangelical graduate theological school in the world. The Bible is for us the supreme authority on matters of faith and life. We care deeply about theology, and we worry when groups depart from biblical authority. But we also know that the Bible tells us to be truth-tellers. In one of the Ten Commandments, God warns us not to "bear false witness to our neighbor." That truth-telling obligation applies to our Mormon neighbors as well.
We evangelicals should cast aside old suspicions and hostilities and listen carefully during this campaign. I believe we should make our voting decisions on the basis of what a Mormon candidate — or any candidate — actually has to say about the values and issues we all care about as citizens.
Richard J. Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.