By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University
I suppose it was inevitable that the evangelical push-back within the Republican Party would eventually make Mormonism an issue, no matter how hard the Republican establishment tries to make it go away.
And now it’s come at last–an entire week of Republican presidential hopefuls being asked point-blank if they think a Mormon (read: Mitt Romney) is a Christian. Only the fierce insistence that Tuesday’s debate be limited to economic questions kept this pot from boiling over again (though Jon Huntsman couldn’t resist one quick snipe at Rick Perry, who appeared befuddled all night anyway, and Michelle Bachman couldn’t resist the suggestion that Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, if turned upside down, becomes the number of the Beast).
What’s been striking all week is, first, that presidential hopefuls like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have toed the traditional line of secular Liberalism: religion is a private matter, they say; no one knows the heart of another, and it’s not the business of politics to decide who is a Christian. One would find this most welcome line of reasoning more plausible if they’d said the same thing when the question of whether Barack Obama is a Christian was a front-page news story.
Others who have flirted more openly with the fire that is right-leaning evangelical ire, and the belief that America is the Christian city on the hill–like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman–will need to have more than a canned reply to this question, and that is why we haven’t heard more from them yet. They’ve got to figure out how to triangulate the Christian base they need with the Party establishment’s clear desire not to let this election get railroaded by religion.
Which leaves us with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, two highly credible presidential possibilities who are self-identifying Mormons. Romney’s strategy for making this whole debate a winner for him is to seize the opportunity it provides to show evangelical Christians where their beliefs clearly coincide: in the view that America is indeed the biblical city on the hill, and that God has granted the US a unique destiny in world affairs. Our sacred duty, therefore, is to maintain the US’s singular status as a solitary military and economic superpower. Huntman’s views will be more nuanced; he has broad experience in China, after all, which complicates that simplistic aspiration a lot, and that is probably why we haven’t heard from him yet.
But the Democrats have remained on the sidelines, by and large, content to watch what they hope will be another round in the Republican arena, where carnivorous presidential hopefuls eat each other’s young. This is a missed opportunity.
Since the Republican hopefuls have opened the door on this question, Democrats should force them to walk through it. The question that is being asked when we wonder aloud if Mormons are Christians is whether other religious groups are allowed to staple their own beliefs and writings onto another religious community’s sacred scriptures. Is it enough if Mormons, with a new scripture they claim to be compatible with the Christian Bible, say that they are Christians? Do other Christian groups get to say that they are not?
Framed that way, it’s a far more unsettling, but also a far more interesting, question. After all, this is precisely what Christians did to the Hebrew scriptures and to Judaism. They stapled their own scriptures (which they called “New”), as well as their own strikingly un-Jewish values, upon them.
Muslims did the same thing to Christians. And then Mormons did it again.
So let us hear more from each Republican candidate as to what they think about some of their own supporters who claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a “cult.” And let us not content ourselves with questions about whether a Mormon is a Christian. Let’s go all the way and ask the obvious follow-up: do they think a Muslim is a Christian?
Presumably, the answer will be No. Then the question becomes: how is a Mormon any different?
What becomes clearer when the debate is framed this way is that the difference between Mormons and Muslims is that Mormons are home-grown; they are indubitably, recognizably American. And that is what this debate has really revealed: the fact that a new kind of religious nationalism has emerged in the United States in the past thirty years, and that the Republicans have embraced it even as the Democrats have resisted it.
Let the debate be framed that way, and it is a winner for the Democrats, every time.