Let me say at the outset, I don't vote based on theology and I'd be surprised if many people do. At the same time, if Mitt Romney becomes the Republican candidate in 2012, there will be a huge media storm about the LDS church and my opinion is that Mormon candidates for office would be better served by being upfront about the differences rather than pretending they don't exist.
For a lot of people, this is a ridiculous debate: “Of course Mormons are Christians! They believe in Jesus!”
But for people who pay attention to theology it’s not about the word “Jesus” or even believing that a person lived and died and rose again about 2,000 years ago – it’s about who you think that person was and what you think he did. So the meaning of the word is the critical part, not the word itself.
Traditional Christianity has embraced and taught from the beginning that God is a Triune Being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the Three together comprise God. This is one of the places that Christianity separates from its Jewish roots: Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” and understands it to mean the Triune God but Jews focus on “one” and say, “No, God can’t be a Trinity.” Obviously, as a Christian, I believe the two can be reconciled – but that discussion isn’t the topic of this post.
The LDS don’t believe in the Trinity; they don’t believe in eternal unchanging God; the Mormons believe that God was once a man and that a perfectly realized Mormon man has the potential to become god in his own future creation. This is radically different from either the Christian or Jewish view of God’s eternal and unchanging nature, “Who Was and Is and Is To Come.”
Normative (“orthodox” with a little “o”) Christianity believes that Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity, that He has been God and with God from eternity past to eternity future, always and forever. John says it beautifully in the first chapter of his gospel:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men." (John 1:1-4)
Obviously that is not the Jewish view of Jesus or God and, fair enough, they’re not Christians, of course they don’t believe what Christianity teaches. But it’s not the Mormon view, either. According to LDS theology, Jesus and Lucifer are both spirit sons of God the father (who was once a man), and each came up with a plan to reconcile fallen humanity with God, and God preferred the plan of his son Jesus over the plan of his son Lucifer, who took offense.
Now I don’t know much about what Mormons believe happened to Lucifer, after God rejected his plan, and it’s not relevant to my point. The fact that Mormon theology believes Jesus and Lucifer are equal beings prior to the incarnation makes the Mormon Jesus very, very different from the normative Christian Jesus. The fact that the Mormon Jesus wasn’t with God from the beginning makes him very, very different from the normative Christian Jesus.
Details regarding the conception of Jesus, the scope of the forgiveness Jesus achieved on the cross, and the Person of the Holy Spirit all show a significant difference between Mormon beliefs and orthodox Christian beliefs.
Simply using the name “Jesus” while pointing to the historical figure and saying, “we believe in THAT guy,” doesn’t mean we believe the same things about “that guy.” Christianity believes that Jesus is Creator and Lucifer is part of the created order; they have never been equal or equivalent beings. In and of itself, the different understandings of God and Jesus, who they are, their history and their relationship, are sufficient to mark a vast gulf between the two religions.
My analogy is that the Mormon faith is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism. Christians embrace the Hebrew scriptures (although, to be fair, many Christians are greatly ignorant of the Hebrew scriptures and some suffer confusion about the very nature of the “old testament God” – but those are personal limitations and not reflected by normative Christian theology) and then add the new testament, the gospels and epistles. Likewise the Mormons embrace the Christian bible (old and new testament) and add another gospel and additional books that form specific Mormon theology. I am told by Mormon friends that they are discouraged from reading the Bible, that it is considered inferior to the LDS scriptures. Joseph Smith was told by his angelic source that none of the churches were rightly following Jesus and he needed to form a new one. So he did.
I think the LDS and Mitt Romney in particular would be better served to acknowledge that they are Mormon and, while the religion has similarities with normative Christianity, it is significantly different. In my opinion Christians shouldn’t try to pass themselves off as Jews and Mormons shouldn’t try to pass themselves off as Christians, at least not as unqualified Christians – it looks deceptive to people who know something about the two theologies.
It’s a truth-in-advertising, accuracy-in-labeling question. And inadvertent misrepresentation could explode the candidacy of a Mormon.
Now, does any of this theology have any bearing on the suitability of Mitt Romney to be President? No, of course not. We're not voting for "Theologian in Chief," we're voting for "Commander in Chief." Would Romney's LDS beliefs have any bearing on his ability to do a good job as President? No (and, arguably, they could have a positive bearing: Mormon males are under a lot of pressure to live excellent and exemplary lives; there is no "cheap grace" in LDS theology). Would religious holidays in the White House take on a different flavor? Sure.
So what? This is the United States of America and we very purposefully chose not to establish a state religion. One of the consequences of that (wise) decision is that we've had Presidents from a variety of Christian traditions. And, in the larger sense, being Mormon certainly grows up out of the Christian tradition even while it is not traditional Christianity.
Are there religions which would prevent me from voting for a candidate? Yes, if the religion embraced a different set of values. I don't know that I could vote for a Muslim because the religion is inherently political; Islam doesn't see a separation between mosque and state. I wouldn't vote for a satanist. Would I vote for an atheist? If their values were solid and I believed they were the best person for the job, yes. If Mitt Romney is the conservative nominee most likely to win the general election, he should be the candidate.