E. Glenn Hinson

            The candidacy of Mitt Romney and, to a lesser extent, Jon Huntsman has aroused intense concern among conservative Christians.  Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Dallas, has declared Mormonism a “cult,” meaning thereby to distinguish the Mormon faith of these two candidates from Christianity.  By virtue of his negative assessment of Mormonism, he vigorously espouses the selection of Rick Perry as the Republican candidate.  Were the Republican Party to choose Romney, he would support him, though reluctantly.

            Because a surprising number of friends have written to ask me about this issue, I have had to think about it more seriously than I have ever had to do previously.  What the question forces us to do is to ask a prior question:  How do we define Christianity?  What does it take to be a Christian?

            A run through Christian history will show that Christians have not found it easy to answer those questions.  For the very first Christians the answer was: Belief that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah (Christ).  Very soon, though, they said, “No.  That’s not enough.  We must say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ one with God.”  By the middle of the second century churches framed baptismal confessions requiring commitment to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as in the Roman Symbol that evolved into the Apostles’ Creed.  By the fourth century, trying to frame more precise definitions, councils of bishops formulated the Nicene and later Creeds with their emphasis upon the Son and Spirit being “of the same essence” as the Father.

            Search for Christian identity did not stop there either.  Eastern Christians recognize seven ecumenical or universal councils (up to 787) as definitive of Christian faith.  The Roman Catholic Church looks to 21 such councils up to and including the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  Both Orthodox and Roman Catholics rely on tradition.  In the 16th century, of course, Protestants negated those definitions and insisted on the Bible alone as offering a guide to who is or is not Christian.  Some, including Baptists, carried this principle to its logical extreme as a non-creedal people.  Since 1925, however, Southern Baptists have reversed themselves on this position and in 2000 published a Baptist Faith and Message that set belief in inerrancy of the Bible as the sine qua non for adherence to Christianity as they understood it.

            I suspect that Mormons can locate themselves comfortably across that broad spectrum.  Yet some might say, “It’s not that they don’t subscribe to some Christian affirmations.  It’s what they add to them that puts them in the ‘cult’ category, notably their use of The Book of Mormon as an authoritative revelation.  They once practiced polygamy based on that (although they had Old Testament support for it also).”   I think there is a certain legitimacy to this concern if Mormons look to The Book of Mormon as their ultimate authority, standing above scriptures as the final definer of their views.  But what if they look to it alongside scriptures like Roman Catholics and Orthodox look to tradition?  They certainly face a stern challenge in defining what being Christian means, but what Christian group does not, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant?  I’m inclined to accept Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman’s word when they call themselves Christian.

            Having said that, let me go on to say that I will not vote for or against either one because he is a Mormon.  I will base my vote on a judgment of their views, whether those views will be good for our country.  Our U. S. Constitution negates any religious test for public office.  On that basis, I didn’t need to decide whether Mormonism is Christian.

Dr. Hinson is Senior Professor of Church History and Spirituality

Dr. Hinson was the featured speaker for the John A. Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC in 2002.

B. A., Washington University
B. D. and Th.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
D. Phil., Oxford University
Additional research has been done at the Gregorianum in Rome and The Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem.

Dr. Hinson retired in 1999 from a position of Professor of Spirituality and John F. Loftis Professor of Church History at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He previously taught for more than thirty years at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In retirement he is servies as Visiting Professor at Lexington Theological Seminary and Louisville (Presbyterian) Seminary as well as Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.Dr. Hinson has given guest lectures at over thirty institutions, including Wales and England. He has authored numerous books, articles, essays and reviews. With an emphasis on ecumenical relationships Dr. Hinson has membership in significant ecumenical organizations and participated in various dialogues. Among his honors is the Cuthbert Allen Memorial Award for Ecumenism, the Ecumenical Institute of Belmont Abbey/Wake Forest University.

Tags: , , ,