Addressing an issue on the minds of many evangelical voters as a Mormon runs for president, a Baptist seminary panel said Tuesday that evangelicals must jettison -- for the good of their faith -- the idea that the White House occupant must be a "religious mascot" for Christianity.
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Southern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted the panel discussion, less than two months before American voters will choose between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who is Mormon.
"I heard someone in recent days say, 'I would never vote for anyone who is not an authentically professing evangelical Christian,'" said Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Seminary. "Well, if that's the case, then as far as I can see, you have about three candidates in the last 100 years or so ... that you could possibly vote for: William Jennings Bryan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
"The question is not John 3:16 in terms of reading the regeneration of the person's heart," Moore said. "The question is Romans 13: Does this person have the kind of wisdom to bear the sword on behalf of God's authority that He has granted to the state? And can I trust that person to protect society? That's the fundamental question."
American Christians too often, said seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., have seemingly assigned a "priestly role" to the White House, hoping the president will represent and promote the Christian faith. But that is a uniquely American idea, Mohler said, and unhealthy for Christianity.
"I had a pastor say to me, 'You just can't be faithful and vote for someone who represents such things or believes such things [as Mormons believe],'" Mohler said. "And I said, 'What if you're a Christian in Utah? Do you just not vote? What if your decision is between two Mormon candidates?'
"Throughout most of Christian history, folks haven't struggled with this question because they didn't have the luxury of struggling with it. ... The separation of the priestly role from government is something that has to happen in the minds of American evangelicals," Mohler said, warning against viewing government as an idol.
Moore agreed, saying U.S. Christians have been guilty of trying to Christianize American history.
"So many evangelicals want to go back and claim Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and John Adams as orthodox, evangelical Christians," Moore said. "The problem with that [is that] Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were great men who did fantastic things for our country, but once you start claiming them as orthodox evangelical Christians, you're not elevating those men, you're downgrading the Gospel into something that fits whatever they happen to hold. And you wind up with [modern-day] politicians who learn the language of evangelical faith in order to use it, in order to manipulate people into supporting them."
The four-member panel said Americans on multiple occasions have elected candidates who did not hold to evangelical beliefs. Among them were Unitarian William Howard Taft and Catholic John F. Kennedy.
"We went through this back in the '60s with John Kennedy," said Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary. "They thought, 'Oh, if we elect a Catholic, then the Pope will just have a hotline and tell him exactly what to do.'"
The panel, though, said evangelicals still face tough questions about potentially electing a Mormon for president -- mainly whether a Mormon president would boost the image of Mormonism around the world.
"How do we think of that in terms of world missions?" Mohler asked. "How do we think about this in terms of missions on Third Avenue in Louisville, Ky.?"
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SOURCE: Baptist Press