Over the last few days, the issue of Mormonism and Christianity has been front and center in the news media, thanks to the controversy created by Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas. If you missed the dustup, Dr. Jeffress endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry in his race for the White House and subsequently told reporters he'd have a hard time voting for Mitt Romney, because of Romney's devout Mormonism.
I've been thinking about this controversy for a few days, waiting to respond. It's a complicated issue for a few reasons. One the one hand, Dr. Jeffress was only articulating what both Mormons and Christians have always affirmed -- that Mormonism is not orthodox Christianity, but (according to the Mormon view), a repudiation of Christianity and improvement. This article by Dr. Al Mohler brings clarity to the issue. So Dr. Jeffress is not guilty of bigotry, he's guilty of thoelogical precision. And asking the question about Mormonism isn't unfair. It's a right question, especially considering that weighty matters of eternity hold in the balance. In this, pastors must not retreat from Christian orthodoxy. People's souls are at stake.
However, I do think Dr. Jeffress' comments, while true, were inartful in their context. The third chapter of the book of James reminds us that a pastor's words carry much more weight than he realizes. A seeking world is watching. Pastors should step into political arguments with caution and precision. It was fully in Dr. Jeffress right to endorse Rick Perry as his favorite for President of the United States. But he should be cautious for two reasons: 1) People might get the wrong message that the church doors are only open for Republicans and 2) Christians think non-Christians are unfit for office. Jesus said we were to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." In recent years, pastors have clumsily waded into public discourse and have caused damage to the cause of the gospel. Pat Robertson and others come to mind.
Hindsight is 20/20 and being in a leadership position often puts a person in a situation where he's forced to answer tough questions. But Dr. Jeffress might have said something like, "I have great respect for all of the candidates in this race, but I personally believe Rick Perry is the best option," and left it at that. And he might have explained that his goal isn't simply to elect any Christian, regardless of their competence, but someone who has the competence and will agree to uphold values closest to the Scriptures.
But I think a more troubling aspect of this controversy may be the growing split between pastor and politician. It's not just the candidates' beliefs that are held up to scrutiny, but the pastors under whose teaching they sit. This began, I believe, with the 2008 election. Barack Obama was a longtime member of the infamous Reverend Wright's church in Chicago. Reverend Wright's theology is far outside the mainstream of orthodox Christianity and seemed threatening to the American Judeo-Christian ethic. So people were right to be concerned how Wright's worldview might have shaped Obama. But when Republicans made a big deal about Rev. Wright's teaching and went combing through his sermons to find more offensive material, I worried about the long-term effects of this. Because while Wright's teaching is highly offensive and unbiblical, will this give the other side the permission to comb the sermons of evangelical pastors under whose teaching conservative politicians sit? There is much of the Bible's central teaching that offends the culture today, starting with Jesus' exclusive claims to deity (John 14:6) as well as the labeling of lifestyles like homosexuality and extramarital heterosexuality as sin.
And sure enough, the views of a pastor like Dr. Robert Jeffress, a mainstream evangelical, a Southern Baptist, are now fair game. I'm not as worried about the media criticizing our faith as I am about what this will do to cause political leaders from attending church, from being influenced by Bible-preaching men of God. Simply attending a church will give their opposition a reason to hang the unpopular, but true teachings of Scripture around the necks of anyone who attends. And will this mentality seep into business and the rest of culture? Will attending an evangelical church pastored by a faithful man who delivers the true, but difficult Word of God be considered a liability? And worse, will this cause pastors to soften some of the harder sections of the Scripture in order to not be so controversial?
Let's hope not.