Chattanooga-area evangelical church pastors may believe the Mormon faith is a cult and may not consider Gov. Mitt Romney a Christian, but they said that won't stop them from considering a vote for him in next month's presidential election.
More than eight in 10 voters in a Pew Forum poll this summer said they were comfortable with the Republican nominee's faith or it didn't matter to them. Nineteen percent said they were uncomfortable with his faith.
"We are electing a president, not a pastor," said Tim Shoap, co-pastor of Signal Mountain Bible Church. "I want the best and most effective leader we can get, [one] who will represent the interests of the people and the country in keeping with the original intent of the Constitution. For me, that makes the Mormon issue largely irrelevant."
While members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider themselves Christians, several local evangelical pastors do not.
"Mormonism is a cult," said Jeremy Roberts, pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church. "Mormons are polytheistic universalists who deny that Jesus is the eternal son of God."
However, he said he would base his vote on "policy, leadership skills and who I perceive will most likely lead the country in the direction I believe is best."
Shoap said whether Mormonism is called a cult or sect or something else, it is not biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity.
"I put Mr. Romney in the same large boat of well-meaning people who are looking to their own works for salvation, rather than the finished work of Christ," he said. "He seems like a good guy who loves his family and seeks to do good. But if he holds to what the Mormon church teaches, I can't in good conscience call him a Christian."
Several evangelical pastors said abortion and the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman -- two areas in which their beliefs align with Romney's -- outweigh their theological difference with the Mormon faith.
"Concerning the presidency," said Greg Nance, minister of Signal Mountain Church of Christ, "we need someone who will honor the biblical meaning of marriage and who will defend the most vulnerable of our citizens, that being the unborn."
"Abortion... in any form does not conform to my belief," said Mitch McClure, pastor of Middle Valley Church of God. "Certainly partial-birth abortion is one of the most hideous crimes ever committed in the name of choice."
The Democratic National Committee platform does not contain language opposing partial-birth abortion, nor does it distinguish it from a first-trimester abortion.
Further, said McClure, "the family is a God-created unit of one man and one woman; no one can change this fact based on social changes."
President Barack Obama has voiced his support, and the DNC platform echoes that support, for marriage equality of same-sex couples.
"I'd rather vote for a member of a cult who will prevent the murder of babies in the womb," said Roberts, "than for a president who would appoint a Supreme Court justice to uphold the legalization of [abortion]."
Of two minds
Despite the beliefs of their spiritual leaders, the congregations of area evangelical churches will not necessarily fall in lockstep behind them.
"Lutheran Christians want the best person for the job," said Mark McCrory, pastor of First Lutheran Church, a member of the relatively conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. "From there, [they] split like most of traditional faith people in our country.
"Do they personally resonate with the protection of life as being most important or do they have stronger convictions that we need to help our poor, uninsured citizens? Personally, I'm not sure that those are the actual differences between the two mainline parties, but that is certainly how they advertise themselves."
Shoap said the majority of members in his congregation are likely to vote for Romney because they believe he'll do a better job than Obama. However, he said, "I think our congregation runs the gamut from a minority who would normally vote for the Republican candidate but can't bring themselves to vote for Romney because he is a Mormon [to] another minority who will vote for President Obama."
Dave Ketelsen, pastor of Hamilton Community Seventh-day Adventist Church, said he didn't believe theological differences would matter when it comes to his congregation's votes.
"What matters most," he said, "is where he stands on the important political issues and the values America stands for."
Bill Greer, minister of Soddy Church of Christ, said his members aren't likely to take the candidates' faith into account, either.
"My observation from my congregation," he said, "is that the vast majority of people do not have any particular concerns about Mr. Romney's religious faith as a Mormon any more than they have any particular concerns about Mr. Obama's religious faith."
Hands off politics
John Griffey, president of the Chattanooga Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he doesn't believe the wider community perceives his church as a fringe faith.
"We've done a lot of work in the community," he said, "and I think we've got a good relationship there, one that's been built over the years. As we're working together with our neighbors and other churches, a lot of misconceptions are being clarified. I think [the community] has a pretty good view of who we are."
Griffey said, though, that the national church is neutral on Romney's candidacy and doesn't endorse candidates in general.
He also said he didn't have a sense of how Chattanooga-area LDS church members -- who are divided into 13 wards, or congregations -- will vote or whether the GOP candidate's faith will have any bearing on their vote.
"I would hope that everyone would vote for the person who would uphold their basic and core beliefs," Griffey said. "We encourage members of the church to be involved in the political process [and] to vote for the candidates who best reflect... their standards of what they see happening."
As such, he said, they may be involved in voter registration drives or a candidate's campaign on their own, but the church will not become involved in either.
Religion? Who cares?
Greer said that, for better or for worse, a vast majority of voters don't give any thought to the religious convictions of the candidates they choose between.
"Sadly," he said, "religion in the United States is becoming less relevant in all aspects of society. Church attendance, Bible knowledge, personal conduct and morality have declined in the past few years in this country. Generally, God, morality and integrity have been supplanted by 'I will do what I want to do.'"
But on whatever side of the political aisle he and his members come down, said Nance, there is at least one thing they are commanded to do.
"In Scripture," he said, "we are taught to pray for all national leaders, and I pray for ours and will continue to do so, no matter who is elected. As a citizen, I will prayerfully vote my conscience and encourage my church family to do the same."
A Mormon primer
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers itself a Christian church, neither Catholic nor Protestant but "a restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ as originally established by the Savior in the New Testament of the Bible."
- Mormons say the Bible is "the word of God, a sacred volume of Scripture."
- Latter-day Saints consider the Book of Mormon another testament of Jesus Christ and believe it stands alongside the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as holy Scripture.
- Mormons refer to the Trinity as the Godhead and believe God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one in will and purpose but not literally the same being or substance.
- Latter-day Saints believe the president or prophet of the Mormon Church and his two counselors are apostles "in a prophetic role corresponding to the apostles in the Bible."
- Mormons say faith founder Joseph Smith taught that the Garden of Eden was somewhere in the area of Daviess County, Mo., but acknowledge they "do not know exactly where the original site" is.
- While a minority of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy in the early days of the church, like biblical patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, it was officially discontinued in 1890 and is strictly prohibited by the church today.
- Latter-day Saints do not embrace the creeds central to many other Christian churches.
- The health code for Latter-day Saints forbids its members to consume alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee and illegal drugs.
- Faithful adult members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wear temple garments -- simple, white underclothing composed of a top piece similar to a T-shirt and a bottom piece similar to shorts, which serve as a personal reminder of covenants made with God to lead good, honorable, Christlike lives.
At a glance
More than 6.14 million adherents make the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the nation's fifth-largest religious body behind the Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, nondenominational groups and United Methodist Church. In Tennessee, the Mormon Church had 45,675 adherents in 2010, making it the state's 11th-largest religious body.
SOURCE: Association of Religion Data Archives
Mormons in Chattanooga
In the Chattanooga Metropolitan Statistical Area, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the 12th-largest religious body. However, its number of adherents has tripled in the last 30 years.
Source: Association of Religion Data Archives