The election-year embrace of Mitt Romney by some evangelical Christians now borders on a bear hug, given a series of moves by Billy Graham and his family that appear to say it’s OK to vote for a Mormon.
This week, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed Mormonism from its list of religious cults.
The reclassification follows Romney’s visit to Graham’s mountain home last Thursday, a meeting that also included Graham’s son Franklin, who now runs the association for his 93-year-old father.
Mormons consider themselves Christians and say their faith tracks the teachings of Jesus. But they give equal stature to the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Several of their beliefs – including that God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus are separate deities and not part of the divine Trinity – further separate them from mainstream Christian teachings.
An article on the Graham website had classified Mormons, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritists and Scientologists, among others, as cults.
“Our primary focus at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has always been promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Ken Barun, the evangelical association’s chief of staff, said in a prepared statement.
“We removed the ( cult) information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.”
The Grahams, however, long ago waded into the politics of the presidential campaign. In the current issue of the association’s Decision magazine, Franklin Graham poses the question in a column titled: “Can an Evangelical Christian Vote for a Mormon?”
He answers it with a rousing yes.
“We are at a profound crossroads. Our secularized society has shaken its fist in God’s face and rejected his very name,” Franklin Graham writes. “ We must not silence our voices when government clashes with the worship of God.
“I pray that all Christians and God-fearing Americans will put aside labels and vote for principles – God’s principles.”
While Billy Graham has never formally endorsed a candidate, the ties between the family and Romney have grown tighter, starting with Franklin’s call before the South Carolina presidential primary for conservative Christians to not hold Romney’s religion against him. “We are not electing a pastor-in-chief,” he said at the time.
Mark DeMoss, Franklin Graham’s longtime spokesman, is now a Romney adviser. DeMoss told The Associated Press last week that Franklin Graham “is doing everything he can to encourage churches to encourage their people to get out and vote.”
The younger Graham has also had his run-ins with President Barack Obama. In 2010, the Army withdrew an invitation for Franklin Graham to speak at a Pentagon prayer breakfast because of his criticism of Islam.
In February, Graham questioned Obama’s Christianity while raising the possibility that the president is a Muslim.
In his Decision magazine column, Franklin Graham cites a statement by former President Bill Clinton that Obama has a plan to “rebuild America.”
“God-fearing Americans have no desire to see America rebuilt – but rather restored,” he writes. “To ‘rebuild it’ would be to create a new nation without God or perhaps under many Gods.”
The Grahams’ actions could further cement conservative Christian support for Romney in the Nov. 6 election, even though most evangelicals don’t consider him a Christian.
That religious divide cost Romney heavily in the South Carolina primary, when he finished a distant second to Newt Gingrich, a Catholic who is twice divorced.
“Romney’s Mormonism will be more a cause of concern than Gingrich’s infidelity,” the Rev. Brad Atkins, president of the S.C. Baptist Convention, said at the time.
Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charlotte and president of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, says evangelicals now have a clear choice.
“While certainly we differ and have deep theological issues with Gov. Romney’s religion and faith, we do share similar values,” Harris said.
On topics such as same-sex marriage and abortion, “our values are far more similar than nonsimilar.”
Move to the mainstream
Throughout his six-decade career, Billy Graham made several moves that made Southern evangelicals uncomfortable – from preaching for integration to including Catholics and more moderate denominations on his crusade teams.
For their part, Mormons have moved more to the cultural, economic and political mainstream, says Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies, church history and religion at Wake Forest University.
“Up until the 1950s, you either were a Mormon or you despised the Mormons, because they were considered so weird in the minds of the evangelical majority that there was an almost demonic quality to them.”
Since then, Mormons such as Romney’s father, George, who was the governor of Michigan and ran for president in 1968, and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch broke public barriers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also broke with its longstanding tradition of polygamy. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir became a cultural icon.
Today, Mormons make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. The Carolinas are home to some 115,000 of the church members.
A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year found that 66 percent of Mormons consider themselves conservative, and almost 75 percent described themselves as Republican or Republican-leaning.
Attempts to reach a local church spokesman were unsuccessful.
In his October column in Decision magazine, Franklin Graham called for the rebirth of a political alliance built on faith – “made up of Christians, Jews, Mormons, Catholics to take a stand for our religious freedoms and rights.”
Conservative Christians now need those partnerships, Leonard said, given a Pew study this month that showed Protestants are no longer the religious majority in the United States. The fastest-growing religious groups, those not affiliated with a particular church, tend to vote Democratic.
“You could make the case that for the religious right, this is a last-ditch effort in terms of their public privilege, in terms of being the religious majority,” Leonard said.
Some still doubt Mormonism
For now, some other Conservative Christian groups have not followed the Grahams’ move.
The Christian Research Institute of Charlotte, which was begun in 1960 to counteract the threat posed by “cults and other alternative religious systems,” still considers Mormonism a cult.
It says Mormon doctrines “compromise, confuse or contradict the nature of God, the authority of Scripture, and the way of salvation.”
Even the Billy Graham Evangelical Association website has not been completely scrubbed of concerns about the Mormon religion.
Under the section of “Billy Graham’s My Answer,” a questioner who has been invited by a couple “to come to their assembly hall to study the Bible” is warned to be wary of those (like Mormons) that claim “the books their founder wrote or ‘discovered’ are from God, and have equal authority to the Bible.”
“Ask God to lead you to a church where Christ is honored and the Bible is taught,” the website counsels.