This is a guest post by Jason A. Kerr, a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On 7 October, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was speaking to reporters outside the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, where he had just introduced Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Taking aim at Perry’s rival for the nomination, Mitt Romney, Jeffress said that Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “is not a Christian.” Jeffress went on to say, “This idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news…. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time.”
Jeffress has a point: evangelicals have long been uncomfortable with Mormonism, and significant theological differences – most notably over Christology – exist between the two groups. I’m not going to attempt to resolve those differences here, or to defend the proposition that Mormons are in fact Christian (even though I, as a Mormon, affirm my own faith in Christ).
Rather, I wish to seize on an opportunity inadvertently opened by Jeffress’s overly broad invocation of “the historical position of Christianity” to argue that Mormons and Baptists ought to make common cause in opposing the use of such appeals as tests of religious orthodoxy, let alone as de facto religious tests of fitness for political office.
Here’s the thing: “the historical position of Christianity” hasn’t always been kind to Baptists, either. In 1640s London, for instance, Baptist congregations found themselves altogether on the margins. Adherence to the doctrine of believer’s baptism put them at odds with the longstanding practice of baptizing infants, and their belief that church membership depended on such baptism meant separation from the established Church of England. Thus, Baptist gatherings were illegal, and entire congregations occasionally found themselves in prison. With the outbreak of civil war in 1642, enforcement broke down, and some churches began to meet more openly. For instance, a congregation led by Thomas Lambe held meetings in Bell Alley, Coleman Street that were open to the public and drew huge crowds.