“Explaining the Sound Bites” (Excerpt from Richard Mouw’s Talking with Mormons)

Richard J. Mouw
Richard J. Mouw

Now that Rick Santorum has suspended his presidential bid, the question that has swirled around the all-but-certain Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign for over two years — will evangelical voters support a Mormon candidate? — is sure to be asked more loudly and forcefully.

In his forthcoming book Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals, Richard J. Mouw — president of Fuller Seminary and a pioneering voice in Mormon-evangelical dialogue — has quite a bit to say about whether (and how, and to what extent) evangelicals and Mormons can transcend doctrinal differences to discover common ground. What follows here is an excerpt from the first chapter.

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After giving out dozens of sound bites about Mormonism during the buildup to the 2012 presidential election, I decided it was time to write a book on the subject. Mitt Romney has been much in the news, and journalists have been eager to find someone who was willing to offer some thoughts about how evangelicals might end up voting if their only choice was between President Obama and a Mormon.

At least one prominent fundamentalist preacher had announced during the primary season that because Mormonism is a cult, no Mormon should ever be allowed to occupy the Oval Office. In my interviews with journalists, I offered an alternative evangelical perspective. A dozen years of sustained dialogues with Mormon scholars and church leaders have convinced me that the “cult” label does not apply accurately to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not that I’m ready to give them a free pass as simply another Christian denomination. I have too many serious theological disagreements with Mormonism to offer that verdict. But Mormons don’t deserve to be dismissed by Christians as a cult. Scientology, in my view, is a cult. The Jehovah’s Witnesses belong to a cult. Hare Krishna is a cult. But present-day Mormonism should not be lumped together with those groups.

My Mormon friends admire Billy Graham. They read C. S. Lewis for spiritual inspiration. They write insightful commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans. Of course, all of that is mixed in with many things that I find worrisome. But we have been able to talk about the worrisome things. And I thank God for that.

But back to the sound bites. Anyone who has been interviewed frequently by journalists can testify to the fact that after an hour of detailed conversation the only thing that actually shows up in the published article from all that you said is — at best — a few sentences. Not that I resent that. I find the journalists whose primary assignment is religious topics to be highly informed and intelligent people. They regularly express their disappointment that the word limits they must honor keep them from covering their subject matter in the way they would like. When I see what they’ve done with the opinions I’ve offered at some length, I seldom feel that I’ve been misrepresented.

But I do often worry about having my thoughts being under-represented. And that has certainly been the case with regard to my sound bites about Mormonism.

Talking with Mormons
Talking with Mormons
(Click to order.)

I’m not conscious of having approached the writing of this short book in a defensive mood. It’s simply that as a teacher I haven’t felt that I’ve been given the opportunity to engage in adequate teaching on the subject. So this book is my effort to take a little more space than I’ve been given elsewhere, to elaborate on a few sentences here and there that have been given public exposure.

On the other hand, I’ve already noted that this is a short book. I do think that some longer books are necessary on the subject from an evangelical perspective. I don’t know whether I’ll ever write one of those longer books. If I were to do it, though, I would want to dig more deeply into Mormon theology than I do in these pages. And I would want also to dig more deeply into my own theology as a part of that longer discussion. In doing so, I would give more detailed evidence to what I can only testify to briefly here, namely that I approach my engagement with Mormonism as a Calvinist. I believe in a sovereign God. I am convinced of the utter depravity of our fallen condition. I look to Jesus Christ alone for my salvation — because he did for sinners like me what we could never do for ourselves, paying the debt for our guilt and shame on the Cross of Calvary.

I haven’t succeeded in convincing my Mormon friends that they ought wholeheartedly to embrace those Calvinist convictions. But they’ve been willing to hear me out. And sometimes — not always, but sometimes — they even sound as though they’re moving in the direction of some of the key convictions that are for me rooted in my Calvinism. In turn, I’ve been willing to hear them out as they’ve responded to my questions and probings. Furthermore, we keep getting back together for more discussions of these matters — topics that we agree are of eternal importance. In all of that, it has never felt to me as though I was talking to members of a “cult.” Which is why I sense the obligation to explain in a little detail here why I see these conversations as important ones.

Click here to preorder Richard Mouw’s Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals.

Click to read earlier EerdWord posts and excerpts penned by Richard Mouw — on Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, and cultural discipleship — or to read his opinion articles on Mormon-evangelical differences published by CNN and the Los Angeles Times