As the race for the Republican presidential nomination heats up, the competing theologies of the front-runners are getting as much attention as their differing policy proposals. Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon and the former governor of Massachusetts, faces a tough challenge from Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and one-time governor of Arkansas. Huckabee’s surge in Iowa owes itself in part to the strength of evangelical voters there who like his values and dislike his competitor’s faith. He has catered occasionally to those supporters with sly references to their belief that Mormonism is a cult, such as his recent musing—which he later apologized for—in a New York Times Magazine cover piece: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
This isn’t the first time a Southern Baptist and a Mormon have battled for the White House—Mo Udall was a nonpracticing Mormon when he ran against Baptist Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. * The two faiths have struggled with each other for years. Most Americans know little about Mormonism, aside from rumors about the sacred undergarments some Mormons wear. But for the millions who attend Southern Baptist churches, this is hardly a new discussion. For nearly the past 40 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has devoted considerable effort to teaching its members about the dangers of Mormonism. In fact, probably no other organization in the nation has played a bigger role in perpetuating the idea that Mormonism is a cult than the Southern Baptist Convention.
Ever since Joseph Smith began preaching his new faith in 1830, the Mormon Church has been branded as a cult. Mormons suffered persecution in the 19th century for their communal living, their scandalous Book of Mormon scripture, and, most famously, the polygamous marriages some Mormons practiced. Protestant Christians, especially, decried Mormon theological beliefs that God had once lived as a man and that men could themselves become gods if they lived a righteous life in the Mormon Church—a works-based notion of salvation that countered evangelical claims that grace alone could lead one to heaven. Other aspects of the Mormon faith struck Christians as no less than blasphemous heresies: the idea that God lived in the heavens near a planet called Kolob and directed his earthly church through a president who also held prophetic status and could receive divine revelations.
In the early 1980s, Southern Baptist Convention leaders discovered—much to their horror—that 40 percent of Mormonism’s 217,000 converts in 1980 came from Baptist backgrounds. More than 150 Mormon missionaries had descended on the northern Georgia area alone, a Southern Baptist magazine noted warily in 1982, and they found Southern Baptists among their most promising targets. When the Mormon Church built temples in the early ‘80s in Atlanta and Dallas, two of Southern Baptism’s most important hubs, it was as if the Mormon Church had thrown down the gauntlet in an arms race between two of the most missionary-minded faiths. Mormonism was declaring its permanent presence in the American South, where Southern Baptism enjoyed status as the de facto religion.
And the SBC got serious about tempering the expansion of what was becoming the fastest-growing religion in the world. They developed programs, trained pastors, hosted Mormonism-awareness conferences, and published articles to help spread the message to Southern Baptists that Mormonism was a dangerous cult religion they had to avoid. The SBC’s Sunday School Board developed an instruction kit, “The Christian Confronting the Cults,” that covered five religious groups: the Mormon Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Worldwide Church of God, the Unification Church (the Moonies), and Christian Scientists. The book quickly became the Sunday School Board’s top-selling item. The Baptist Film Centers even purged two films produced by Brigham Young University from its distribution lists. Neither film addressed doctrinal issues, but the Southern Baptist Convention dropped the titles so as not to appear approving of Mormon-produced messages. All of these efforts against Mormonism, an SBC magazine explained, were “to help Baptists witness to Mormons without becoming ‘Mormonized’ themselves.”
The effort didn’t end after the ‘80s came to a close. In 1998, the SBC held its annual convention in enemy territory: Salt Lake City, the Mormon Church’s headquarters. Three thousand Southern Baptist volunteers went on a door-to-door missionary effort bringing the evangelical message to Mormon neighborhoods. While the SBC engaged in such outreach during every yearly meeting, regardless of the locale, the missionary work in Salt Lake City had a more obvious goal than when the convention-goers visited Indianapolis or Philadelphia. To equip the volunteers, the SBC developed a video called The Mormon Puzzle and distributed copies of it with a book titled Mormonism Unmasked. Both works promised to “lift the veil from one of the greatest deceptions in the history of religion,” a blurb on the book’s cover announced.
“We are not worried,” the Mormon Church’s president, Gordon B. Hinckley, declared before the Southern Baptists arrived in Utah that June. In the end, slightly more than 1,000 conversions emerged from the missionary efforts, and SBC officials later acknowledged most of these came from non-Mormons. While the interactions on doorsteps between Southern Baptist missionaries and potential Mormon converts remained congenial—many of the Mormons had themselves served missions for their church and were therefore sympathetic—events at the SBC’s meeting were far more heated. One minister opened his sermon to the convention by describing Salt Lake City as “headquarters of a counterfeit Christianity.” And a resolution passed affirming “biblical revelation as the sole source of saving truth” struck many observers as a jab at Mormonism’s extrabiblical scriptures, including the Book of Mormon.
The Mormon Church has met efforts from the SBC and other evangelical groups with silence. While it maintains its claim as “the only true and living church,” the denomination has avoided targeting specific faiths in the way it has so often found itself in others’ crosshairs. Instead, more than 50,000 missionaries planted in nearly every country help spread Mormonism’s message. Even though most missionaries average only five or six conversions, the cumulative effect produces enormous results. What began with just six members in 1830 now counts more than 13 million members worldwide. And the 5.7 million Mormons in the United States today make the Mormon Church the fourth-largest denomination in America—behind the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church.
On Dec. 6, Mitt Romney delivered his much-anticipated “Faith in America” speech. Romney promised that no Mormon leader would direct his presidential decisions and declared that Jesus was “the son of God and the savior of mankind.” The next day, the Southern Baptist Convention published its last article in a three-part series on Mormonism on an SBC Web site. The articles briefly explored the Mormon Church’s history and outlined key differences between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity. Deeming it “a false religion,” the articles also distinguished Mormonism as a “theological cult” rather than a “sociological cult” because it held important doctrinal differences with orthodox Christianity but was not helmed by a controlling leader.
The article’s conclusion regarding “the question of Mitt Romney and evangelical voters” recognized that Romney might be the most attractive candidate on important issues like abortion and gay marriage, and reminded readers that Americans are electing a president, not a pastor. Still, the piece noted that a Mormon president might increase the church’s presence and aid its missionary efforts, a chilling prospect for Southern Baptists who adamantly oppose Mormonism’s claims. When the time comes for Republican Southern Baptists to choose a candidate to back in the primary, they will be thinking as much of Sunday school lessons and church educational programs about Mormonism as they will of competing policy proposals.
Correction, Dec. 20, 2007: This article originally and incorrectly stated that this is the first time a Mormon and a Southern Baptist have competed for the White House. Mo Udall was a nonpracticing Mormon when he ran against Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. The misstatement was the result of an editing error. (Return to the corrected sentence.)