Southern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted the panel discussion, less than two months before American voters will choose between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who is Mormon.
"I heard someone in recent days say, 'I would never vote for anyone who is not an authentically professing evangelical Christian,'" said Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Seminary. "Well, if that's the case, then as far as I can see, you have about three candidates in the last 100 years or so ... that you could possibly vote for: William Jennings Bryan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
"The question is not John 3:16 in terms of reading the regeneration of the person's heart," Moore said. "The question is Romans 13: Does this person have the kind of wisdom to bear the sword on behalf of God's authority that He has granted to the state? And can I trust that person to protect society? That's the fundamental question."
American Christians too often, said seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., have seemingly assigned a "priestly role" to the White House, hoping the president will represent and promote the Christian faith. But that is a uniquely American idea, Mohler said, and unhealthy for Christianity.
"I had a pastor say to me, 'You just can't be faithful and vote for someone who represents such things or believes such things ,'" Mohler said. "And I said, 'What if you're a Christian in Utah? Do you just not vote? What if your decision is between two Mormon candidates?'
"Throughout most of Christian history, folks haven't struggled with this question because they didn't have the luxury of struggling with it. ... The separation of the priestly role from government is something that has to happen in the minds of American evangelicals," Mohler said, warning against viewing government as an idol.
Moore agreed, saying U.S. Christians have been guilty of trying to Christianize American history.
"So many evangelicals want to go back and claim Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and John Adams as orthodox, evangelical Christians," Moore said. "The problem with that Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were great men who did fantastic things for our country, but once you start claiming them as orthodox evangelical Christians, you're not elevating those men, you're downgrading the Gospel into something that fits whatever they happen to hold. And you wind up with politicians who learn the language of evangelical faith in order to use it, in order to manipulate people into supporting them."
The four-member panel said Americans on multiple occasions have elected candidates who did not hold to evangelical beliefs. Among them were Unitarian William Howard Taft and Catholic John F. Kennedy.
"We went through this back in the '60s with John Kennedy," said Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary. "They thought, 'Oh, if we elect a Catholic, then the Pope will just have a hotline and tell him exactly what to do.'"
The panel, though, said evangelicals still face tough questions about potentially electing a Mormon for president -- mainly whether a Mormon president would boost the image of Mormonism around the world.
"How do we think of that in terms of world missions?" Mohler asked. "How do we think about this in terms of missions on Third Avenue in Louisville, Ky.?"
Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., said it's a "difficult question." Mormonism clearly isn't part of orthodox, historical Christianity, panelists said.
"It may not be a kind of atomic moment where the whole nation wakes up and thinks, 'Oh, I like Mitt Romney's tax policies; I'm going to take a look at the Mormon church,'" Gilbert said. "I don't think that's what's going to happen."
Instead, Gilbert said, a Romney president would give Mormonism more "respectability." In that scenario, Gilbert said, it would become "increasingly important" for Christians "to clarify" the differences between orthodox, historical Christianity and Mormonism.
Mohler said he hopes Christian voters will think with deep theological concern and receive guidance from their pastors to help them make sound decisions.
Said Gilbert, "This is an educational moment for evangelicals, and it could turn out to be a healthy thing for the church if they can learn to think more carefully about how to agree with a person's policies while disagreeing with his theological beliefs."
Moore said the Bible includes multiple stories of how God uses non-believers for His good. Among them is Persian King Cyrus, who allowed the Jews to return to Israel following their captivity.
Moore added, "We are going to have to give up -- on both sides -- the idea of president as religious mascot."
An Obama-Romney campaign, Moore said, is a "good thing for American evangelicals."
"It enables us to simultaneously honor the king," he said, alluding to 1 Peter 2:17, "and to boldly proclaim the Gospel -- in a way that we see happening all through the Book of Acts. We are able to love and pray for President Obama while we disagree with him on life and religious liberty and marriage and some really important things. ...
"And if a President Romney is elected, we're the people who ought to be able to say, 'We respect and honor this man as president. We're able to ... serve with this man as president, and we're the people who are willing to -- if we're invited into the Oval Office -- say, 'President Romney, here's where we agree with you; here's what we like about what you're doing. And we sincerely want to plead with you to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
Closing out the discussion, Mohler reminded attendees: "Above all we have a Gospel responsibility, that we are first and foremost citizens of the heavenly Kingdom and our concern is that others will become a part of the Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel."
Audio of the panel discussion is available at http://www.sbts.edu/resources/chapel/chapel-fall-2012/the-mormon-moment-religious-conviction-and-the-2012-election-2/
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. With reporting by Craig Sanders of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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