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Article VI Blog Interview: Stan Guthrie of Christianity Today

Posted by: Lowell Brown at 09:27 am, April 23rd 2007     —    2 Comments »

The following interview took place on April 19, 2007, between John Schroeder ("JS") and Lowell Brown ("LB") of Article VI Blog, and Stan Guthrie ("SG"), Senior Associate Editor of Christianity Today Magazine.

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JS:    Here we are today with Stan Guthrie.  Stan is the Senior Associate Editor of Christianity Today MagazineChristianity Today is the premiere magazine covering evangelical Christianity, and Stan also blogs at http://www.stanguthrie.com.  Thanks for joining us today, Stan.

SG:    Glad to be here.  Thanks for having me.

JS:    Stan, you and the staff of Christianity Today probably have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in evangelicalism more than any other single source.  I guess the first question I would ask you is, politics aside, simply, on the question of religion, how big a problem do you think Mitt Romney has because he is LDS?

SG:    Well, I am probably looking at the same polls you are, and what I understand is that he has a problem in that he is a Mormon and there is a good bit of distrust of Mormons among evangelicals.  I mean, for years, Mormonism, or the Latter Days Saints Church, sorry, has been labeled a cult.  So it is kind of hard to overcome that four letter “c” word, and I would say there is a fair bit of distrust, but also some interest, because he is obviously an accomplished person, accomplished governor, and he holds a lot of positions that evangelicals would find interesting — particularly those with a conservative slant to their politics.

JS:    Have you had much opportunity to discuss this issue — I mean, your interview subjects over the years have covered the breadth of both conservatism to liberalism, both theologically and politically.

SG:    I’m in an interesting position.  It’s fun.

JS:    I’m sure it is.  Have you had much opportunity to discuss this issue with those people?  I mean, ranging from James Dobson to Newt Gingrich to Jim Wallace to Marvin Olasky, just all across the board there.

SG:    You mean whether a Mormon can be elected?

JS:    Elected President, yes.

SG:    That’s starting to happen more and more, but honestly, until really the last year or so, maybe a little less than that, it really hasn’t been an issue.  It just hasn’t been on our radar screens because there has been no credible Mormon candidate.  I mean, you get people like Orrin Hatch, in the Senate and you think, well, he’s a good ally on a lot of issues and I think he has built up some respect, but honestly, I think most of us haven’t thought that much about it and I think it is still pretty new to a lot of people.

I think probably there is a good chunk of evangelicals who just haven’t thought about it and are willing to be persuaded.  There have been a lot of developments over the last several years of contacts between Christians of all kinds and people from Latter Day Saints.  I think some eyes are being opened and I think some stereotypes are being dispelled, or at least, addressed in a realistic way, where there is someone sitting across the table from you and it’s not just a reference in a book about cults.  It’s a real person and you get to hear them discuss what they really believe, you find that they are maybe not quite as scary as they were made out to be.

JS:    Sure.  Well, obviously I think that, given that I blog with Lowell.  I communicate with him probably almost as much as my wife, it seems like sometimes.

LB:    I’m an interviewer, and I’m sorry, because I’m supposed to be asking the questions, but I will say, blogging with John I also have learned an awful lot about evangelicalism.  I think there is a lesson in that for everyone.

SG:    One of the things I have really appreciated since coming to Christianity Today is learning the notion that you need to see how the life is lived.  How its followers live the thing — Whether it is Latter Day Saints, whether it is Islam, or Episcopalians, or whatever.  You can’t just get it from press clippings and references in books.  You have to see how it is actually lived out in the real world and what the nuances are and what is stressed and what is not stressed.  I think as that goes on with followers of Mormonism, that some of those stereotypes and concerns will be addressed.  I’m not saying all will be, but certainly when you establish a relationship with someone, you have a much better chance of building a friendship and seeing things more sympathetically.

JS:    Do you think that in order for Mitt Romney to be elected that a lot of the — I’m trying to figure out the right way to say this — I want to say myths about Mormonism, but some are myths and some are facts just twisted wrong — are going to have to be overcome?  Or do you think Mitt Romney, or any other candidate, can do that simply on the basis of being a good individual?

SG:    Well, this was a little bit before my time, but as you know John F. Kennedy had to address that issue head on and reassure people that the stereotypes of Catholics that were common at the time were not going to apply to him.  And I would guess that Mitt Romney will probably have to do something similar to reassure people that Mormons don’t have horns and hooves and that kind of thing, because a lot of people are suspicious.  I don’t know how he would do that, particularly, but certainly, just speaking forthrightly as an American citizen, as a leader, as an accomplished person is going to help.  But probably, for some people, he is going to have to go a bit farther and, you know, explain how his faith is going to inform his politics.

LB:    I have a follow up here.  When Kennedy gave his speech, the only real issue was whether or not he would be independent of the Vatican.  And it seems to me that is one question people have about Romney:  Will he be independent of Salt Lake City?  I think that’s an easy question for him to address, but as you have mentioned, in Romney’s case there seem to be a number of other questions he would need to address.  Do you have any ideas, from what you have gathered from speaking to evangelicals and other Christians, as to the necessary scope of his outreach, his speech or other gesture in that direction?

SG:    Well, I wouldn’t say I have a definitive answer, but I think back to the time, I think it was 1984, when Reagan came to the National Association of Evangelicals and he said, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”  He lowered any kind of barriers and he let the people know that he was really supportive of them.  I would be very surprised if Romney didn’t make some similar kind of a gesture where he talks with evangelicals and probably tries to allay some of their fears.  I don’t know if you do that on a large scale or a small scale.

JS:    Well, he has had some meetings with a broad swath of evangelical leaders on a couple of occasions.  And –

SG:    So far, I don’t believe that whatever he said to some of these leaders has really filtered down to the masses.  So, somehow it is going to have to be conveyed that Romney is OK.  You know what I mean?

JS:    Sure. — Are there any specific corners, labels of evangelicalism where you think the problem is larger than others?

SG:    Could you be a little more specific?

JS:    For example, my sense is that there haven’t been any evangelicals that have come out and said, Richard Land’s term was a “deal breaker,” that have come out and said that Romney’s faith is just going to prevent them from voting for him, but there are some who have concerns.  Al Mohler has expressed concerns.  James Dobson hasn’t expressed concern so much as he said that he doesn’t think some people will vote for Romney because of that.  Those are both people who are towards the very conservative end of the scope of evangelicalism.  And I am wondering if you think, therefore my perception is that that’s where the problems lie, on the most conservative end.

SG:    And they’re also the ones who are the most likely to support him.

JS:    That’s what I understand.  And so I’m trying to get a feel for — for example, I’m a Presbyterian.  We come from a relatively liberal background, both theologically and politically.  As a matter of fact, there’s just not a lot of buzz in Presbyterian circles about it being a problem.  So, that’s kind of what I’m looking for, is it a Baptist issue, a Presbyterian issue?  It is an Evangelical Independent Church issue, or what do you think?

SG:    I think it is in the broad evangelical movement.  I would say the more fundamentalist the persuasion of the group, the harder it will be because I think some of those stereotypes will be a little harder to remove and to address.

JS:    Lowell, you had some questions from the interview Stan did with Hugh, didn’t you?

LB:    Yes.  Stan, you did an interview with High Hewitt about his book, A Mormon in the White House?  It was posted on February 27th.  I was interested in his answer to one of your questions.  You asked him: “Would any theological believe be disqualifying for a Presidential candidate?”  And his answer was this:

Not a theological belief, but if the theological believe resulted in a political position, it could.  For example, if a Raelian believed that we needed to embrace cloning, I would say, I can’t vote for you because you are in favor of cloning.

That’s a sensible and principled position, but I have two questions for you about it.  Do you think, as an observer of Christianity, that it is realistic to expect a lot of people to adopt that position?

SG:    I think it is a principled position.  It is one that I think that if you stretch it, it doesn’t work.  I think it works in the broad scheme of things, but when you get to the extremes it won’t work.  Just to use the Raelians as an example, no matter what their positions were on the issues, if they lined up with my personal positions 100%, I would not vote for them because I think Raelianism by definition is crazy and so anyone who would believe in that system would not be Presidential timber in my estimation.  So, I think the real question is, is not would any theological belief be disqualifying, but would Mormon theological beliefs be disqualifying, in the case of Mr. Romney.

LB:    It’s clear that the question is quite academic because a Raelian would never get to the point of being a credible candidate for President.

SG:    Well, let’s hope not.

JS:    Aren’t they all dead now?

LB:    So there is a line and I guess it is one of those “We’ll know it when we see it” lines.

SG:    And I think the encouraging thing for Mr. Romney is that the line has been moving.  As we have mentioned, a lot of people would draw the line at a Catholic in years past.  And we have pretty much given up that line and now we are tying to see where the line really is.  I think it would be much more difficult for a Muslim to be President than it would for a Mormon to be President.

LB:    I agree.

SG    So, it depends on the sensibilities of the American people.  So I think Mr. Romney has a job ahead of him to say the line doesn’t stop at me, it stops at somebody else.

LB:    Some follow up questions.  I noticed in the online version of the article, there were 95 comments.

SG:    Oh, really?

LB:    Yes, and to call that set of comments a spirited discussion would be an understatement.  But that is what we have come to expect, John and I, when we explore this issue.  One commenter raised a question which has also been raised by the Rev. Al Mohler, which is, and I’ll quote, “If Romney comes near to gaining the White House, he will add huge legitimacy to Mormonism, a religion that is contrary to historic Christianity and a threat to the Gospel.”  And others have expressed that.  Frankly, as a Mormon I find that to be a logical position to take.  

SG:    Illogical?

LB:    Pardon me?

SG:    Illogical?

LB:    No, it is a logical position to take.  I also think it is mistaken.  Even so, I can’t get my hands around who widely shared Mohler's view is.  Do you have a sense of that?

SG:    I would think that it wouldn’t be a cause, but it would be an effect.  If he does get to that point, I think that means that Mormonism is viewed as a legitimate American religion and expression of faith and it is not a big deal.  I don’t think Romney in himself has the power or the position to be able to force, I’m just using a term, “force Mormonism down people’s throats” if they are not ready to swallow it anyway.

LB:    In Hugh’s book, Romney did point out – apparently with tongue in cheek– that Mormon baptisms have not increased appreciably in Massachusetts since his election to Governor.

SG:    That’s an interesting little detail.  Yeah, I think probably just — how do I say this — just the increased press and increased media visibility can’t but help Mormonism unless he makes some terrible mistakes, or people around him, who are Mormon, make terrible mistakes.  

I mean, I’m not comparing Mormonism to Islam, but even after 9/11 there was a surge in interest in Islam, simply because people were talking about it and saying, well, what is this?  Certain people had not heard of it before we were attacked.  So, in that sense, there will be some people who are interested in Mormonism, who otherwise wouldn’t have been, as they face the issue and as the doctrines or the practices of the latter Day Saints church, become known to them.

JS:    Again, as an interviewer, I’m not supposed to make a comment, but I have to.  The other thing that strikes me is that granting Mormonism legitimacy as an American expression of faith, does not establish the truth or falsity of that belief, which is what’s at root when it comes to adopting it as a religious faith.  So, those are kind of –

SG:    Well, I don’t know.  People adopt religions for all different kinds of reasons.  Some might be because they think it is true, others because it might make them feel good, or, you know, meet some kind of need in their life.  

LB:    How widely shared do you think that view is?  The Al Mohler view that I just described?

SG:    Gosh, Al Mohler speaks for a lot of people, but he doesn’t speak for everyone.  I would guess it would be a fair, a very sizable minority.

LB:    And to be fair to Al Mohler, I think he has said that he would agonize over the decision.  I’m not sure he has said yet that he would simply not vote for Romney for that reason.

SG:    I think we are all sort of in a waiting mode.  Let’s see where he goes with this and what his policies are, and also who the man is.  I think you can overcome a lot of things and get someone’s vote.  I mean, Ronald Reagan was divorced and he didn’t go to church much when he was in the office of the Presidency, and by and large, evangelicals loved him and he overcame those negative factors.  So, it could happen again.

LB:    I want to read to you, and this is my last question.  I’m crossing my fingers when I say that of course.

SG:    So am I.

LB:    I noticed something that Harold Bloom said in his book The American Religion, and I’ll quote it:  

The Southern Baptists and the Mormons betray remarkably parallel configurations and spiritual temperament and in what might be called the sensibility of belief.  In my analysis they are different varieties of the American Religion and they actually share far more than they dispute.

Question:  How do you respond to that thought?

SG:    I think he is probably thinking more from a sociological level.  Certainly there are a lot of similarities — The energy, the evangelistic imperative, the social cohesion, that king of thing.  But I think there are some great fundamental differences between the Latter Day Saints’ beliefs and what I would say standard evangelical beliefs, and the Southern Baptists would be one variety of that.  And certainly, I think, probably at root the differences are pretty deep but they do seem to have a lot of things in common and we come together for a lot of good and necessary reasons.  And I think if we decide to focus on the things that bring us together, there is certainly a lot we can work on and I wouldn’t necessarily think that the theological differences are going to be deal breakers for a lot of people.  Really, it remains to be seen.  And I think as the campaigns move forward, some of those potential problems are going to surface.  We are going to see: Are they serious or not?  And I don’t think anyone knows right now.

LB:    I’m going to confirm my status as a liar right now and ask one more question.  One of the commenters to your interview said this:

I think it will be interesting to see if some Christians can look beyond their attitudes toward Mormonism to the bigger picture.  Will they instead go for an adulterer, Giuliani, or a man who has previously sneered at evangelical beliefs, McCain?  

I am wondering whether we are going to get into those kinds of issues among evangelicals and other creedal Christians.  Are they going to look at the candidates, look at Romney, married 38 years, 5 sons, a perfectly clean, and no-skeletons-in-the-closet record.  Is that going to matter to them more than his religion, based on your perception, Mr. Guthrie?

SG:    Well, my goodness, John Edwards is by all accounts, happily married for 30 years and I know a lot of politically conservative Christians who would never vote for him.  So, it is more than just the personal narrative that a person has.  I think it all kind of works together.  I know plenty of evangelical Christians who are thinking of voting for Giuliani, not because they agree with him on abortion or on his personal morality, which we would find reprehensible on both counts, but the fact that he is a strong figure who might be needed in a time of terrorism and war.  So, that said, I think Mr. Romney has a pretty good chance of winning us over even though we might have fundamental differences with him on theology.  As Hugh said, he is not looking for a pastor; he’s looking for a President.  While most evangelicals are not as pragmatically focused as Hugh is, I think there is a large number who are looking to make the best decision they can for the country and they are not trying to have a theological convention.

LB:    Well, with that I need to drop off the call.  Please continue without me, John.

JS:    Ok, thanks, Lowell.  

SG:    Thanks Lowell.

LB:    Thank you very much.  It has been a pleasure speaking with you and making your acquaintance.  Your comments are terribly interesting.

SG:    Well, thank you very much.  Look forward to talking with you again.

LB:    Goodbye.

JS:    Stan, I really have just one more question for you.

SG:    Sure, sure.

JS:    That is, how closely does Christianity Today follow politics?

SG:    We try not to be in the day to day slugfest.  And we don’t handicap the races and we don’t see that as our primary calling as a magazine.  I mean, people can get political analyses all over the charts, but what we try to do is find the spiritual implications and applications of what is going on.  We try to help our readers get to know the candidates, what they believe, how they live out their faith if they have one, how their decisions and prejudices would affect not only evangelical Christians, but just the great moral issues of our time.

END OF INTERVIEW 

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