Conservative evangelicals Bryan Fischer and the Reverend Robert Jeffress recently controversially suggested that Mormonism is not Christianity, but rather a false cult, and that "Christians" should factor that in when deciding for whom to vote for public office.
Fischer and Jeffress stress Article 6, Clause 3 of the Constitution restricts government only from imposing formal religious tests. The point is true enough. Voters can vote for whomever they want, for whatever reasons, even very bad ones.
However, in a nation founded on ecumenical and non-sectarian religious principles, imposing a strictly orthodox private religious test seems a bad idea. But both Fischer and Jeffress appeal to the American Founding for their stance.
Their appeal is inapt. Attempting to justify his position, Jeffress referenced John Jay who wrote in 1816:
Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.Hmm... Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, claims to be a "Christian" and accepts Jesus as the divine, resurrected Savior of mankind. So what is the problem? Space forbids me to detail all of the problems evangelicals have with Mormonism. But, at base, Mormonism denies historic orthodoxy as found in doctrines like the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds; to disbelieve in orthodox Trinitarianism, as it were, is to disbelieve in "Mere Christianity" as CS Lewis termed it. After the late Walter Martin, conservative evangelicals often term non-Trinitarian religionists, like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others, as "cults."
Though the term "cults" was not used during the American Founding era to describe non-Trinitarians, the "orthodox" then (especially clergy) did regard these "heretics" as not "Christian."
But whatever John Jay meant in the aforementioned quotation, America was not founded so that orthodox evangelical voters could put Presidential candidates through their strict private religious tests. (Ironically, Jay himself may not have passed the orthodox Trinitarian test for "mere Christianity" as evidence shows he doubted the content contained in his own church's Trinitarian creeds.)
Or, if it were, the experiment failed from the start; the early American Presidents were not "orthodox."
Most know that Thomas Jefferson, who served two terms as third President, was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. He did, interestingly, think of himself as a "Christian" while denying every single tenet of historic orthodoxy.
Fewer know that John Adams too, failed, and to quote history professor John Fea's masterful new book on the Christian Nation controversy, "fail[ed] miserably" the test for Christian orthodoxy. Adams, who identified as a "unitarian" his entire adult life, bitterly mocked the doctrines of the Trinity, which he termed a "sacerdotal imposture," and the Incarnation, which he said "stupified the Christian World."
And it's not as though George Washington and James Madison, respectively, the first and fourth American Presidents, the "father of America" and the "architect of the Constitution," were paragons of Christian orthodoxy. While not as overtly unitarian as the second and third American Presidents, Washington and Madison, from their own words, offer little to demonstrate their belief in Christian orthodoxy.
Indeed, Washington's own orthodox minister, the Reverend James Abercrombie, claimed Washington's systematic avoidance of communion meant he was not a "real Christian" because his actions "disregard[ed] an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace."
And well respected orthodox Episcopalian, William Meade, third Bishop of Virginia, well acquainted with Madison, claimed the fourth President's "political associations with those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change" his youthful, conventionally religious spirit, "subjected him to the general suspicion of it." (One prominent unitarian contemporary of James Madison, George Ticknor, founder of the Boston Public Library, claims Madison personally professed unitarianism to him during a dinner conversation.)
In all likelihood, the first American President who might pass Fischer and Jeffress's orthodox test for Christianity was seventh President Andrew Jackson!
The early American Presidents were not perfect, but they well led the newly formed nation. Their example shows little connection between belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and Presidential leadership acumen.
Please keep that in mind when considering how Mitt Romney's Mormonism might impact his qualifications for the American Presidency.