If Southern Baptists gather for a seminar on what Mormons believe, the odds are good that one of the teachers will be a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then again, if Mormons gather for a seminar on what Southern Baptists believe, the odds are good that one of the teachers will be a former Southern Baptist.
"There's an important word that people forget when they start talking about Southern Baptists and Mormons and that word is 'competition,' " said the Rev. Richard Land, one of the most outspoken leaders of America's largest non-Catholic flock. He leads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"We are talking about the two most evangelistic churches in North America and most of the world," he said. "There are lots of Mormons who used to be Baptists and lots of Baptists who used to be Mormons. ... It's natural to see some tensions now and then."
Meanwhile, some Mormons and Baptists keep colliding in the public square every four years or so -- just about the time White House wannabes butt heads in Republican debates.
The latest storm centered on remarks by the Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. A supporter of Rick Perry of Texas, Jeffress told the recent Values Voters Summit crowd that Mormon Mitt Romney is "not a real Christian" and later insisted on calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "theological cult."
Obviously, that language offends Mormons, said Land. Truth is, no one in today's Southern Baptist leadership believes that modern Mormons should be described with the word "cult" as most Americans would understand this hot-button term, defined according to "psychological or sociological" factors.
"Clearly the Mormons are anything but that," he said. "They're the president of your Rotary Club and the leaders of your local bank. No one thinks they're one of the dangerous, separatistic cults that you read about in headlines -- people like Jim Jones or the Branch Davidians."
However, most Baptists and members of many other Christian churches have grown up hearing Mormonism described in "theological or doctrinal" terms. A Southern Baptist website on new religious movements states: "A cult ... is a group of people polarized around someone's interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ."
In recent years, Land has numbered himself among those who describe Mormonism as a kind of fourth Abrahamic tradition, a new faith that has reinterpreted the past under the guidance of its own prophet and its own scriptures. In this case, he said, "Joseph Smith is like Mohammad and The Book of Mormon is like the Koran." Mormons believe they have restored true Christianity, while Trinitarian churches reject this claim that they have lost the faith.
Thus, it's not surprising that a new LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 liberal and conservative Protestant clergy in America found that 75 percent disagreed with this statement: "I personally consider Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) to be Christians." The surprise was that 48 percent of mainline Protestant pastors strongly agreed that Mormons are not Christians.
Meanwhile, the Vatican in 2001 posted its stance on this issue: "Whether the baptism conferred by the community The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons in the vernacular, is valid."
The response from the late Pope John Paul II was blunt: "Negative." His verdict validated that of scholar Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.
Of course, the reason these issues are being debated in the first place is that Romney -- a prominent Mormon leader -- is a Republican frontrunner in an era in which conservative Catholic and Protestant voters play a prominent role in Iowa, South Carolina and numerous other primary contests. Mormons voters and donors are crucial, as well.
Land, who urged Romney to seek the presidency in 2008, is convinced most conservative believers will have no trouble backing the former Massachusetts governor, when push comes to shove.
"Most people know that they're voting for a president, not a Bible-study leader," he said. "Actually, the problem Romney is having in the primaries is not that he's a Mormon, but that many GOP voters are not sure that he's Mormon enough."