Another obscure evangelical pastor has made a controversial pronouncement which has been picked up by the mass media. Fortunately, there’s no Qu’ran-burning this time around… instead, one hitherto unknown Pastor Robert Jeffress has been quoted as saying that Christians should not vote for potential Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney because he is a member of the dangerous “cult” of Mormonism. Instead, Jeffress and others argue, evangelicals in particular should be supporting a “competent Christian” candidate to serve as the leader of the GOP, preferably Rick Perry.

This news story raises some age-old questions, at least on the Christian side: Is Mormonism indeed a “cult”? A Christian “sect”? Or another religion entirely? Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary who has been a leading figure in Mormon-Evangelical dialogue, wrote an op-ed piece over the controversy for the CNN Belief Blog which makes the compelling case that Mormonism is not a “cult,” although he is not prepared to fully embrace it as an expression of Christian orthodoxy. As he notes, the language of “cult” is largely pejorative, and so fosters unhelpful stereotypes. I would add to the perhaps somewhat complex question of classification the observation that while Mormons see themselves as faithful to the revelation of Jesus, then again so do Muslims and we aren’t often tempted to think of Islam as a Christian “sect.” Like Islam, Mormonism has its own significant prophet, sacred texts which surpass the Christian Scriptures in interpretive importance, and unique ritual and communal practices. If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a full-fledged new religion (like Islam), it certainly represents a truly new religious idea. (The scope of this innovation is brilliantly described by Harold Bloom in his book The American Religion.)

Mormons and evangelicals have something of an uncomfortable relationship. However, in an age where our understanding of complicated things like religion and politics are mainly derived from TV shows, the truth is that for many North Americans, Christians (especially evangelicals) and Mormons appear virtually indistinguishable. Here are two religious groups who share a common vocabulary, sacred texts and practices, and in fact when it comes to evangelicals have a common ancestry: Joseph Smith came from an area of New York State that had seen so many fiery evangelical revivals it was known as the “burned-over district.” Big suburban churches, “family values,” clean-cut youths sharing gospel tracts… these are the stereotypical ways both of these religious movements appear to many outsiders. Watching reality shows on TLC, for example, there is no distinguishable difference between the Duggars (“19 Kids and Counting”), an evangelical family with 19 kids mostly notable for their love of feminine modesty, conservative values and Kirk Cameron, and the polygamous, FLDS Brown family (“Sister Wives”) and their conservative, modest, family-oriented existence in Utah. Both are pleasant, large suburban families whom you might think would share common values. The latter family just happens to have four moms and believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Both the Duggars and the Browns are, simply put, generic adherents of “American religion,” regardless of the specifics.

Part of opening up a sustained dialogue between evangelicals and Mormons is improving understanding on both sides, rather than skipping over differences. Much of this means getting rid of preconceptions. The mainstream LDS church does not practice polygamy. It is not, if Mouw is correct, a “cult” in terms of its recruiting practices. It has produced scholars (such as Terryl Givens) who have articulated its doctrines in ways that already open up areas of dialogue with Christians, such as exploring the Mormon idea of men becoming gods as akin to the Christian doctrine of theosis. Although we should not ignore our important and often major differences, understanding Mormonism on its own terms – as a religious movement both continuous and radically discontinuous with Christianity – will help us coexist more peacefully in the often religiously and politically polarized North American situation.

The most pressing question, however, is the more provocative one. Is the United States ready for a Mormon president? The idea that Christians need to elect Christian politicians is already fraught with problems. Shouldn’t we prefer a “competent” leader of whatever religion (or lack thereof)? Of course the implicit idea that all American evangelicals vote Republican is equally problematic (not to mention the fact that churches endorsing particular political candidates, as with Rev. Jeffress, may break U.S. tax laws). Nevertheless, leaving to the side the specific case of Mitt Romney and the GOP leadership race, if we are prepared to admit that Mormonism is not a “cult” but a religion in its own right, perhaps a future Mormon head of state – regardless of what political party they adhere to – wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.