ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This week, Mormons lost the man they regarded as their prophet. Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died on Tuesday. President Trump offered his condolences, saying Monson demonstrated wisdom, inspired leadership and great compassion. But there was little praise from evangelical Christian leaders. NPR's Tom Gjelten says their silence revealed some deep differences between the Mormon and evangelical communities.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Exit polls from the last election showed that Mormons and white evangelical Christians were the two religious groups most supportive of Donald Trump's candidacy. Historically, no two faiths have been more closely identified with the conservative agenda. That bond was acknowledged this week by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the leading intellectuals in the evangelical Christian world. Speaking on his daily podcast, Muller mentioned the passing of Mormon leader Thomas S. Monson. He noted that Mormon beliefs about marriage and family are similar to those held by evangelical Christians.
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ALBERT MOHLER: On many of the current issues of white-hot controversy in the United States evangelical Christians find themselves in common terrain in the culture with Mormons.
GJELTEN: But Mohler stopped there with his positive assessment. He said that by regarding Monson as a prophet, Mormons believe that God spoke directly through him, something evangelical Christians would never say about their church leaders. Mohler also said Mormons deny the traditional interpretation of the Trinity - God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And then he raised what he said is the most important question.
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MOHLER: Should we consider the Mormon Church, the church known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a Christian denomination? No, we should not. It simply fails every major test of Christian orthodoxy.
GJELTEN: Other evangelical theologians went even further. James White, the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries in Phoenix, wrote in his blog that Thomas S. Monson's life was, quote, "a testimony to the enslavement that false religion brings." Naturally, Mormons reject the notion that their religion is false, but they agree they have theological differences with traditional Christian denominations. Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making Of An American Faith," says the rival religious groups have moved a bit closer around such questions as, what is necessary for salvation?
MATTHEW BOWMAN: Since the mid-1990s, Mormons have talked more and more about grace and Mormon theologians have written more and more about grace.
GJELTEN: But the gap between Mormons and evangelicals has a long history. The comments after Monson's death this week recalled a controversy from several years ago when Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, called Mormonism a heresy from the pit of hell. Jeffress is a member of President Trump's evangelical advisory council and a fervent Trump supporter. To be sure, in the U.S. Senate, Christian evangelical Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas have worked with Mormon Republicans like Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Matthew Bowman also points out that evangelical leaders like Albert Mohler and Robert Jeffress don't speak for all evangelicals.
BOWMAN: There are certainly some other evangelicals who have made outreach to Mormons. And actually, there has been a movement within Mormonism to do the same thing. So there has been some effort to find some common ground. But I think there are still some real irreconcilable theological issues that are not likely to ever be resolved.
GJELTEN: Some evangelical leaders have explained that they're willing to support Donald Trump despite his moral flaws because of his stand on the political issues that concern them most deeply. But the relatively bad feelings between evangelicals and Mormons, despite their areas of agreement, show that a political friendship does have its limits. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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