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Robert Jeffress On the Dilemma Mitt Romney Poses for Evangelicals

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If you recall, it wasn’t long ago that Robert Jeffress, from First Baptist Dallas, was all over cable news saying that Mitt Romney is not a Christian and that Mormonism is a cult.That was back when Jeffress was endorsing Rick Perry and it still looked like there might be an outside shot someone other than Romney could get the Republican nomination. It was around the time I wrote a cover story about Jeffress. As the Iowa caucuses kicked off, Jeffress reminded Evangelicals not to “settle.” “There are a lot of conservatives who aren’t feeling goosebumps for Romney,” he said.

Well, things have changed. Sort of. I touched base with Jeffress recently to ask him how he felt about the race now that the Republican candidate is someone he has repeatedly said is going to Hell, according to the Bible. He calls this the “Romney Dilemma.” It’s something he’s been thinking about (and debating) for going on five years now. But as the election draws closer, the issue comes up more and more. In just the last few weeks, he’s been interviewed by BBC, MSNBC, and Fox among others. But he broke it down for me in simple terms.

He says Romney’s Mormonism will continue to be an issue, “but it’s not the most prominent issue, even for Evangelicals.”  He says, “The economy and the social issues trump theology.” He hopes Romney doesn’t try to deny the differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. “It would be a mistake for him to say that Mormons and Evangelicals believe the same thing,” he says. Rather, he hopes Romney stresses the shared values.

He says President Obama’s recent turn to the left (referring to the President’s recent announcements regarding gay rights and immigration), makes the decision easier for conservatives. But it’s still hard to get excited about Romney. “I’m not on the campaign trail for Romney,” he says. “I’ll vote for him with the full knowledge that I’m not voting for a Christian.”

A lot of conservative pundits — Karl Rove among them — would prefer Jeffress not talk about this. “I’m not trying to bash him because he’s a Mormon,” Jeffress says. “But this is part of my duty as a pastor.”

To be clear, Jeffress isn’t worried that Romney will be taking his orders from Salt Lake City. (The primary concern Baptists had with John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election was that he would “take his orders straight from the Vatican.”) No, Jeffress says, “The Evangelical quandary is not wanting to give credibility in any way to a false religion.” That is: Jeffress believes Mormons are definitely going to Hell, and he’s worried that a Mormon president might mean more Mormons, and consequently more people in Hell. These are heavy stakes.

So why is he still voting for Romney, and not Obama? Jeffress says he takes the President at his word, that he is a Christian. MSNBC’s Martin Bashir recently asked if it’s because he’s a racist. But Jeffress says it has nothing to do with race. “There is a Biblical case for voting for a non-Christian who embraces Christian positions,” he says. “It’s not because of his tax policy or because of his healthcare policy. It’s about issues of life and religious liberty.” Jeffress adds: “Now, how much he [Romney] really believes in these things, I don’t know. But we have to go on what he says.”

He doesn’t want anyone to think that he’s criticizing Romney. “When you say someone is not a Christian, you’re not saying it as a pejorative,” he says. “It just means that he doesn’t adhere to the tenets of Christianity. He doesn’t believe in the Trinity. He doesn’t believe in salvation by faith in Christ alone.  I believe Mormons are, by and large, good, moral people. If being good and moral is what gets you into heaven, then they’ll all go to heaven. But we believe what the Bible says.”

Ultimately, Jeffress says, he’s not worried. He believes that whichever candidate wins, “it’s all in God’s hands.”

In the meantime, Jeffress is just finishing his newest book, called How I Can Know: Answering All of Life’s Most Important Questions. It will be the basis of a sermon series he plans to start in the Fall, and the book will be released in January.