Former President Jimmy Carter, who significantly raised the profile of evangelical Christianity in general and Southern Baptists in particular during the 1970s, has said Southern Baptists are off the mark in their belief that Mormon doctrine is essentially non-Christian and Mormons are therefore in need of evangelization.
A Southern Baptist interfaith witness leader and Carter's own pastor, however, say Carter is wrong in his views on Mormon teachings.
"Mr. Carter must be a better politician and diplomat than theologian," said Phil Roberts, director of the North American Mission Board interfaith witness team responsible for assisting Southern Baptists in understanding and witnessing to persons of other faiths. "His comments show he is totally uninformed and naive about the nature and beliefs of the Mormon Church, which claims to be the one true church. Mormonism is not essential biblical Christianity. It is a new religious movement created by Joseph Smith."
Carter's statements came in a copyrighted article that appeared Nov. 15 in the Deseret News, a newspaper in Salt Lake City owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The statements reportedly were made during a national teleconference with religion writers.
Carter was on an interview tour Nov. 17 promoting his new book, Sources of Strength: Meditations for Daily Living, and could not be reached for immediate comment, according to a spokesman for his office in Atlanta. She had not seen the article previously and did not know whether Carter considered it an accurate portrayal of his comments.
Southern Baptist Convention President Tom Elliff voiced "all due respect for former President Jimmy Carter," but suggested "he would do well to take a serious look at the Mormon faith before embracing it as part of the Christian community. It is the ultimate irony that this same Mormon faith makes no bones about the fact it considers all non-Mormons as apostate and in need of conversion to Mormonism.
"I do not believe there is ever room for true believers to be caustic or uncharitable," said Elliff, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, Okla. "On the other hand, it is our responsibility to point out to a lost world that there is only one God (not many, as the Mormons teach) and that the only way to fellowship with Him is through the cross upon which Jesus, our only Savior, died for our sin."
Elliff continued, "While every true believer cherishes the 'blessed hope' and, with it, the prospect of spending eternity with the Savior, the Bible nowhere teaches (as does Mormonism) that we have prospect of becoming God of our own universe. When the Apostle Paul spoke of 'fighting the good fight' and 'keeping the faith,' he was bound to have had in mind his constant vigilance while combating error in a polytheistic culture."
Of Carter's reservations about witnessing to Mormons, Elliff noted, "This feeling is certainly not shared by the Mormons, who are noted for their energetic approach to proselytizing. Anyone who thinks that sharing the good news of Jesus is the same as 'condemning' another person would do well to consider the ultimate condemnation which comes to anyone without Christ."
In the Deseret News article, religion editor Carrie A. Moore quoted Carter as saying SBC leaders were wrong in characterizing Mormons as non-Christians.
"Too many leaders now, I think, in the Southern Baptist Convention and in other conventions, are trying to act as the Pharisees did who were condemned by Christ, in trying to define who can and who cannot be considered an acceptable person in the eyes of God," he said. "In other words, they're making judgments on behalf of God. I think that's wrong."
Carter spoke specifically against current SBC leaders, who he said have become "narrow in their definition of what is a proper Christian or certainly even a proper Baptist." He said those leaders are "inerrantists, (meaning) there cannot possibly be any error in even a translation of a Bible down through centuries."
Morris H. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the SBC Executive Committee, said, "Unfortunately, President Carter's statements indicate he neither fully understands the teachings of Mormonism nor the widely-accepted meaning of 'inerrancy.'"
Most Bible scholars who ascribe to biblical inerrancy believe that it is only the original autographs, or the Scriptures as they were originally written by the authors, that are considered inerrant. It is generally acknowledged that errors in transcription or translation through the years are possible.
According to the article, Carter said, "I think the worst thing that we can do, among the worst things we can do, as believers in Christ, is to spend our time condemning others, who profess faith in Christ and try to have a very narrow definition of who is and who is not an acceptable believer and a child of God."
Sharing the gospel, Carter said in the article, is "a mandate that has guided Baptists as well as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others all down through the centuries. I think that that's part of my own life commitment, is to tell others about Christ, and to offer them, at least, the Word of God, and to let the Holy Spirit decide, or ordain the results of those intercessions. So, I think that that's a very worthwhile effort."
The writer of the article said Carter has reservations about attempts to "convert other Christians, as will undoubtedly happen in Utah next summer as Baptists seek to share their message and Mormons return the favor." The SBC annual meeting will be held in Salt Lake City, the headquarters of the Mormon church, in June 1998.
"The only thing I'm hesitant about is exactly what you mean by proselytizing," Carter was quoted as saying. "If you mean should we Protestants devote our time to converting Catholics to be Protestants, that's something with which I generally disagree. I think, though, that if people don't know about Christ, I have a mandate directly from our Savior to try to share the message that He espoused both through His own words and through His own actions."
Carter also said, "… the people in my own local church have no interest in trying to condemn Mormons or trying to convert Mormons to be good old Baptists like me."
Dan Ariail, pastor of Maranatha Church in Plains, Ga., where Carter is known for teaching Sunday school on a regular basis, said he disagrees both with Carter's reported views as well as the statement that his church would not be trying to convert Mormons. In fact, he said, he plans to use in his church The Mormon Puzzle, a video and curriculum resource developed by the North American Mission Board to help educate Southern Baptists on Mormon beliefs.
"I would disagree with (President Carter) in the most basic way, but he is entitled to his opinion … he has a right to be wrong," Ariail said. Sharing the biblical gospel with Mormons, Ariail said, "is not a front-burner issue here but we need to share the gospel with them and I would certainly try."
Roberts, the NAMB interfaith witness director whose department produced The Mormon Puzzle, noted Carter apparently did not understand the Mormon claims that "all other faiths are wrong and all members of other churches are corrupt. Which means, according to their beliefs, Mr. Carter himself will have to become a Mormon to receive all the blessings of heaven.
"He must not understand that Mormonism worships another god, one which was once a flesh-and-bones man, and another Jesus, who was a created being. These are doctrines found in Mormon Scriptures but not in the Holy Bible."
Roberts also cited Carter's definition of the biblical inerrancy espoused by SBC leaders and others as evidence of his "lack of understanding" of theological issues. "No thoughtful biblical scholar would claim inerrancy for a translation but only for the original autographs of the Scripture," Roberts said.
In a related issue, Roberts commented on recent news reports that one-fourth of Mormons consider themselves born-again Christians.
"While individual Mormons may be genuinely born-again by faith in the biblical Jesus, they do so in spite of the official teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)," Roberts said.
Researcher George Barna reported 26 percent of Mormons in a recent survey described themselves as having "made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ." Roberts said that's not surprising given Mormon doctrine.
"Mormons believe that when they are baptized in the LDS church by proper authority and are prayed for with the laying on of hands by that same priest, they receive the 'holy ghost' as he is defined by the Mormon church," Roberts explained. "That doesn't make a person a Christian according to the Bible."