Years ago, wise-cracking, chain-smoking, beer-drinking First Brother Billy Carter reeled me in good as he groused that he, big brother Jimmy the President of The United States of America and other Southern Baptists were forbidden to engage in sexual relations with their wives while standing.

I was astonished that any religion would be so unabashedly prescriptive. “No Mormon leader I know would dare go that far,” I commiserated, swallowing the bait like a starving catfish patrolling the bottom of a Georgia swamp. His eyes twinkled, his mouth scrunched into mocking scowl as he deadpanned: “My preacher says such practices will surely lead to dancing.”

I got the joke right away.

In part this explains why I laughed heartily at a recent report in The Baptist News, that one of Mitt Romney’s distant cousins (and we are many) runs the “only Christian” bookstore in the Salt Lake Valley. I could feel another shaggy dog story hurtling toward my ribs and I wasn’t about to be dope slapped by another slick Baptist. Incidentally, you’ll find our cousin’s store conveniently located just off the Interstate, midway between those allegorical bookends on the Mormon Zion — Temple Square on the north and the State Penitentiary on the south.

Does it matter that his little joke was presented as “fact” in the lead story and reinforced by a significant sidebar in a publication that is the official voice of the Southern Baptist Church, which hasn’t had nice things to say about Mormons for more than a century? I doubt it. Normally, it would deserve only the bored yawn I gave it initially.

But this is an election year. A Mormon is running for President (he just might win too) and Southern Baptists (and a few other Christian fundamentalists) have convinced themselves that only a “true Christian” should lead the United States of America. This precludes Mormons like Mitt Romney, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Unitarians and, arguably, a few wavering Episcopalians and Presbyterians too.

Of course, it bodes especially well for Mike Huckabee, a plain-spoken former Baptist minister and latter-day populist governor of Arkansas who also wants to be President.

What do my cousin and his fellow travelers know that the rest of us don’t? I laid out my concerns and questions to Dr. Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention in a long letter that that I sent out nearly three weeks ago:

“Although I have lived and worked as a journalist in New York City and, now, Boston for the past three decades, I was born and raised in Salt Lake City. As a young lad, I frequently ducked out of Mormon church services early so I could visit the Sunday School at the First Baptist Church, a block away. As a consequence, I am at a loss to understand the reasons for the disconnect between Southern Baptists and Mormons.

I noted that until Presidential Candidate Carter (1976) realized Morris Udall was a pretty good guy—and very funny too – he took some predictable cheap shots at all the usual Mormon bugaboos.Truth was, President Jimmy and the Carter clan were just as upset about brother Billy’s bad behavior as my Mormon kin were about mine. And, both families thought we could do with a little more church too. Anytime. Anywhere. Any church!!I wrote: “Here we are three decades later and Mormons and Baptists are still splitting hairs over subtle doctrinal differences” that won’t likely be resolved until Christ makes his whereabouts known. After debunking some particularly outrageous claims in the article – like the assertion that Mormons don’t really worship Jesus Christ – I asked these questions

  • Is some kind of rapprochement between Southern Baptists and Mormons imminent? If so please describe when this might occur.
  • If it is not possible, is it because of significant doctrinal differences. Or, is there more to it?
  • Do the Southern Baptist Convention and Southern Baptists teach that Mormonism is a cult?
  • Do they also teach that [Mormons] are advocates of the adversary, those “false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves?

”As the former Baptist preacher’s standings rose in the Iowa polls, Romney concluded it was high time he addressed his own religious beliefs. Thursday morning from the Bush Presidential Library in Texas, after an introduction and send-off from the former President Bush himself, Romney will try to pull off what John Fitzgerald Kennedy did back in 1960

Like Kennedy, I hope Romney pricks the consciences of tendentious Baptists, evangelicals, elitists, atheists and agnostics. But, it is a treacherous task he undertakes, one that could open the floodgates to more inappropriate questions about his beliefs and practices.

Were I running for President, here’s what I’d tell the nation:

“It is time to get real. The real good a President does while in office occurs at the White House and associated locations, not in some church, cathedral, synagogue, mosque, tent or molten subterranean cavern.

“If you are persuaded that a candidate will not be an effective leader of the nation and the world 24/7/52/4, then for goodness sake don’t make him your President just because he happens to worship God where you do.

“The converse is true as well. If you think a candidate would make a terrific leader and would uphold the constitution, vote for him even if you deem his personal religious beliefs weird and heretical.

“Every prospective candidate should assure the electorate – as I do now — that they are not bound, beholden or subordinate to any single person, cause or organization. Should you elect me President of The United States, I pledge that my actions will be guided by The Constitution. As President, I will be accountable only to the electorate and my conscience. If I serve them well, I am certain God will be pleased. Very, very pleased. And, so will you!”

I don’t know whether or not this statement of principle would satisfy atheists and agnostics, let alone Southern Baptists and evangelicals. I worry that even though the late Billy Carter and I got on quite well long ago, the differences between our churches may still be inexplicably irreconcilable.

Mormons like me do so love to dance!

But then, so did Billy Carter.

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