MANTI, Utah, Aug. 6, 2007 -- Every summer, tens of thousands of Mormons come to this rural area of Utah to attend a religious "pageant," an elaborate reenactment of the history of Mormonism. Scores of evangelical Christians come, too — not to worship, but to save souls.
"They're deceived people," said Ginny Gunderson, an evangelical who traveled from Oregon. "They're victims. And I don't want to see anybody spend eternity in hell if I can help it."
Many evangelicals believe Mormonism is a cult. This view poses a potential political challenge to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who will likely need evangelical votes if he is to win the Republican nomination.
Mormons consider themselves to be Christians. They believe that Mormonism is the "restored" church and that authentic Christianity disappeared in the years after Jesus died and was revived by Mormonism's founding prophet, Joseph Smith, in the early 1800s.
There are, however, many significant differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. These differences are aggressively highlighted in books, pamphlets and DVDs by evangelicals groups across the country who specialize in ministering to Mormons.
While Mormons believe that the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, they also believe that three books written by Smith are the word of God, too.
Mormon scripture teaches that God has a body of flesh and bone and that he presides over not one but three levels of heaven. Many Mormons also believe that the faithful will one day become gods themselves and preside over their worlds.
Spreading Political and Religious Message?
Evangelical distrust for Mormonism goes well beyond theology. Evangelicals are also wary of Mormons' secret temple rituals and their massive missionary campaign, which sends thousands of young believers around the world to spread the word. Mormonism is now one of the fastest-growing faiths on the planet.
Many evangelicals worry that a Romney presidency would lend Mormonism even more strength.
"A lot of people are saying that Romney would give credence to the Mormon Church and help the Mormon Church in that area as far as giving it that legitimacy that they've sought for so many years," said Bill McGeever, an evangelical who ministers to Mormons.
According to an ABC News poll, 43 percent of evangelicals who lean Republican say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon for president.
However, many prominent evangelical leaders say that, given Romney's conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage, they would vote for him.
"For me it's about the policy and not the theology," said Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association. "And I believe I represent the majority of evangelical Christians."
Many evangelicals also admire Romney for his clean-living lifestyle.
Unlike several of the other Republican presidential contenders, Romney has never been divorced. He and his wife, Ann, have been married for 38 years. And like many Mormons, Romney also refrains from drinking and smoking and avoids caffeine.
But even if they embrace Romney, don't expect evangelicals to embrace Mormonism.
Commenting on Romney to the National Review in December 2006, evangelical leader Chuck Colson said, "As an evangelical, I'm not troubled that he's a Mormon. I would have theological concerns about his soul, but not about his competence."