As Scripture notes, the body of Christ is made up of many members – each with unique talents, callings and a critical role to play. Stephen Mansfield’s role is especially significant. With wisdom and a distinct passion for instruction, he helps us to see truth in a progressively-darkening culture. We caught up recently with Stephen to discuss his new book on the topic of Mormonism in America and how we can maintain a Christian world-view in the face of rapidly-changing times.
Family Christian: Before we talk about The Mormonizing of America, we’d like to learn a little bit more about who Stephen Mansfield is.
Stephen Mansfield: Sounds great. Probably the most defining experience of my life prior to becoming a Christian and then going to college was that I was raised in Europe, the son of a U.S. army officer, who was an intelligence officer. We lived in Berlin, Germany during the Cold War. Most of my youth was spent overseas. I became a Christian at eighteen, went to a Christian college [then] began to pastor. I pastored for twenty years and always had a fascination with how faith impacted the real world, leadership, politics, history, etc… I earned a couple of master’s degrees and a doctorate along the way. In 2002, I transitioned out of the pastorate and almost immediately had the opportunity to write The Faith of George W. Bush, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. I had written some books before on Churchill. I had been asked by the governor of Tennessee to write the history of Tennessee for the bicentennial of that state. I’ve written some other books, but The Faith of George W. Bush was my first big international hit. I live both in Washington DC and Nashville. I’m married to an amazing woman, Beverly Darnall Mansfield, who’s a songwriter, producer, also works with me in publishing matters. She’s [also] produced tours for Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. We’ve got two children, Jonathan and Elizabeth. One of them is at college at Belmont University, and Jonathan, the older, has just started a business in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That’s the best overview I can give you. (laughs)
FC: So you mentioned being a pastor for a season. Where was your church?
SM: I had two 10-year stints of the senior pastor in two different churches. One was in Abilene, TX because apparently I sinned in a previous life. Ha, I’m just playing. I was a kid raised in Europe and went to Abilene, Texas right out of college and pastored an interdenominational church that did well. We had a great time. We ministered to the poor. We had the most multi-racial church in town. As you can imagine, west Texan culture was a little much for me having been raised in southern Europe. And then my second stint of about ten years was in Nashville, Tennessee. And I was first the number two guy, and then the senior guy at the historic Belmont church on music row in Nashville. Transitioned out of that in 2002.
FC: As a pastor, where did the idea begin to start writing books? You mentioned The Faith of George W. Bush, but that was not your first published title. What steered you toward becoming an author?
SM: I think probably, not to take it back too far, but most of the people who write about writing say that there’s a voice that forms in our head that begins about the time when our parents read to us, and that’s the narrative voice you begin to hear. So thankfully I grew up in a reading home. [But] we certainly weren’t geeky. My parents were outgoing social types, and our home was filled with books. My parents read a lot and discussed books. And living in Europe, of course. As time went on, especially as I went to college and went into the pastorate, it was really the level idea that came next. I’m preaching and I’d think, “Well Churchill said something about this…” Or I’m teaching and I’m intrigued with what Cromwell said, so it grew into the world of ideas and language. I was unusual as a pastor because I would refer to a lot of non-Christian [quotes or analogies], outside of church leadership, outside of church history examples for things on the pulpit. In 1994, an editor heard me talk about Winston Churchill as an example of some spiritual principles. He was editing a series of books called Leaders in Action and he gave me a chance to write the book on Churchill, which was not only my first book, but the first thing that gave me international attention or even getting close to earning any awards. That’s really how it evolved. Early literary home that lead to language and ideas, then non-religious history as an illustration of religious principles. That’s how it progressed.
FC: The book that you wrote, Faithful Volunteers, did you co-write that with George Grant?
SM: Yes. George is a dear friend of mine. We had a great time writing that. As a matter of fact, he’s the one that was editing the series called Leaders in Action, which I wrote three books for, one on Churchill, one on Booker T. Washington, and one on George Whitfield.
FC: So from there, you leapt into the political realm. You wrote about George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Barak Obama and even Oprah Winfrey, which is not necessarily a book on politics, but certainly the other side of a conservative value. It seems that your books have a tendency to stir up controversy. What is your goal when you set out to write a new book?
SM: That’s a great question. I don’t think it would be correct to say that I try to be controversial. If I wanted to do that I’d probably attack or criticize. I’ll have to tell you that most of my calling [to write about these topics] comes from my orientation as a teacher. My wife will tell you if we’re driving to Chicago, at some point I’m bringing up the cattle industry and Carl Sandberg in their contexts. Teaching is the way I’m oriented naturally. When I think about, say, Mormonism, like now, we’ve got this “Mormon Moment” [happening in our country] as Newsweek has called it. So I start talking to people on the streets and realized there’s a huge gap of knowledge. I think I can articulate this, I think I can understand it. Let me make it fun, make it cool, and it ends up being controversial even though I didn’t intend it to be. That’s really how I got into the George W. Bush thing. Whatever you may think of him as a president, he just was not articulate about his faith. He would make cryptic statements. I asked him who his favorite political philosopher was, he would say, “Jesus Christ, because He changed my heart.” Well that was wonderful for me as an evangelical, but what does it mean about what you believe? What’s your worldview? Of course it was easier for us evangelicals to understand, but the outside did not understand it at all. So I would try to step in and educate, and I would end up articulating what people needed articulated. Sarah was a little bit controversial, but mainly it was just a teaching function I was trying to fulfill. Really, I’ve only written a few books that were sort of warning books. Maybe the Oprah book was more of a warning book, but mainly my goal is to educate.
FC: Let’s briefly talk about your book The Search for God and Guinness. It definitely hits on an issue that Christians feel strongly about, with multiple viewpoints. How do you feel the book was received?
SM: I’ve not had any personal negative feedback for the Guinness book. Nobody’s hammered me for maybe assuming I was encouraging alcohol. I think that’s for several reasons. First of all, I don’t drink beer and I say so in the very beginning of the book. So, it’s not an issue of me advocating for alcohol. Second of all, I make it very clear that it’s perfectly biblical and fine to abstain. I also believe it’s fine to drink, but you must drink to the glory of God and you must drink within proper boundaries. And all of that I think is said in the first ten pages. So anyone looking for license, anyone who’s looking for support for an “anti” kind of perspective is not going to find it. Maybe people just don’t come up and talk to me or tell me when they disagree. I’ve had even some say from their pulpits of their large churches, “Great book on biblical principles in a company.” The focus of the book—sure, I explore beer and I explore the times and such, but mainly what I’m doing is talking about how a company can do good in the world, rooted in a Christian worldview, without all of it being summarized in a Bible study on Tuesday mornings on the factory floor. I think people get caught up in that intention and the rest of it goes away. So I’ve not had anything negative happen.
FC: Stephen, as you’ve written these books and, in a sense, become very close to the individuals that you’re writing about, were you ever surprised by what you found out about them? Did you, after your research, find that you either were more favorable or less favorable toward them?
SM: Let’s limit it to living people that I’ve written about. I was surprised. There were not many surprises with George W. Bush. I pretty much knew what was going on there. I had met him and so on. I think the two surprises that I have had—one was with Barak Obama. I was fully prepared to explore the fact that he was anything from a cultural Christian to a liberation theologian kind of Christian, and what I found was what got me in trouble a little bit, which is that I think he’s confused about the application of his faith when it comes to public policy. I don’t think he’s really had a chance to think that through, but is there a genuine (as far as he understands), commitment to Christ? By all the evidence, there is. This is not what I expected to find. For example, I spent quite a bit of time at United Church of Christ, his former church before he was president, and while there were a hundred things I disagreed with about theology and even worship, when it came down to preaching the gospel and calling people to Jesus, it was the kind of call that Billy Graham would make to repentance and the saving grace of Jesus Christ. So that was surprising to me. I think our whole country is still trying to process what the guy believes and exactly who he is religiously. I think the second surprise to me was, when I wrote the book on Sarah Palin, I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive and I am making no case for her, believe me. Of course, the wrap on her is that she’s not very bright. She does horrible interviews. She stumbles over her words. Gets facts wrong; she can’t nail it down. But, the reality is that she, by all accounts is very well-read. Very intellectual background. [She] has at many times as governor of Alaska taken a moderate, learned, reasoned stance on something that was a hot-button issue in the culture. So, the surprise to me was that I couldn’t reconcile the Sarah Palin of Alaska, the Sarah Palin of her family background with the Sarah Palin of the Katie Couric interview, which is hard to watch. So, those are probably the two biggest surprises in the writing of the biographies.
FC: I have one question about Where Has Oprah Taken Us? and then we’re going to talk a little bit about your new book. Is there a danger in followers of Jesus watching Oprah Winfrey in your estimation?
SM: Well, I’d have to say there’s not inherently a danger in followers of Jesus watching Oprah only. Because one day she might be doing an interview with, who knows, Billy Graham? The next day she might be doing something about women’s underwear that helps heavy set women or whatever. None of that is an inherently moral or immoral position. The problem is when they watch Oprah uncritically. When they listen to all of Oprah’s religious “mixture” and they do so uncritically, then, yes it becomes dangerous. I would never make the statement that just watching the show inherently is immoral or wrong or a sin. The problem is having millions and millions of church-going women who have either just turned off their minds, or never had a distinctly biblical base, so they [don’t have] an antidote for what Oprah is preaching from her show. (The word preaching, by the way, is her word, not mine. She considered her show her ministry.) So for those to watch and listen to her without having their critical faculties, their Christian filters turned on would have been a big mistake.
FC: Would you agree that this, to some extent, is the same type of warning that a follower of Jesus should have in watching any television show?
SM: Absolutely. Other than out and out porn or horror stuff or violence, I don’t know that it’s inherently a sin to watch anything on television, but again, moving to the obvious extreme edge. But to watch even a cartoon with your Christian filters or Christian discernment system turned off, obviously you’re going to end up in trouble. That can be watching Band of Brothers on HBO or it can be watching West Wing. All of that falls in the same category if you’re going to take it in uncritically.
FC: Ok, so, The Mormonizing of America. What happened in your heart and mind that made you set out to write this book?
SM: It comes back again to that educating function. I’ve been teaching world religions for years. I’ve been deeply disturbed by what Christians do not know about the religions of the world, particularly American Christians, and that’s because we don’t tend to teach this material in schools, meaning largely public schools but also private, even Christian schools. And we don’t teach an apologetic for it. Whereas scholars maybe forty years ago might have said we would be living in a post-religious, post-Christian era [by] now. Instead, we’re living in a more heatedly religious era than in (maybe) a century or more. So I first came to it because I realized that Mormonism was on the rise. Mormons, by virtue of a number of factors, were taking prominent positions in society. Again, I saw an opportunity to educate. I saw an opportunity to help people understand what was going on in their society. And an opportunity to help Christians think more critically about what was going on in the world. All of that was before Romney became the likely nominee. So, that’s what started it. I’m always wanting to teach people and help them understand the faith, meaning the faith-interpretation of their times.
FC: Do you think the church here in the U.S. is in danger of anything as we encounter the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or interact with them?
SM: I think my answer would almost be the same as it was about watching Oprah. Are you inherently going to be tainted by interacting with Mormons? No. If you turn off your Christian discernment, your Christian biblical faculties, your biblical world view and the filters it gives you, then yes. The more exposure you have to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the more opportunity for confusion sets in, the more the opportunity for [the] blurring of your own lines. I do not fear a Romney presidency. There are only seven million [Mormons] in America. That’s not very many. It’s just about the same as the number of Jews. If you’ve seen the book, you’ve seen that I make some parallels. I think it’s about as many people who subscribe to Good Housekeeping. The bottom line is that they know their theology, they know what they believe, and most Christians don’t. The pew forum polls regularly show that particularly conservative-leaning, evangelical Christians don’t tend to know their Bibles, their history, their doctrine. And so in that sense, I’m concerned about any Christian who doesn’t know why they believe what they believe, or have the ability to give a reason for the hope that lies within them. Getting too much exposure to these stronger religious movements that are unbiblical in their basic doctrine. It might sound like I’m dodging the question but I’m really not. I’m just saying—do I have concern about you, for example, spending time with a table full of Mormons? No. Do I have concern about the average, pew-sitting, evangelical American, who does not know what he believes, sitting with a bunch of well-trained Mormons over lunch? Yeah, it’s a little situational.
FC: Peeling back the layers of Mormonism, did you discover a significant number of them existing outside of Utah?
SM: In 1950 there were one million and they were basically in Utah. There are seven million now. The majority of that growth, four to six million, has been outside of that area. There are astonishing numbers in New England and the east coast. Yes, I’m surprised by the growth that has occurred and has taken them way beyond where they were centrally-based just sixty years ago. I’ve been surprised at how intentional they are at Brigham Young University. They host training dinners for their students so they will know how to make introductions, which is the dessert fork for use at those White House or congressional dinners. They are preparing nineteen year olds to do this. While reviewing historical documents and preparing to write this book I was surprised by how charismatic and pentecostal they’ve been through their history. How speaking in tongues was and is a big thing, praying for the sick to be healed, times where the Holy Spirit “fell” and people were passed out on the floor speaking in tongues and shouting prophecies and all that kind of thing. It is all through Mormon history. I spoke to some of the scholars and even some of the more priest-level leaders in the Mormon church and they said yeah, once a Mormon trusts you, they’ll tell you about that – it’s a very common experience in our churches. So that surprised me, I had missed that somewhere along the way.
FC: As we’re approaching November, it seems like there’s a question in the church about how to vote. I know in your book you don’t tell people how to vote, but how should a Christian approach politics and their faith?
SM: There is a certain amount of our expectation – we hope – that as followers of Jesus we’ll have a candidate who is also a follower of Jesus that we can vote for. This is the legacy of some of the fathers of the religious right like D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell - fine men, but they certainly stirred in people a desire (I think for the most part a righteous desire) to have people who reflected their values in office. What it could lead to and in some cases has, is “perfectionism”. That if we don’t have a man who aligns with our values almost entirely, we shouldn’t vote for him. I’ve written recently for Christianity Today and have long said (regarding politics especially), hold your nose and hold your nose tighter. You’re not choosing between Jesus and the devil, you’re choosing along a sliding scale of good, bad and ugly. And I’m not sure that the religious right or a lot of writing and teaching about Christianity and politics (most of which I’m with) prepares people for the more difficult choices that are not between the ideal and the non-ideal. So when they look at Mitt Romney, of course they see a man who is in what evangelicals would consider a cult that changes/perverts/undermines almost every major Christian doctrine. They have a hard time promoting that man while at the same time they agree with him on almost every current and pressing issue of public policy. It’s a very hard thing. I’ve had people break into tears with me at the dinner table over this issue. And I understand their struggle. But I think what’s going to have to happen is a bit of maturing in the body of Christ, to not [expect that level of] perfectionism. If we could realize that if you’ve got a candidate who is an atheist but he’s pro-religious liberty and for all of the things that most evangelicals are, then he’s the guy you’re going to have to vote for whether he agrees with your theological assumptions or not. And let me say quickly on the heels of that, that I would also say to the evangelical world, while there certainly is nothing wrong with voting for Mitt Romney, [just] be prepared for what comes next, which is the heightened visibility of the Latter Day Saints, which is a theological challenge to evangelicalism. I think we’re going to have to “man up” (so to speak) within our churches, within the teaching of our doctrine and in knowing what Latter Day Saints and a lot of other non-Christian religions believe, as we live in this world. Overall I think it will be a good thing for Biblical Christians – I think they’re going to have to mature a bit, but I certainly understand the struggle in the meantime.
To purchase Stephen's book, The Mormonizing of America, click here.
For other books from Stephen, click here.
For more on Stephen, is work and ministry, you may go to the Mansfield Group by clicking here.