This post is my contribution to “Are Mormons Christians?”: A Blog Round Table.
I think I have something of a unique perspective on the question of Mormons’ Christianity. First, I used to be Mormon. For 25 years, I was Mormon. Second, I left the Mormon church, identified exclusively as a Christian, and had an experience of being saved by Jesus Christ. Third, I then became Neo-Pagan. I subsequently discovered that Pagans are having the same debate about who is and who is not Pagan as Christians have about each other. So I have seen this issue from the perspective of a Christian Mormon, a non-Mormon Christian, and a non-Christian Pagan (there are Christo-Pagans, but I am not one).
Being a Mormon Christian
Let’s begin when I was Mormon. I was raised LDS and baptized at the age of 8. I went to BYU after high school. I went on a 2-year proselytizing mission to northeast Brazil when I was 19, and then I returned to BYU to graduate. I married my Mormon wife in the Manti, Utah temple. And I blessed and named my newborn son in an LDS meeting house in Provo, Utah in a circle of Mormon in-laws.
During all this time, I thought the whole question of whether Mormons were Christian was silly. Of course Mormons were Christian. We had his name in the name of our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which was on the outside of every meeting house and temple. We had pictures of him in our churches and in our homes. We closed every prayer with “in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” We read books and magazine articles about Jesus Christ. We talked about him and testified about him and sang about him every Sunday. I mean, really, what does it take to qualify?
I was pretty naive. Apparently, to many other Christians, Mormons lacked many of the indicia of Christianity. Mormons don’t have crosses on their churches and don’t wear crosses. Mormons don’t recite the Nicene Creed. Mormons aren’t Trinitarians. Mormons aren’t even technically Protestant; they are Restorationists, like Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mormons have other scripture than the Bible. And although Mormons believe in and read the Bible, oftentimes they are less familiar with it than with their other scriptures.* And of course Mormons do many other things that seem weird to other Christians.
Leaving Mormonism over Christ
Okay, but so what? I had heard Evangelicals say that Catholics were not Christian. And that was definitely silly. So the problem of Mormonisms’ Christianity was not a problem for me … until I was about 25. And then all of the little issues I had with the Mormon church started to become big issues. I won’t go into all of them, but I will say that one big issue was that I began to feel that something was not right about the Mormon doctrine about Jesus.
In the New Testament, there is a tension between Paul’s message of grace and James’ message of works. On the works-grace spectrum, Mormons fall well onto the works side. In fact, the word “grace” was rarely spoken in the LDS services when I was Mormon. And Mormons demonstrate an embarrassing ignorance about what it means to other Christians to be “saved by grace.” I grew up hearing Mormons mock other Christians for believing that they could be “saved” and then “do whatever they wanted to” (i.e., sin).
Perhaps the most important Mormon scripture on grace is 2 Nephi 25:23, which is in the Book of Mormon: “We are saved by grace, after all we can do”. By the time I left the Church, I felt that that kind of grace was no grace at all. When I officially withdrew my name from the Mormon church’s rolls, I wrote a letter to my ecclesiastical leaders which stated, in part:
“I believe that the LDS Church teaches an incorrect doctrine of the Atonement and has an inadequate understanding of grace, the result of which is to encourage the belief that we are saved by our own efforts, which in turn results in profound depression, on the one hand, or blind egotism, on the other. Not coincidentally, the LDS Church does not give the atoning sacrifice a preeminent place in its theology or its discussion, but it is instead lost in a morass of teachings of secondary importance. In fact, the principle teaching of the LDS Church seems to be that the Church is true, not the proclamation of the good news of the gospel, which gives the impression that the Church (‘the law’) and obedience to its leaders saves. I am left wondering if the LDS Church can truly be called Christian. Of all the deficiencies of the LDS Church, I find this one to be the most significant.”
I wrote this in 2000. At that time, the LDS Church was actually making an effort to give greater emphasis to Christ in its message. While I was on the mission, the missionary name tags and the Book of Mormon cover were redesigned to make the words “Jesus Christ” stand out. The greater emphasis was reflected from the pulpit in the talks given by the Mormon Prophet and Apostles and other leaders of the Church. In addition, a new Mormon neo-orthodoxy had already been growing among Mormon theologians for some time. This neo-orthodoxy placed greater emphasis on grace discussions of salvation. I applaud these efforts. But for me at the time, this was too little too late.
Being saved by Jesus, Being saved from Jesus
After leaving the Mormon church, I identified as Christian, but I attended no church. I wanted nothing to do with organized religion. Instead, I begin a serious study of the Christian concept of grace. I was trying to unlearn the notion that I had to earn God’s grace. In retrospect, I see now that I was trying to convince my rational mind, so that it would free me to experience this grace emotionally. It was Alan Watts’ book, Behold the Spirit – which bring insights from Eastern religions to a study of Christian faith — that had the most profound effect on convincing me that God’s grace was already, always present, and just there to be accepted.
It happened one autumn morning in 2001 as I was walking to the bus stop after leaving law school. Something clicked and I felt all of the guilt and shame I had been holding inside of me disappear. I knew in that moment that I had truly accepted Jesus as my Savior and I had been saved.
Now what follows will likely be incomprehensible to many Christians. But almost at the same time that I felt saved by Jesus, I felt saved from him. I was released not only of the guilt for my sins, but also of any really feeling of need to identify any longer as Christian. Having been saved by Jesus, I felt I could move forward and leave him behind.
Leaving Christianity behind
Over the next few years, I explored different forms of spirituality — always in books or on the Internet — and eventually settled on Neo-Paganism. Since I had first learned about Neo-Paganism in books, my idea of who Pagans were was somewhat skewed. For one thing, I came to Neo-Paganism thinking that it would be a refuge from the supernaturalism which I had hoped to leave behind with my Christianity. What I found were many Pagans who believed in astrology, owned crystals, and practiced “magic”. So I set about launching a website called “American Neopaganism”, which was dedicated to promoting my kind of Paganism as the Paganism.
Eventually, I realized that I had just shifted my fundamentalist attitudes from my Mormon past to my Pagan present. Slowly, I grew more comfortable with the idea of sharing the name “Pagan” with people who believed and did very different things than me. And I grew accustomed to telling people I was “not that kind of Pagan” whenever I explained my religion to a non-Pagan.
Around the same time, I noticed on the Internet many people who had formerly identified as “Pagan” were withdrawing from that moniker and from association with other Pagans. These were mostly reconstructionist and polytheistic Pagans for whom the Pagan gods are real, distinct beings — not just psychological or metaphorical aspects of one unknowable divine Being. Soon thereafter, I noticed other polytheists, who were not withdrawing from Paganism, but who were claiming it as their own. I read claims that one is not a “real Pagan” unless one believes literally in the existence of the gods as “real” as any other persons. And I threw myself into this debate wholeheartedly, staking out and defending my own claim to Paganism as a “Neo-Pagan”. Many lines were drawn, but the only real line was between those who wanted to draw lines, and those who did not.
The answer depends on who is asking the question
My a-ha moment happened at a Pagan conference in San Jose in 2012. I was attending a panel discussion on Pagan identity chaired by several prominent Pagans. I realized that “Pagan” was being used generally in two different ways by the panelists: For some it was an umbrella term. There was a self-described witch, a shaman, and a magician, who all identified primarily as those things and only secondarily as Pagan — in much the same way as many Protestants today might identify first as Methodist or Lutheran and second as Christian. And then there were others on the panel for whom Pagan was their primary or only identifier — in much the same way that many non-denominational Christians identify firstly as “Christian”. These two groups use the same word, but in very different ways. And the exercise of defining just what “Pagan” means was generally more important to the latter group who had no other term with which to describe themselves.
The same thing happens with Mormons and their relationship to Christianity. In my experience, the majority of those people who would deny Mormons the right to use the name “Christian” are those for whom “Christian” is their primary religious self-designation. While those for whom “Christian” is more of an umbrella term tend to be more liberal regarding the inclusion of Mormons and others within the Christian fold. It’s no coincidence that when I identified as Mormon (my primary religious identity), I took my Christianity for granted. And when I left Mormonism, and “Christian” was all I had to identify myself with, then I was more skeptical of Mormonism’s Christianity. Now that I am on the outside looking in, I see that the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians has less to do with Mormons than it has to do with the person asking the question.
Because we have religious freedom and the right to self-determination, no one is going to keep anyone from calling themselves whatever they want to. So what are we doing when we try to draw these lines to exclude one group or another from Christianity or from Paganism? These lines don’t exist in the real world. But they do exist within us. When we define what “Christian” or “Pagan” means, we are really trying to define who we are. I for one don’t believe this is avoidable. Boundary drawing is an essential part of the process of identity formation. But it behooves us to be conscious of what we are doing. When we say that so-and-so is or is not Christian or Pagan, we are not really talking about them. We are talking about ourselves.
* The statement above regarding Mormons’ unfamiliarity with the Bible has been my own experience, but it may not be generalizable, as one of the commenters below pointed out. From Dandini: “A national 2010 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey aimed to test a broad range of religious knowledge, including understanding of the Bible, core teachings of different faiths and major figures in religious history: on just the questions about Christianity and the Bible, Mormons scored the highest. They also scored second only to Jews in knowledge of Judaism. [Overall, Mormons understand their own doctrines and the Bible better than other Christian denominations.] “Protestants, Catholics and Mormons Reflect Diverse Levels of Religious Activity” – - July 9, 2001 study released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California. The Barna Institute for Religious Studies identified that outside of Sunday church sermons (meaning in the home), Mormons were more likely to have read the bible (not the Book of Mormon, but the Bible) than any other religion polled.”