Should Mormons be categorized as Protestants?
The 2012 Casper College Humanities Festival focused on the topic of sin. One of the main events was a panel on the issue of sin from the perspective of different religions. Their was a Catholic Priest, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Mormon Bishop.
No, they did not walk into a bar.
I was part of a group of faculty and students that tweeted the event. One of the students, Micah, was a member of the debate team and the son of a Lutheran minister in Cheyenne.
Micah wondered in a tweet why there was not a protestant representative on the panel. A colleague in the English department asked "Aren’t Mormons considered to be Protestant?"
Micah is quite sure that Mormons are not Christian, let alone Protestant, as strong insisted that was the case during this Twitter discussion. To be honest, I have not asked him to fully explain why. Debaters like to win the argument and arguing religion with students is something I avoided. Discussion is great. Debate is burdensome.
For the most part, Micah views Christ’s grace as sufficient. He views the Book of Mormon as a sign that Mormons do not view that grace as sufficient. At least, that is how I understood his attempt to explain it to me one day during office hours (when he was in my class). My rather postmodern approach to religion did not mesh with the responses that he usually got from the Mormons he had encountered in the past. He gave up trying to convince me.
However, Joseph, the English professor was using Protestant in the way that I had been introduced to it growing up in the public schools of Maryland. Protestants are non-Catholic Christians.
Protestant is a pretty broad category which includes many churches. This ranges from mainline Protestant sects to Non-denominational churches. It includes churches founded in Europe and churches founded in both the First and Second Great Awakenings, as well as many since. Now, this is a very Western European and American view of Christianity on my part, I admit. Also, I am open to the possibility that this might be too broad of a definition.
Mormons do not think of themselves as Protestants. I think they mostly think of the themselves as rejecting both Protestantism and Catholicism and returning (restoring) the true form of the original Biblical church. I have heard Mormons respond to the assertion that Mormons are protestants much in the same way that Micah had with an emphatic "No way!"
However, we have much in common with Protestants. Mormons use the King James Version. This is the Protestant Bible. Our music is very Protestant in style and many of our hymns are Protestant hymns.
Many of the theological issues addressed in the Book of Mormon are the issues facing Protestantism in the midst of the Second Great awakening. Mormonism does not so much reject these debates, instead it takes a specific positions on those debates.
Such issues included the manner of baptism, the need for authority, the manner of such authority, and so forth.
Mormons like to see themselves as having much in common with the Catholics (claims to original authority) and Jews (Abrahamic covenants and temples). I contend that such a view fails to account for the actual origins of Mormonism.
Mormons think of authority in a way that is more in common with the Catholic Church, and in many ways foreign to Protestants. However, we share little in common (and I mean this stylistically as well as theologically) with Catholicism. While we may have much in common socially (large families, conservative social views), we are not in much of a dialogue with Catholic theology or the Catholic tradition.
The treatment of the Catholic Church in the Book of Mormon very much resembles early American Protestant rhetoric about Catholicism.
Now Mormonism surely falls outside the Protestant mainstream. However, I do not think this puts Mormonism outside the category of Protestantism all together. Instead, Mormons are likely best grouped with groups like the Shakers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists.
In a sense, Micah was correct. Mormons do not view themselves as Protestants and mainline Protestants do not view Mormons as part of their tradition. However, if we look at Protestants as a historical category within global Christianity, rather than as a creed or a belief system, I would place Mormons within that category. I guess I am coming to this more as a social theorist and a social scientist. We like to categorize things and find doing so to be useful.
In some ways, I have come to this perspective as I have had more interaction with Protestant churches during my time here in Wyoming and, particularly, during my campaign for Congress. This is an interaction that I did not have as much during my time in Utah and Idaho, or while growing up in Maryland. While I grew up around great religious diversity, I never myself engaged it.
As I have alluded to before (here and here), I do have a deep appreciation for the social justice perspective expressed by many Protestant faiths. Maybe this is more of desire to feel more connected with those groups. For too long, I took an antagonistic view towards other faiths. As that antagonism faded away, and later disappeared, it was replaced with a desire for connection and interaction.
Yet, I do not think this is mere wishful thinking. The social science perspective allows us to see the connections away from partisan positioning and sectarian narrative. When we take that step back, we can justifiably categorize Mormons within that broad tradition on Protestantism.