Are Mormons Christian? Who Gets to Decide?

Chris Henrichsen over at Approaching Justice kicked off a Patheos bloggers roundtable this week on the question: Are Mormons Christian?  Here’s how he introduced the conversation:

For most Mormons, the answer to this question is obvious. Yes, yes they are. They believe in Jesus Christ. This settles it for them.

For people from other religious perspectives, the answer is obvious but in the negative. Mormons are not Christians. The reasons for this response is varied.

For some, few answers are obvious. Instead, this question is more one of inquiry. For me, the question itself, and that it gets asked, is what intrigues me and brings me to this round table. Why do we get caught up in these debates? What do such questions tell us about Mormonism, Christianity, and religion?

I, too, have long been intrigued by the fact that a lot of people seem to care a lot about figuring this out.  A couple of years ago, in the thick of the Republican presidential primary that eventually produced candidate Mitt Romney, I wrote this over at TheReligiousLeft.org:

“So I was trying to remember what we talked about in class last year, is it a cult?”

This was the question that a student popped in my office to ask recently.  She’d overheard some chatter about the Republican presidential primary, and recalled that in my introductory class on Christianity we talked about Mormonism.  I’m not sure exactly what or who she had recently heard, but I am confident that the chatter was because of Pastor Robert Jeffress’ recent comments about Mitt Romney’s religion at the Values Voter Summit in October:  “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult.”

Following that event, a slew of political and religious commentaries emerged offering their opinions on whether or not Mormons are Christians.  This included Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, definitively proclaiming that Mormonism “is not orthodox Christianity in a new form or another branch of the Christian tradition.”

In that post, I went on to reflect on how the very people who tend to insist loudly that Mormons are not Christians are the same ones who ramp up Islamophobia at any chance:  conservative evangelical Christians.  I wondered there if there’s some kind of fear at the root of both of those things:

 Considering the way that the Mormon faith hits a unique nerve, though, it seems that there is more.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has done exactly what early Christianity did in relationship to Judaism:  Claim a fuller revelation of God superseding the one that came before.  Just as Christianity added on to the sacred text of Judaism, calling the Hebrew Bible the “Old Testament,” Mormons see their book as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  Perhaps their increasing legitimacy makes visible the thing that conservative Christians would prefer to ignore completely:  That a fully realized and complex Jewish tradition existed before and after Christians decided to claim it for their own.  Theologically, Mormonism is perhaps too close to home.

Beyond that speculation, I’m interested in the power dynamics at work in this conversation:  Who gets to decide who’s Christian and who’s not?  Who stands to benefit if Mormons are excluded?  I’m pretty sure that a lot of people who take a definitive stand on this issue aren’t super-well-versed in the intricacies of Trinitarian doctrinal debates or the history of the Nicene Creed so I’m not convinced that that substance is really what matters.

What matters is the power of naming.  We might say that it has mattered since one of the earliest creation stories when the adam named all the other creatures in the Yahwist’s tale collected in Genesis.

Do names matter?  Maybe more importantly, does the power of self-definition matter?  I’m pretty sure that the answer to both of these questions is yes, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation over and over again.  And religion isn’t the only area where self-definition is at stake.  I wrote last week about how the story of Private [Bradley] Manning requesting that her self-understood gender, female, and her chosen name, Chelsea, now be respected by the media and the world, even though she’s sentenced to spend decades in a military prison convicted on multiple counts of espionage.  This case has brought to light a reality that many have ignored or about which too many have been unaware.

When is the last time someone challenged your right to define your gender?  To claim your name?  Your religion?

And so I’m convinced that what this conversation about Mormons being Christian helps us see clearly is that even more important than the question “are Mormons Christian?” is “who gets to decide?”

The picture above is me peering into a replica of the Salt Lake City Temple at the Temple Visitors Center in 2012.

 

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About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


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