A certain Ms. Eliza Wood has just posted an extraordinarily inept entry on Huffington Post entitled “Are Mormons Closer to Muslims or Christians?”
Are Mormons more like Christians than like Muslims?
Her answer is “No.”
First of all, of course, the question is misconceived. It’s rather like asking whether Fords are closer to automobiles or water buffaloes. Fords are automobiles. And Mormons are Christians.
But perhaps Ms. Wood can’t really be blamed, because, quite plainly, she’s entirely unqualified even to have an opinion on the subject.
“Islam,” Ms. Wood says, “is about as close to Christianity as Mormonism.”
Well, actually, no, it’s not. And I say this as a Mormon who is, professionally, an Islamicist.
“Both Islam and Mormonism,” Ms. Wood declares, “have teachings from the Christian Bible and believe Jesus was ‘a prophet,’ but they had prophets after Jesus that they believe to be more authentic and current than Jesus.”
I have no idea what Ms. Wood means by “more authentic,” but I can’t really think of any significant sense in which any believing and reasonably intelligent Latter-day Saint would agree that Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young, or Thomas S. Monson, or any other modern prophet is “more authentic” than Jesus.
“More current”? Well, yes, but only in the trivial sense that Jesus lived out his mortal life in first century Palestine while Thomas Monson is alive right now.
But, anyway, while Islam regards Jesus as a very great prophet, he’s still a mortal and a creature and not divine. Mormonism, by contrast, believes Jesus to be divine, the only begotten Son of God. That may be a small detail in Ms. Wood’s mind, but others might think that it would have been worthy of at least brief mention.
“Jesus’ teachings,” Ms. Wood somewhat obscurely says, “were a bit archived in both because Muhammad and Joseph Smith were both visited by angels who told them to receive new orders from God. Both have respected Jesus’ messages but moved forward with other teachings and practices that are not consistent with Christianity.”
But this is merely to say that Mormonism isn’t consistent with Ms. Wood’s version of Christianity, whatever that may be. It’s rather as if, defining squirrels as non-mammals, Ms. Wood were to point to the things that distinguish squirrels from giraffes, killer whales, and Bengal tigers as “not consistent with being mammals.” That would be not only rather eccentric but obviously circular.
“Islam teaches that Muhammad was the last prophet,” Ms. Wood informs her audience, “and Mormonism teaches that a line of prophets extended from Joseph Smith all the way to the present with Thomas S. Monson, who is currently considered their prophet.”
Well, yes. But Ms. Wood doesn’t really explain how the fact that Islam believes the final prophet to have died in 632 AD while Mormonism affirms that there is a living prophet on the earth today supports her claim that the two religions are similar.
“While in some ways neither Islam nor Mormonism is very much like Christianity,” writes Ms. Wood, who has never actually defined Christianity, but who appears to believe that merely asserting that Mormonism isn’t Christian does that work for her, “the two faiths actually have a lot of similarities. For example, both had founding prophets who received visits from an angel, leading to revelation of Scripture. Both consider the family unit as the foundation for religious life, and both have an insistence that religion is their complete way of life.”
Insisting that religion is a way of life is scarcely unique to either Islam or Mormonism.
And, while both Islam and Mormonism consider family life important, their respective theologies of family bear only the most superficial resemblance to each other.
Yes, though, both religions do really include visits from angels within their founding stories. Among many thousands of potential similarities and differences, that’s one example. But the stories and the roles of the angels are quite different in Islam and Mormonism.
“Islam and Mormonism,” announces Ms. Wood, “both require fasting and ritual cleanings.”
Fasting and ritual cleansing (e.g., baptism) are common to religions worldwide, not merely to Islam and Mormonism.
“They both believe theirs is the original religion of Adam,” Ms. Wood writes.
But so, historically, have mainstream Christianity and Judaism.
“Both Islam and Mormonism,” says Ms. Wood, “allowed four wives but both forbid homosexuality and bisexuality.”
Very few religions have traditionally celebrated homosexuality and bisexuality. It’s true, however, that both Mormonism and Islam have allowed polygamous marriages. Islam still does. Mormonism does not. But, while Islam limited men to four wives, Mormonism never did.
“Both religions,” Ms. Wood explains, “forbid alcohol and gambling.”
Mormonism and Islam are scarcely unique in frowning upon gambling and alcohol.
“This may be alarming to some,” writes Ms. Wood, who very likely hopes that her readers will be alarmed, “but both Islam and Mormonism teach that marriage can extend into the afterlife.”
It’s not at all clear that Islam teaches a continuation of marriage into the afterlife.
“Neither worships their founding prophets,” continues Ms. Wood, “but both hold them with special respect.”
Judaism and mainstream Christianity too venerate ancient prophets and saints. Ever heard of St. Peter’s Basilica? St. Paul’s Cathedral? Santa Ana. California? San Francisco? There’s nothing even remotely unique about regarding prophets, apostles, and saints with particular respect.
“Both religions heavily proselytize,” Ms. Wood writes, “and believe everyone should belong to their faith.”
Does Ms. Wood seriously believe that Christianity hasn’t been a missionary faith from its very beginning? Has she ever read the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles? What does she think St. Paul was doing on all those trips back and forth across Anatolia and the Mediterranean? Relaxing on the Lido Deck of a luxury cruise ship?
“In order to lead,” claims Ms. Wood, “both Islam and Mormonism do not require formal seminary training, but take regular members and move them up into leadership roles.”
Ms. Wood seems to presume that the Apostle Peter and his colleagues were professional clergy with seminary degrees.
In any event, she’s wrong about Islam. To the extent possible, Islamic clergymen are formally trained at such places as (for Sunnis) Al-Azhar University in Cairo and (for Shi‘is) the theological seminaries in Qum, Iran.
“Oddly enough,” marvels Ms. Wood, “both religions had a split after their prophet’s death with one side believing that the faith should continue though the prophet’s descendents and the other side rejecting that. For Muslims, this caused the bloody divide between Shiites and Sunnis that we hear so much about in the press. For Mormons, this caused the divide between the Later Day Saints, which make up about 99 percent of Mormons, and others.”
That’s Latter-day Saints, actually. With two t’s. And, yes, there is a curious similarity in the two schisms. But it’s unclear that there is any real significance to it. It’s almost certainly mere coincidence.
“Both Muhammad and Joseph Smith were taunted for their work and driven out by locals,” reports Ms. Wood. “Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina, and Joseph Smith had to move from Illinois to Missouri.”
Actually, Joseph Smith was obliged to move from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, where he was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. Not from Illinois to Missouri.
“Both Muhammad and Joseph Smith established their own city-states,” says Ms. Wood, “with Muhammad ruling Medina and Joseph Smith ruling Nauvoo, Ill.”
Medina already existed long before Muhammad arrived. Joseph Smith essentially created Nauvoo. And it wasn’t a city-state. It wasn’t independent. It had a charter that was granted to it by the legislature of the State of Illinois. For part of his time in Illinois, Joseph Smith served as the elected mayor of the city.
“Both Islam and Mormonism have Scripture that can justify violence and murder,” asserts Ms. Wood, “as does the Bible.”
The Aurora gunman evidently thought that Batman movies justify violence and murder.
“While Mormons have not acted violently in the U.S. for quite some time, there was an incident back in 1857 called the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which happened on Sept. 11. The massacre was led by prominent Mormon leader John D. Lee, who was trying to exact revenge on some emigrants but when the emigrants surrendered, the militia killed men, women and children in cold blood, and then tried to cover it up.”
The best treatment of this topic is Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). It lays out what really happened, and shows that neither Mormonism nor the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in which John D. Lee wasn’t all that prominent a leader) had anything at all directly to do with the tragedy.
“We don’t need to be experts on either religion,” Ms. Wood announces, “to see these similarities.”
Truth be told, Ms. Wood’s case would be best served if no expert on either religion were within several leagues of her article, because no real expert could possibly take her superficial and cherry-picked similarities at all seriously.
“They both have common ground with Christianity,” Ms. Wood generously allows, “and much of it.”
Just as the bullfinch and the American border collie both have common ground with the class of mammals, and much of it. But, in the latter case, it shouldn’t be missed that collies are mammal-like for the simple reason that they are mammals.
Ms. Wood goes on to explain that “both Islam and Mormonism are at best very distant cousins of Christianity with some of the same overarching guidance.”
It’s impossible to know what Ms. Wood means by the phrase some of the same overarching guidance. But here are some facts about Mormonism that she somehow fails to mention: Mormons believe, while Muslims do not, that Jesus atoned for our sins, that we must be baptized in his name, that he is our Redeemer, that he is the Only Begotten Son of God, that his is the only name under heaven whereby humankind has any hope of salvation, that he was crucified, that he physically rose from the tomb on the third day, that he ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father, that he is the second person (with the Father and the Holy Spirit) of the Godhead, and that he will return again at the last day to judge the living and the dead.
I wonder why Ms. Wood omitted those matters. They seem relevant.
“Neither Islam nor Mormonism,” says Ms. Wood, “is a close enough relative to ever be confused with Christianity.”
But she’s provided not a single actual fact to justify her position with regard to Mormonism. (Muslims, of course, don’t claim to be Christians.)
“If,” continues Ms. Wood, “a Christian of any denomination inadvertently walked into a Mormon tabernacle or a mosque, which would be fairly difficult since both allow only members of their faith to enter, there is no way the service could be recognized as a Christian devotion to Christ, but there is plenty of devotion to God going on.”
Flat nonsense. All Mormon tabernacles (there aren’t that many of them) are open to the public, as are all Mormon chapels, the ordinary places of Sunday worship. As are virtually all mosques. Ms. Wood is confusing Mormon temples, which are closed to the public, with Mormon chapels. This is an elementary distinction that somebody presuming to lay down such judgments as Ms. Wood is offering ought to be clear about.
But Ms. Wood is wrong, in any case. Every prayer in every Mormon service and every sermon given is closed “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Every week, the sacrament of the Lord’s supper is administered in Mormon worship services, commemorating Christ’s atoning flesh and blood. Hymns are sung about Christ and his sacrificial atonement. Lessons are taught and talks given about Christ. Paintings of Christ adorn the walls of our buildings. The name of Christ is emblazoned on their external walls: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Book of Mormon proclaims itself “a second witness for Christ.”
Ms. Wood is bearing false witness, a sin explicitly condemned in the Bible.
“All three of these faiths,” writes Ms. Wood, “have scores of excellent people, possibly some who would make excellent American leaders and even U.S. presidents. But, the next time you read in the press about how Mormons are really Christians, you might want to put on your critical thinking cap.”
I hope you’ve already put it on, so that you won’t be taken in by Ms. Wood’s garbled misinformation.
“It rarely is the religion but the candidate’s behavior that determines if she or he is a good person,” Ms. Wood concludes, “and that is what Americans really care about, but getting a bit snowed is getting a bit old, don’t you think?”
Yes, it’s grown a bit old. So one has to wonder why Ms. Wood is still attempting to snow people. My suspicion, given the fact that Islam worries and even terrifies many Americans, is that she’s attempting, in a not very subtle and not very ethical way, to demonize Mormonism and to damage Mitt Romney by linking them with Muslims and terrorism. Which, if true, is both disingenuous and irresponsible.
P.S. I note that, in one of her responses to the comments following her article, Ms. Wood asserts that both Muslims and Mormons consider themselves Christians. This is absolutely, flatly, unambiguously false. Muslims do not claim to be Christians, any more than Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs do. Islam, though plainly part of what might be called the Abrahamic tradition — Arab Muslims often term Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together al-adyan al-samawiyya (“the heavenly religions”) — is a separate and distinct faith.
P.P.S. A friend has written to suggest that I be explicit about my qualifications to comment on Mormonism and Islam together, and perhaps I should: I’m a Mormon or Latter-day Saint myself, a former missionary and an ordained bishop in the Church, and a rather extensively published author on Mormon topics (including a book, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints, on whether Mormons are Christians). I’m also a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, the Church’s flagship school. I’ve lived in Jerusalem for a year and in Cairo for four years, and visit the Middle East and the Islamic world every year (twice so far this year, with at least one more trip coming next month). I hold a Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles in Arabic and Islamic intellectual history; teach courses on Arabic, Middle Eastern history, and Islam; edit a series of dual-language classical Islamic texts that is distributed by the University of Chicago Press; and, among a fairly large number of other relevant things, have published a biography of Muhammad.