America is entering a Mormon moment as a former bishop of the Latter-Day Saints, Mitt Romney, takes front-runner place in the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency. I welcome the religious reckoning that is bound to result. Mormonism shines an ultraviolet light on Christianity in America, revealing features that are unseen under the rest of the spectrum.
In the last few years, I have become acquainted with the progressive theological and social movement within the Mormon world. It’s much bigger than the public perceives, if it is perceived at all. There is a wide range of thought within the membership of the LDS on matters religious and political. There is a loyal opposition to its leadership’s positions on same-sex marriage, homosexuality, women’s limited roles, and other issues. The online Mormon “bloggernacle” on these topics includes dropout (or “Jack”) Mormons, temple-ready, tithe-paying Mormons, Mormons who take the Book of Mormon literally, Mormons who don’t, Mormon Democrats, and Mormon Republicans. Journals like Dialogue and Sunstone make space for respectful but critical viewpoints about the church.
This lively contrarian community within the LDS world results in part from the fact that the Mormon church has a theology, but few theologians. The top leaders of the church, some of whom I had the occasion to meet a few months ago in Salt Lake City, are chosen primarily for their gifts as managers, not as scholars. There is no LDS seminary, and there is little scholarship within the church to compare to what is found in the Catholic or mainline Protestant traditions. An integral part of Mormon theology is the principle of personal revelation. Each Mormon is expected to come up with his or her own “testimony” that the Church is “true”. And while there are clear Mormon doctrines, the LDS Church is not preoccupied with interpreting them. That task is largely left to the personal relationship between the individual Mormon and God.
As a result, a substantial number of Mormons have quietly consulted with their Maker and concluded that the Book of Mormon is mythical. And they have found a way to hold that view while staying loyal to their church. Their church is “true” for them in ways that might not be “true” for other Latter-Day Saints.
It’s not hard to see how they arrive at that conclusion. The text and Joseph Smith’s account of its discovery are fantastic. He claimed to have translated the text from the “Reformed Egyptian” – a language that never existed – into English, using “peep stones” called Urim and Thummim. The book suggests that Jews settled in Meso-America and that Jesus visited this continent after his resurrection. There is no sound archaeological or historical evidence for any of these claims. The book was written in grammatically incorrect King James English, long after that version of the language had become antique. While there are a few pearls of wisdom in it, and its vision of a Christianity indigenous to America is intriguing, a leap of faith as wide as the Grand Canyon is required to take it literally. (Check out the LDS Church’s own list of most cherished Book of Mormon passages, to get a sense of how many cups of non-Mormon beverages you’d need to finish the whole book.) Consequently, many Mormons cherish the book as part of their cultural and religious heritage, while understanding that it cannot be taken as an historical record of the events it describes.
For evangelicals to argue that the Book of Mormon is a false gospel, they must give the same kinds of reasons that theologically progressive Christians present for not taking the Bible literally. Smith’s story of the appearance of the golden plates of the text of the Book of Mormon is no more fabulous than it is to take the miracle stories in the Bible as facts. Non-Mormon Christians have been in the habit of taking the Bible literally a lot longer than Mormons have been doing it with their book. But the duration of an obsolete belief system is no argument for maintaining it.
Many evangelicals are outraged that Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity, and that they believe that God was a (married) man who became divine. But what’s any weirder about these doctrines than the arcane doctrine of the Trinity? How do you explain the difference such theological disputes make in everyday life in 2012? Plenty of loyal Mormons take their church’s doctrine with a grain of salt.
Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA, recently wrote in the LA Times that “I do not believe Mormonism is a cult. However, I am not convinced that Mormon theology deserves to be classified as Christian in the historic sense of that word. I have serious disagreements with my Mormon friends about basic issues of faith that have eternal consequences. These include issues regarding the nature of God, the doctrine of the Trinity and the character of the afterlife. But I have also learned that in some matters we are not quite as far apart as I once thought. In any case, such theological differences don’t preclude a Mormon from being a viable presidential candidate, in my view.”
I don’t find the term “cult” useful in describing any religious groups. But apparently Mouw does, and if Mormonism doesn’t fit his definition, why? Just because they’ve become “mainstream”, as he says, in business and culture? He fudges a bit about whether or not Mormons are really Christians, and he only hints at hellfire as a possible consequence of their beliefs. Does he agree with the oft-cited phrase that a cult is just a religious group without political or financial clout?
In the interests of maintaining a conservative alliance, many evangelicals will be challenged to follow Mouw’s example and downplay theological issues for the sake of promoting a common political agenda which has no biblical basis. Already for many evangelicals, political purity trumps theological purity. Notice the peace they have made with the Catholic Church, which they used to vilify. Rick Santorum, an uber-Catholic, has become an honorary evangelical! For the sake of teaming up with Mormons to fight abortion rights and same-sex marriage, topics about which Jesus said nothing, will evangelicals cut Mormons slack on matters theological? They do so at their own doctrinal peril.
If Romney becomes the nominee for the Republican Party, count on a national year-long teach-in about the Mormon faith. Republicans will have to make Mormonism look good, and that’s going to make Republicans look bad to the millions of fundamentalist Christians who are convinced that it is a terrible heresy. Some fundamentalists will take a break from politics altogether, seeing how it co-opts and trumps religion. Other conservative Christians will be nudged toward a more pluralistic, less dogmatic stance. (See how it plays in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in this article by my friend and colleague Loren Seibold.) Romney’s Mormonism is going to result in a healthy confusion among conservative Americans.
So there’s good news for progressive Christianity in America’s imminent reckoning with Mormonism. Romney’s candidacy is going to make people ask questions. Do political and social agendas matter more or less than theological doctrines? If America is a Christian nation as defined by evangelicals, can it be governed by a Mormon? Can any one religion or sect claim to be superior to all others? More people will question whether the Bible should be taken literally, as they see how hard it is to take the Book of Mormon factually. People will ponder whether their critiques of Mormonism might apply to their own religious beliefs. And progressive Mormons will be connected with the larger progressive Christian community, leading to fruitful friendships.