Over at Philosophical Fragments, my friend Timothy Dalrymple has been writing an excellent series of posts on Evangelical/Mormon relationships. My favorite of the series begins with a decades-old exchange between Walter Martin, the famed Christian counter-cultist, and a young Mormon:
In the Q&A, a very articulate young Mormon man stood up, and they went back and forth quite a bit. The Mormon was insisting that Walter Martin misunderstood Mormonism on the atonement of Christ and Walter Martin simply would not give in. And they got almost into a shouting match and at a certain point the young man, with tears flowing down his face because Martin had been pretty rough on him, said, “I don’t care what you say, Dr. Martin. I believe that my sins have been forgiven by the atoning work of Jesus Christ on Calvary and nothing that you can say can change that conviction.” And Martin turned to the audience and said, “See how they lie?”
Nancy and I co-founded Evangelicals for Mitt more than seven years ago. The public component of our work (our website)is now more than six years old, and we’ve thus seen innumerable arguments between evangelical and Mormon commenters — with eery echoes of the exchange above. These newer exchanges do, however, have some modern twists (only slightly exaggerated for effect):
Evangelical: How can you support a Mormon for President? Mormons don’t believe in Jesus and even believe [insert craziest imaginable straw man argument here].
Mormon: I most certainly do believe in Jesus, and I’ve never even heard of [insane straw man].
Evangelical: Your church also teaches [insert something about planets and Battlestar Galactica].
Mormon: I’ve been LDS my whole life and have never heard that.
Evangelical: *Frantically googling*
Mormon: *Blood pressure rising*
Evangelical: *Brings up Google results* Didn’t Hiram Jebediah Jones, the Ninth Elder of the Quorum in the Council of Provo declare in 1899: “And lo! We shall ride unicorns of deception amongst the people until they believeth we are not cultists.”
And then the debate devolves into a comment war that collectively lowers the IQ of the Internet — driving desperate readers to kitten pictures for solace. Enough! In future posts dealing with Mormons, Evangelicals, and Theology, I should post the following principles for discussing religious differences:
1. Never assume you know anyone else’s beliefs. Yes, yes I know you earned a graduate degree in comparative religions and did your Master’s Thesis in “Christ Imagery in Early Mormon Hymns,” but that doesn’t mean you know what your counterpart believes or has been taught. In fact, your counterpart may actually disagree with this or that point of church teaching.
2. Don’t presume to dictate who is or is not a member of good standing of their own faith. My favorite retort to Mormons who don’t conform to stereotype is, “Well, if you believe that, then you’re not really a Mormon.” Last time I checked, the LDS church determined who was or was not a member in good standing of their church, while my elders did the same for my own church.
3. Let your counterpart describe their own beliefs. This point flows naturally from the points above. If I am going to disagree with someone, I prefer to disagree with the best expression of the opposing view.
4. Let your counterpart describe their own disagreements with your faith. It’s been interesting for me to hear LDS friends describe in their own words their disagreements with Christian orthodoxy. Often, I think they misunderstand my own beliefs almost as much as I have often misunderstood theirs.
5. Don’t Google obscure, inflammatory quotes. There are few things more unproductive than slamming a debating opponent with obscure, often out-of-context quotes by historical figures or church leaders. I’m a Calvinist Christian, but that doesn’t mean that I have all John Calvin’s writings on instant mental recall, know the context of all quotes thrown in my face, or even agree with everything he said and did. I am seeking to understand an overall world view, not to defend the particulars of any man’s biography or the totality of all their words and actions. For example, you’re not convincing a Christian that he shouldn’t read Psalms if you say, “Wasn’t David an adulterer?”
6. Recognize that God is in control. This is the Reformed Christian in me, but it is of immense comfort to know that no man is going to Hell because I wasn’t eloquent enough. I have a duty to do my best to advance the Gospel, but I’m a fallen, broken person, and my words will never be adequate or sufficient to convict the human heart of sin. A man’s eternal destiny is simply not up to me.
I endeavor to have a answer for the hope that is within me. But until that day, I suppose I can follow the spirit of the Internet and stubbornly mischaracterize other people’s beliefs.
In fact, that just might be easier.