The Limits of Mormon Assimilation

As a historian of religion in the early American republic, much of my research has focused on the connections between Mormonism and Protestantism in the 19th century. I’ve made it a point to emphasize the ways in which early Mormonism was influenced by evangelical Protestantism and have even gone so far as to argue that the early history of the Latter-day Saint movement is best understood not explicitly as a radical break from evangelicalism but rather as part of the larger American Protestant tradition.

There are, of course, theological differences between Mormonism and mainstream Protestantism, and those differences have been more pronounced at certain moments in the past 182 years than they have at others. After an extended period of theological emphasis on the importance of works that many people—including Mormons—understood in explicit contrast to the Protestant emphasis on God’s saving grace, the last thirty or so years have witnessed Mormons, in the words of Richard Bushman, “recovering their own grace theology.” That recovery has come about in part as the result of increased efforts and participation in interfaith dialogue between Latter-day Saints and evangelical Protestants. It has also coincided with a parallel political ecumenism, as Mormons have partnered with evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians to champion certain social causes and political positions, ranging from opposition to the ERA in the 1970s to the advocacy of solidifying “one man, one woman” as the legal definition of marriage in America.

Writing at Bloomberg, Noah Feldman last week argued that presumed GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s courting of evangelical voters—and the somewhat positive reception he’s received from them—represents the potential culmination of this decades-long process of Mormonism aligning itself with American Protestantism. Taking advantage of a rare moment of “reduced [evangelical] power,” Feldman argues that “Romney is a participant—indeed, he is the most important participant—in the long-term project of convincing mainstream American Protestants that Mormonism is a normal denomination like all the others.” This, he continues, is a “historic opportunity to ‘normalize’ Mormonism,” but one, he warns (Mormons, I presume?) that comes with “epochal” consequences. He foresees Mormonism moving away from its distinguishing doctrines of extra-biblical scripture, continuing revelation, “the possibility of joining the supernal realm for eternal life,” and risking the potential of increased defection. “Romney’s embrace by evangelicals is a great day for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet great days have unexpected consequences,” Feldman ominously concludes.

While I think Feldman is right to note the general trend he describes and agree that Mitt Romney’s candidacy represents an important point in that process, it seems to me that he mistakenly conflates the theological and the political aspects and in turn misunderstands the relationship between Mormonism and evangelicalism. Mormons, it is true, bristle when told that they are not Christian. And the LDS Church has spent no small amount of its resources in recent years downplaying some of its more unorthodox historical beliefs and practices while trying to convince others that its members are much like any other American you might meet on the streets. Meanwhile, Mormon politicians like Romney have repeatedly emphasized the commonalities between their faith and that of the Republican base.

It is difficult for me to see the latter as anything more than political pandering, though it’s certainly possible Romney cares deeply about whether or not evangelicals see him and his religion as Christian. Many Mormons do, and it is difficult to separate the theological from the political. But political participation in the evangelical-dominated Republican Party is not coterminous with acceptance in the American evangelical community. Never, to my knowledge, has Mormonism asserted itself to be “just another denomination” in the wider landscape of American Protestantism. Even as Mormons participate in interfaith dialogue with evangelical Protestants and seek to find theological common ground, they remain distinct, and intentionally so. Recognition of a shared commitment to Christ is not, for Mormons, the end goal. Rather, it is a starting point for Mormons to then explicate the ways in which their own teachings build on the biblical foundation of Protestantism. Even when Mormons and Protestants find areas of theological agreement, they often appeal to different sources of authority. In “recovering their grace theology,” for example, Mormons have looked not to evangelical theologians but rather to the Book of Mormon and its several grace-centric sermons. Far from downplaying its belief and acceptance of “a new scripture,” Mormons today embrace the Book of Mormon’s teachings with more attention and reverence than perhaps at any other time in the church’s history.

Nor is this anything new. Since its beginnings, Mormons have balanced their claims to theological distinctiveness with efforts to find common ground with other Christians. Many early converts to Mormonism understood their conversion as the fulfillment of their evangelical experience, not a rejection of it. In the 1840s, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith explained to Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright that “we Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only we have advanced further.” 155 years later, Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley echoed his predecessor’s comments, summarizing Mormonism’s message for the Christian world as follows: “We, in effect, simply say to others, ‘Bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it.’”

Mormons have perhaps gotten better in recent years at finding and highlighting that shared “good”—both political and theological—but they have never stopped emphasizing what they have to add to it. They want recognition as Christians, to be sure, but emphatically not as “just another denomination.”


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  • Christopher Smith

    I dunno, Chris. I think you’re only half-right when you say “they have never stopped emphasizing what they have to add to it.” Some distinctives do continue to be emphasized– such as the Book of Mormon and continuing revelation– but you’re forgetting a long list of things that the Church does, in fact, seem to have de-emphasized. The list includes not only biggies like polygamy, the earthly kingdom of God, and theological racialism, but also a range of smaller things like deification, esotericism, and the Chain of Being. The Church has never stopped emphasizing that it has things to add, but it seems to me that there has been some genuine de-emphasis on what it has to add. Just a thought.

    • Mike Bennion

      The whole concept of revelation as a constant means that when Mormons say God is the same, yesterday, today and forever, they mean that he always has, does now and always will reveal necessary information fitted to the time and place of those currently on the earth. Thus some principles remain timeless, such as revelation itself, or the atonement, or God as the father of all men and their capacity to inherit all things, but the dispensation of the priesthood, the singularity or plurality of wives and associated topics register as divine policies rather than divine principles, and are extended and revoked as necessary for the times. A policy would involve such Biblical revelations as Noah’s ark, the Law of Moses, and the gospel taken to the gentiles. No one today is building an ark. Few if any Christians are practicing the Law of Moses and the gentiles have carried the gospel to others. Revelation remains the constant.

      In my view this is much more consistent than the views and practices of many traditional Christian churches. A church who believes in the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible but defines it through an extra-biblical creed seems to me to tread on theologically thin ice.

  • Christopher Jones

    I think we’re in agreement, Christopher, which is why I noted that “the LDS Church has spent no small amount of its resources in recent years downplaying some of its more unorthodox historical beliefs and practices.” I should’ve been more clear in my phrasing. Thanks.

  • BHodges

    I like that “what” v. “that” distinction, I think it is fine so long as we keep in mind that it isn’t particularly useful to envision Mormonism as some static entity of the past, a Platonic ideal which has a set number of puzzle pieces which are shifted around, some put back in the box, etc. but rather a dynamic movement like any religion, yeah?

  • E B

    I think it pertinent to add that there is a distinction between LDS doctrine, which never changes; the Church itself, whose policies sometimes change and individual leaders change; and the Mormon culture, which doesn’t always have much to do with either the Church or the doctrine (or gospel).

  • Christopher Jones

    Blair: yes, definitely.

    E B–that may be pertinent, but it simply is not true. Mormon doctrine has changed numerous times, and will do so in the future.

    Also, there’s no need to include an additional link to your blog every time you leave a comment. Including it in the box links it to your handle, and is sufficient.

  • Charles Pulsipher

    This is an excellent and perceptive article. I am LDS, and concur with your assessment; however, I think that much of which many consider to be changes to Church doctrine is more of a correction of false doctrine. I would point to the doctrine, widely disseminated and held in the early 70′s, that people of African decent were not valiant in the per-mortal existence. Upon close consideration, there is no support for this doctrine in any scripture, including the Book of Abraham. It turned out that the theology originated with the personal belief of one of the Seventy, and spread rapidly before being debunked by Church leadership. I would argue that the repudiation of this doctrine is a return to original doctrine as held by Joseph Smith instead of a change of doctrine. Many other changes can be seen in the same light.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Thanks for a needed correction to Feldman’s analysis. As you pointed out, the increased emphasis in Mormonism on mankind’s dependence on the grace of Christ for salvation and (in Mormon terms) exaltation and (Orthodox terms) theosis, is directly attributable to increased levels of study of the Book of Mormon as a real source of doctrinal teraching, rather than simply a sign of the prophetic status of Joseph Smith. That is largely due to the emphasis that Ezra Taft Benson gave to greater study of the Book of Mormon as a scripture specifically prepared for use in the Last Days. It also is a fruit of the decision by the Church to focus Sunday School instruction for adults on a four year cycle of the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants and LDS Church history, along with embedding Sunday School in a contiguous three hour block of Sunday worship that increased the likelihood of adult attendance. And a third contribution was the re-publication of seminal writings by Hugh Nibley about the ties of the Book of Mormon to ancient civilizations, and the large body of new research by a second generation of Mormon scholars like Jack Welch, now sponsored by the Maxwell Institute at BYU, who showed how close study of the Book of Mormon reveals the careful planning that went into constructing its message, in ways that Joseph Smith himself did not appreciate.

    One of the most quoted passages of the Book of Mormon these days is in 2 Nephi Chapter 25 Verses 23 and 26:

    23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
    26 And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

    This passage is taken to summarize the Mormon view, that “laboring diligently” to teach about Christ is a necessary component to our being saved by Christ’s grace.

    I don’t know any actively involved and faithful Mormons who think our church is deficient in its Christology and needs to draw closer to a Protestant model, as Feldman seems to perceive. Rather, Mormons simply want the intense devotion to Christ that we already practice and teach to be recognized as sincere.