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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