Are Mormons Christians? Yes…No…and Yes

At a new(ish) faculty potluck a few Saturdays ago, I mingled with other younger faculty amidst orange-colored casseroles, scampering toddlers, and bottles of craft-brewed beer. I struck up a conversation with the spouse of a new faculty member who asked me the question that everyone asks at such parties: “So what do you do?” I told him that I studied Mormons, and after he asked me if I was Mormon (for which he amiably apologized), he posed the question that I have been asked by folks in a zillion settings and contexts. “So, do you consider Mormons as Christians?” The questioner was not hostile. He was just curious. I glanced down at my ginger ale and said, “Well…yes…and no.” It all depends on how one thinks about how to define a religion. These are the three ways that I usually answer the “Mormons-as-Christians” question…even at parties. Yeah, way to kill a casual conversation! [1]


Yes, Mormons are Christians if we consider any religious group as constituted by those who self-identify as such. Mormons claim to be Christians, so they are, plain and simple. To develop this one step further, we can go beyond the simple act of self-identification and think about what happens when Mormons make their case for being Christian. Philosopher Alisdair McIntyre suggests that a religious tradition can be conceived as “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” [2] In this model, religious traditions are really conversations where people argue and agree on what it is to be part of a community. We can talk about Mormons as Christians because Mormons self-identify as such and contribute to the ongoing conversation (or, more truthfully, the ongoing argument) about what it means to be a Christian. Of course, this is a fairly capacious model for what constitutes Christianity, and it would have to include groups that the vast majority of Christians do not want to claim, such members of the Christian Identity movement (white supremacist, racist Christians). Pushback on the “tradition as dialogue” model usually leads to advocacy for the next way of answering the Mormons-as-Christian question.

No, Mormons are not Christians if we set out an “essentialist” definition for Christianity that includes a trinitarian doctrine of God and a closed canon of scripture. Essentialist definitions pervade how most people define who is in or out of a group. Muslims have the five pillars that define their religion, we learn in high school. Buddhists have the three treasures and the eightfold path, we learn in college religion 101. Yet, when we look at people who identify as Buddhists and Muslims on the ground, we find all sorts of slippages between our essentialist definitions and what people do in practice. We find millions of practicing Buddhists who have no idea about what the eightfold path is. We read about Muslims in America, like Elijah Muhammad, who in the 1950s venerated W.D. Fard as Allah in the flesh–something well beyond the boundaries of most essentialist definitions for Islam. Of course, all communities will police their boundaries, a point eloquently explored by Taylor Petrey last week in his column. Muslims will want to say what true Islam is. Christians will want to do the same. Fine and well. But this is a very different task than analytically classifying something as a cultural phenomenon. Both are “normative” tasks but not in the same way.

Yes, Mormons are Christians if we think of any religion as being constituted by members that bear a series of “family resemblances” to other members. In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein tries to show how things can be related, more or less, without sharing any single, essential trait. Wittgenstein argues that a word like “game” can help describe many different practices, from tennis to chess. There is no one set of traits that these practices have in common, but they are more or less related. [3] Some scholars use this concept of “family resemblances” to describe how we can talk about “Hinduism” as a religion, [4] and I suggest that it might be employed to talk about Christianity, too. Mormons, then, are Christians because they bear a family resemblance to other groups also labeled by the term Christian. In this analogy, Methodists might share a different set of traits with Catholics than they do Mormons, but they are all related, more or less.

Of course, my strategies for answering the “Mormons-as-Christians” question side-step the cultural politics that inform why most people even ask the question in the first place. [5] Very, very few contemporary Americans, after all, ask, “Are Pure Land Buddhists really Buddhists?” (Some scholars say “no” to the latter question, by the way.) Most contemporary Americans ask if Mormons are Christians because they know Mormons, they’ve met missionaries who have tried to convert them, they live in the United States where Mormons make up 2% of the population, and a Mormon might end up being the POTUS. A host of other factors, such as the LDS belief that they are the “one true church,” helps to continue generating the question, too. Minority groups who insist that they are the true bearers of a much larger tradition invite—even thrive on—criticism from others. This last point brings up my final thought about this question. Despite the cringe-inducing effect that the question has on many LDS people, the presence of the almost rhetorical query about Mormonism and Christianity is actually a good thing for the LDS community—at least for the time being.

When contemporary Mormons have actively asserted their Christian identity, they have engaged in boundary-setting behaviors that have reinforced their sense of loyalty to their community and simultaneously allowed them to cross over boundaries. They have generated books, ad campaigns, blog posts, and, perhaps most famously, even subtitled their scriptures to defend their Christian identity. They have thought about how their religion coheres and have been forced to articulate that. They have reached out to others to prove their Christian identity, as service projects by many LDS young adults seem to illustrate. And, in contemporary pluralist America, being called non-Christian has provided Mormons with all the sociological benefits of persecution (the minority group coming together to defend an identity that seems under threat) with none of the serious after effects (real violence and real discrimination from others).

By many academic strategies for delineating the shape of Christianity, Mormons are Christians. Paradoxically, from a purely pragmatic point of view, Mormons should hope that most Americans do not come to that conclusion anytime soon.

Minus the last three paragraphs, I really said almost all of what I have just written at a party a few weeks ago. Well…perhaps I did not quote McIntyre. But I did run through my three ways of addressing the Mormons-as-Christians question. And my friend moved on to get another drink, leaving me with my ginger ale…

 

[1] My present column could be seen as one in a series on the topic of “Mormons-as-Christians” posted at this site. Previous columns were written by Taylor Petrey, Seth Perry, and Matt Bowman. My post and the former two posts were generated, in part, as a response to Ben Witherington, “Why Mormonism is not Christianity—The Issue of Christology” found here.
[2] Alisdair C. McIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 222.
[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 27-28.
[4] For instance, Gavin Flood classifies Hinduism as a religion by using George Lakoff’s “prototype theory,” a further development of Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances.” See Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 7.
[5] Seth Perry thoughtfully examines some of the cultural politics beyond what I mention in this paragraph. See his column linked here.

  • Glenn Thigpen

    As an active LDS I do not really care whether anyone else believes that I am a Christian. I have debated the point before with several Evangelicals, but the question is really academic because none of the Evangelicals or LDS have been commissioned to make that judgement. That judgement is God’s province.

    Glenn

    • Bump_jon

      I am of the same opinion. Generally when I am asked whether Mormons are Christians or, more often, told that Mormons are not Christians–which happens a lot because I live in the South–I tend to tell them that I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, that He died for my sins, and that through Christ’s Atonement I will be forgiven of all my sins, be resurected, and live forever with Him. When it’s someone genuinely asking because they want to know, I will generally ask them if they believe that make me a Christian or not. It can lead to good conversations. I know it’s wrong but when it’s someone trying to bash Mormons for not being “Christians” I generally follow it up with some sort of snide remark like “if that isn’t what a Christian is, then I don’t want to be one.”

  • http://www.believeallthings.com/ Believe All Things

    Its interesting that the followers of Christ “were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The Book of Mormon gives a slightly broader definition, “those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come” (Alma 46:16) that is reminiscent of Elder Dallin H. Oaks comments about becoming Christians.

  • Paul
    • David Howlett

      Thanks for your terse thoughts, Paul. Given your links posted here, I assume that you are taking what I would call an “essentialist” definition for what constitutes Christianity. It’s not an unusual position for one to advocate, but I hope that you also consider other ways of thinking about this question. All of us can stretch our imaginations now and again, yes?

  • http://www.ldsrevelations.com/blog LDSRevelations

    When this issue is discussed some key ideas are usually overlooked. Keeping them in mind I think is valuable.
    1- Despite the fact that Mormons believe in Jesus Christ their theology is quite different from that of the majority of Christians. With such different doctrinal ideas there are valid reasons to question both sides claims— and to try and determine whether one or both has claim to the term ‘Christian’.
    2- Like it or not in any given group often the majority defines the whole. Mormons are the minority and so they to a degree are going to be seen as the less orthodox option— even if such a conclusion is logically fallacy. Ironically enough though the majority Mormon faith— the LDS Church— does the same thing in claiming that FLDS are not actually ‘Mormon.’
    3- This whole battle is nothing more than a disagreement on theology. Mormons disagree with much of Christendom and that’s a defining part of the faith, the Great Apostasy, Restoration and all that. Mormons being told they are not Christian is essentially no different than the LDS teaching that all others claiming Christianity are apostate and not authorized to act in Gods name. Essentially both are saying “Im right. You’re wrong.” Mormons are no more wronged than those they say are apostate. Unfortunately as a minority they are less likely to be taken seriously in this claim.

    • Brian

      1. You had to caveat your point with a claim of “most Christians” leaving the door for different interpretations. Yes, Mormons have slightly different fringe doctrines, but nothing that can’t be supported Biblically although your interpretation may differ. But in the world of Christianity, many other doctrines are still disputed widely, and they have far greater implications. Things like infant baptism, or the need for baptism as a step to salvation. These are far greater chasms than any of the details of Mormonism.
      2. A majority of diversity does not define the terms. And the majority changes over time. The Catholics called protestants heretics and un-Christian. Some evangelicals are doing the same right back at them. Time blurs the lines over who is a true believer. It is only recently that the idea that Christianity is monolithic, and that things like baptism can cross denominations. As for the term “Mormon” and fundamentalist Mormons, the issue isn’t the term other than Mormons want clarity that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the same organization as Warren Jeffs group. It would be akin to Mormons calling themselves Presbyterians when they are not, but they are still Christians. The term Mormon is universally linked to the LDS Church, just as Catholic is linked to the Holy Roman Church. If Evangelicals suddenly called themselves Catholics, then I am sure Catholics would have a problem with it. But Mormons have no problem including the Community of Christ or Fundamentalist Polygamists under the general umbrella of the “Latter Day Saint Movement” a term that is neutral and not associated with one specific group.
      3. Mormons have no issue with the “you’re wrong, I’m right” argument. Mormons don’t accept other faith’s baptisms and have no problem with other faith’s not accepting theirs. That is not the issue. The issue is when you say “You are not Christian” you are excluding the central figure of the faith. Mormonism is centered on Jesus Christ, his life, his teachings, his divine Sonship, his death and resurrection, and his atonement for sin. That is central to Mormonism. Mormons have no issue with being called “non-traditional Christians” or “Non-Trinitarian Christans” but they do have an issue with being called “non-Christians” or even “non-Biblical Christians” because of the false inferences.

  • Yeshua

    6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. Galatians 1

    It is that simple. Mormon Doctrine is not Biblical doctrine. They use the same words (Christianese) yet they have completely different meanings. The book of mormon, the doctrine of covenants, pearl of great price, all those things teach things contrary to the Bible. If the Mormon faith is the restored Gospel, why are most of the doctrine mormons teach not even in the book of mormon? Check out a movie called “The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon” WE as people can classify what constitutes a Christian, but when we look to the actual scriptures, (which only makes sense, since the Bible is the only book of antiquity recognized by the Smithsonian Instituition as reliable and accurate in it’s references to events/places/people/kingdoms) it lays it out quite plain. Only when we disregard it do we get into the “debate” as to whether Mormons are Christians. If we make our own categories, anyone is anything as you say. But again, the only real measuring rod applicable is the Bible itself.

    9 And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the asame yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one cword ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever.

    Directly goes against Jesus’s last words at the cross:

    Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. John 19:30

    10 Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. 2 nephi 29

    Directly goes against God’s word:
    Deuteronomy 12:32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
    Proverbs 30:5-6 “Every word of God is pure; he is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”
    1 Cor. 4:6 “that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.”

    So again, if you do not respect the Bible, you will be able to categorize all you want.

    • http://lds4gaymarriage.x90x.net Kevin_JK

      You talk about “another Gospel” and “another Jesus”. Let’s examine that. Why did Paul warn against these? Probably because the Gentile converts were flooding the Church and mixing in their Greek ideas with the Gospel. Those Greek teachings can be seen in the formulation of the Creeds. I bet the teachings of the Creeds and Counsels are “another Gospel” and “another Jesus” about which we were warned.

      “why are most of the doctrine mormons teach not even in the book of mormon?”

      Because we’re Christian…Duh.

      “Check out a movie called “The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon””

      I bet it doesn’t have any more half truths, lies and stretches of the truth any more than any other piece of anti-Mormon literature. Hahaha

      “Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. 2 nephi 29

      Directly goes against God’s word:
      Deuteronomy 12:32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”

      Hmmm….I guess everything after Deut is wrong since it was “added to” the Torah.

      “So again, if you do not respect the Bible, you will be able to categorize all you want.”

      LDS respect the Bible and believe it and follow it and know it. Pew Research shows that Mormons did better than any other Christian group. The article states – ” White evangelicals correctly answer an average of 5.1 out of seven Bible questions, compared with 4.4 among atheists and agnostics and 4.3 among Jews. Mormons answer almost six of the seven Bible questions correctly on average.” See http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey-Who-Knows-What-About-Religion.aspx

      So you tell me…who does the evidence show REALLY respects the Bible?

    • http://classicmomscorner.blogspot.com/2011/11/jesus-is-not-trinitarian.html SixMom

      You use the flawed argument that since “they” don’t believe the Bible says what “I” think it says – “THEY” are not biblical. Fact is – the KJV Bible is read, revered and accepted by Mormons and they read the same words and think it means something different than you. Not only that, there are 2000+ Christian denominations – all with different interpretations of the same key Bible concepts. Here’s an example: The apostle Paul was converted after Christ’s death and he wrote half the books in the Bible. According to your theory of “it is finished” and there can be no more…this would annul Paul, his revelations, his doctrine and his books. According to the LDS beliefs – When Christ says “it is finished” he was referring to the event he was currently experiencing…dying on the cross for our sins. According to Paul, Christ appeared to them many times after the cross teaching doctrine and instructing the early Saints. Since both Christ’s appearances and Paul’s ministry both come well after the “it is finished” comment – your interpretation makes the least sense to me.

  • NORMAN C CARR

    Im so sick and tire of people fighting over religion.I see how religous wars start.The bible was put together by man.Not angels.The mormons have the right to have their beliefs just like everyone else.The first christians did not have a bible like todays christians.Stop pretending that it alwayed existed.The mormons believe in something called the great apostify.In others words they believe the church went wrong somewhere..With slavery,witch burnings and all those holy wars i can see why.

  • http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com Mormons Are Christian

    Are Mormons Creedal Christians? No. Are Mormons New Testament Christians? Yes

    . Mormons’ theology is based on New Testament Christianity, not Fourth Century Creeds. The Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views on Baptism, Lay Ministry, the Trinity, Theosis, Grace vs. Works, the Divinity of Jesus Christ are closer to Early Christianity than any other denomination. And Mormon teenagers have been judged to “top the charts” in Christian Characteristics by a UNC-Chapel Hill study. Read about it here:

    http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com/

    According to a 2012 Pew Forum poll of members of the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) 98 percent said they believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and 97 percent say their church is a Christian religion. They volunteer 7 times as many hours as does the general population, according to a 2012 University of Pennsylvania study. Mormons have a better understanding of Christianity than any other denomination, according to a 2010 Pew Forum poll:

    http://www.pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

    11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (including several presidents) were non-Trinitarian Christians, as is Mitt Romney, who is as faithful as the most devout Founder.


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