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.

  • Robert

    First things first… I want to openly state that it is not my intent to offend anyone in the course of reviewing this post. Out of respect for any Mormon readers I will focus my comments on theological issues and do my best to avoid discussing Joseph Smith because I know this is a topic which easily offends many of the LDS faith. Also, I think it is necessary to voice the presuppositions which influence my views. Of utmost importance I am a Christian. In addition to this I am Southern Baptist student pursuing my Masters of Divinity at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. To avoid any unnecessary nastiness I will avoid reference or use of any material which may be deemed “anti-mormon” in nature, and will instead focus solely on materials which LDS adherents accept as authoritative. With that said I must respectfully disagree with Brian’s assessment that “Mormons have slightly different fringe doctrines… 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.” Brian my first impulse is to claim that you are simply mistaken; however, instead I will concede that we either have wildly different definitions of “fringe doctrines” or you are unfamiliar with a large portion of LDS scripture and theology.
    I believe the best place to start would be with our respective doctrines of God since a doctrine of God cannot be a “fringe doctrine” in any serious religious tradition. Christianity is a monotheistic tradition made unique through the doctrine of the Trinity. We affirm that there is only one God … period. LDS theology on the other hand advocates a multiplicity of divine beings, of which the Heavenly Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are but a few. The Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie is one prominent member of the Church to voice this Polytheistic stance. Other substantial differences between the Christian and Mormon notions of God include the Mormon beliefs: 1. That God changes over time and thus that he is not transcendent or eternally God (if you choose to refute this statement please remember that several previous leaders of the Church, including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught as Lorenzo Snow claimed, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”), 2. That he is not omnipotent (I expect that you will vehemently reject this claim as soon as you read it; however, it is important to note that due to your doctrine of eternal progression you must logically accept that God as an exalted being was created by an older God and is forever overshadowed by this “greater God” just as Mormonism teaches that humans from Earth will forever be under the authority of the Heavenly Father.) 3. That God is not omnipresent (once again, I expect you to challenge this assertion since the LDS Church claims to uphold the omnipresence of the Heavenly Father; however, this is logically impossible considering the LDS affirmation that the Heavenly Father has a physical body, which is yet another doctrinal point of contention with Christianity. Something which is constrained within a physical body cannot possibly exist everywhere simultaneously. And yes, I know that at this point you are itching to respond with quotes of scripture which poetically depict God with human attributes. There are multiple verses found in the Bible, which I accept as authoritative that do this; however, I think common sense as well as good hermeneutics dictate that this is merely poetry. Isaiah 66:1 states: “Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?” Obviously, if Earth is indeed God’s footstool he should have some pretty massive feet which we should be able to see from basically anywhere.) 4. That God is omniscient (once again the LDS church claims to worship an all- knowing God; however, this does not logically follow with regards to the Doctrine of eternal progression—it would be impossible for Heavenly Father to know the true extent of his own God’s power and knowledge.) 5. The belief that Jesus is the spirit child of the Heavenly Father and the Heavenly Mother and is the brother of Lucifer. This doctrine is in concord with the LDS belief that gods, angels and men are all one species, but Christian doctrine demands the divinity of Christ and clearly distinguishes between God and angelic beings.
    Next, let us examine the doctrines of Man and Sin. The Mormon Church believes 1. That humanity had a pre-mortal existence in the presence of God and that the first spirit child born of the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother was Jesus which makes him our older brother. (I do not expect any protest to this claim since it is a commonly accepted belief within the LDS movement.) This doctrine is wildly different from the Christian view of humanity for multiple reasons. First, we do not believe in a pre-existence. We believe that life begins when we are born into this world. (Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations,” is attesting to God’s omniscience and ultimate authority. This verse does not necessitate that Jeremiah previously lived in Heavenly Father’s presence.) Second, Christians reject the notion that Jesus is the spirit offspring of two heavenly entities. This directly contradicts the Christian Trinitarian doctrine of the oneness of God and the belief that God is eternally perfect and divine. The Bible notes that Jesus was “from the beginning” and thus cannot logically have a beginning which such a birth would negate. Third, Christians reject the idea that we are spirit offspring of Heavenly entities and the siblings of angels, demons, and gods. The Christian doctrine concerning our relationship with God differs greatly. Whereas LDS theology teaches that our relationship as Sons and Daughters is an ascribed status (one which we are born into), Christian theology teaches this relationship is an achieved status… not through the works of man, but through the grace of God. This is why John 1:12, Galatians 3:26, Galatians 4:5, as well as other verses all attest to our adoption as the spiritual children of God through faith in Jesus, not by spirit birth in the pre-existence. 2. That the Fall of Adam was a blessing which was necessary for our spiritual journeys to exaltation. Mormonism views sin as part of the nature process of exaltation and that all previous gods also had to endure a similar “Fall” at some point during the past. Needless to say, this is not the Christian view of sin. Throughout the Bible sin is viewed in a negative light. Never is it regarded as a blessing, but rather as a curse.
    Next we should examine our respective theories of atonement which are so greatly influenced by our differing views on the doctrine of sin. This should actually be a subpart of the preceding section but I have separated it for emphasis and clarity. According to Christian Doctrine, man, as a sinful creature, is born with a sinful nature due to the Fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, and this sinful nature separates us from our holy and righteous God. The conflict arises when we compare our views of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. Christian theology as supported by the Bible demands that Christ died as an atonement for all sin, not simply the sin of Adam. (“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,” 1Corinthians 15:3;
    “The next day John saw Jesus coming unto him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1:29.) Mormon theology on the other hand holds a different concept of atonement in which man must take part in good works and ritual ordinances in order to achieve salvation. 2Nephi 25:23, “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,” sounds very similar to Christian doctrine until “after all we can do” adds a human element to the salvation process. Christians believe that “all we can do” is accept the free gift of salvation, whereas Mormons believe salvation is produced by works. ( Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast,” explicitly contradicts this Mormon belief.)
    Next, let us compare the opposing doctrines of Heaven and Hell. The Christian doctrine is pretty simple (by this I do not mean that it is easy to understand or that we know everything regarding these topics, rather that what is revealed through scripture is straight-forward and concise). Mormon doctrine on the other hand is much more intricate and exhaustive in nature. Many argue that due to its sheer nature of complexity that the Mormon doctrines must be more complete revelations of the truths of God regarding these subjects; however, it does not logically follow that one explanation or view is superior (or more true) than another simply on the grounds of complexity. (Take for example the autobiographical accounts of civil war veterans through which we catch a glimpse of the battles in which they fought. Now compare such an account with the Middle Earth of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins as depicted by J. R. R. Tolkien. In comparison Middle Earth is much more complex and coherent, but this by no stretch of the imagination means that Gandalf exists and the Civil War never happened.) With that said, the Christian doctrine of Hell and the Mormon doctrine of Outer Darkness are not compatible. Christianity holds that Hell is a place of eternal damnation originally intended for Lucifer and his demons, but that humans will also endure this eternal punishment should they reject the salvation which comes through faith in Jesus. Mormon doctrine on the other hand views Hell in two different ways. First is the temporary spiritual death and second is the Hell which is saved for demons and the Sons of perdition. LDS doctrine teaches that those who died apart from the Church can receive salvation postmortem through the diligent work of missionaries. These postmortem converts are thus able to escape hell and live in the Telestial kingdom. According to these beliefs all mankind and therefore all spirit children of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother will attain some form of salvation and position outside of Hell (Outerdarkness) except for this very limited group. The doctrines of heaven are also very different. Christian doctrine as supported Biblically establishes Heaven as one place in which those who accept the free gift of salvation during their lives on Earth spend eternity in the presence of God (this refers to God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit), and worship him. Mormon doctrine contradicts the Christian view by affirming different degrees of glory in Heaven and that it is partitioned into three distinct kingdoms (Telestial, Terrestial, and Celestial), with further partitioning of the Celestial kingdom. The lower two strata of Heaven are not even eternally in the presence of God. The Telestial Kingdom is ruled vicariously through messengers, and the Terrestrial Kingdom is visited on occasion by Jesus but is not worthy of the presence of the Heavenly Father.
    This depicts one of the greatest differences between Mormons and Christians, which is the Mormon belief that anything can be done to make oneself worthy of God. The Bible clearly depicts humanity as powerless to save itself and that we only have salvation through grace (not works), and that we are only able to enter the presence of God through grace (again, not by works). The Christian view is completely incompatible with the Mormon concept of being worth of greater glory than others. The two greatest examples of this self justification are seen in: 1. the Mormon concept of being “Temple worthy.” Claiming to be worthy due to your works (honest tithe, prayer, etc.) amounts to saying “I have made myself worthy of entering the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God.” 2. The Mormon belief in exaltation, attaining divinity through ones own good works and righteousness.
    There are many more crucial differences between Mormonism and Christianity which I have not had a chance to explain such as Doctrines on God’s scripture, and Christology etc, but because I have to go to work I do not have time address these issues. In closing, Brian, the Christian debate over Credo-baptism vs. infant baptism is an interesting example of theological disunity and hermeneutical differences, but it does not begin to compare to the debate between Mormon and Christian doctrines. Former Prophet Gordon Hinckley declared that Mormons worshipped a different Jesus. By this he did not mean a different person but a different perception. But therein lies the crux of the issue. Our respective traditions honor and venerate two completely different Christs. Christians worship Jesus, the incarnate second person of the Trinity, and Mormons worship Jesus, one of many gods who is savior of this world instead of all of creation. Mormons should be proud to distinguish themselves as set apart from Christians instead of pretending to fit a mold to which they have only a slight resemblance.
    Finally, regarding “Mormons are Christians” comments… I think that it is important to note the inconsistency of the Mormon belief to be “New Testament Christians.” The term “New Testament” as a proper noun refers to the last 27 books (Matthew-Revelation) of the Holy Bible. As Mormons, you have only cursory faith in the truthfulness of the New Testament as depicted in the King James Version of the Bible due to the supposed corruptions by councils, creeds, and interpretations. You have much more vigorous faith in the Book of Mormon which is not the New Testament, but “another testament,” which is supplemented by the D&C and PoGP. It is much more appropriate to proclaim yourselves as Another Testament “Christians” than to operate under the guise of the New Testament. After all, if you truly followed the church structure as depicted in the Holy Bible, your own religious tradition would be steeped in corruption since the KJV Holy Bible was interpreted from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts in 1611 and therefore influenced by these notorious councils and creeds. As one final note I’d like to point out “Mormons are Christians” that you committed a logical fallacy and that the characteristics of LDS members and Mitt Romney’s devotion have no bearing on the question “Are Mormons Christians?”

    • Maria

      Thank you for your reply stating the facts. A lot of us appreciate the truth.

    • Kiwi57

      Thank you, Robert, for taking it upon yourself to tell us what we believe, and what our beliefs mean.

      In reality, the question is something of a no-brainer. I invite you to read this book: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=58 which has been in print for a number of years. No serious attempt to refute it has been seen.

      I’m sorry to hear that you worship a Jesus other than the one revealed in the New Testament. I hope you will break of the shackles of superstition and false traditions, and come unto the true and living Christ.

  • http://esbc8858@yahoo.com Eileen

    Christian are followers of Christ, hence the name: Christ…ians. They follow Christ because they believe He is God. Jesus is the Son of God. God is one Essence (One God) in three Divine Persons: Father, Son, and holy Spirit. When we speak of Jesus, there also is,the Father and the holy Spirit. Christians are baptized in the trinitarin formula of : Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God in 3 Divine Persons. The Mormons do not believe that Jesus is God. They do not baptize in the trinitarin formula. They are not Christians. I am saying nothing negative about Mormons just stating the facts. I am hoping that Romney wins the Office of US President as I believe him to be a good, honest, and God fearing man, who will act for the greater good of our Nation.

  • Jaycee Terrell

    If you look at where in the bible it says not to add on… There are several books added on to the bible after that time period. When talking about adding on and taking away it was talking about that specific book not the whole bible as a whole. And if that were the case and that made Mormons not Christians than what about the people who have different types of bibles? Are they not Christians since what they read has added to, taken away, or just changed as a whole the bible? Mormons believe in christ, love christ, and try and show more than anyone I know to be more Christ like to all.

  • Vinia

    I agree with what Robert says, anyone can say they are christian but what matters is what the bible says, salvation is a finished work of the cross by Jesus Christ, we just need to receive it and live for Him.
    Let us not make ourselves a Christ that we are comfortable with, reading the article I picked up that Mormons are not following the Christ of the bible.

  • Joseph Michael

    Dear Friends,
    There seems to be a recent and “popular” mischaracterization by our increasingly secularist society to use the term Christian to identify anyone who is kind, generous, charitable, etc. I have even read about someone who had referred to a member of the Jewish faith as a good, Christian person. They were instantly corrected for their mischaracterization and rightly so as any member of such a strong and rich tradition of faith as Judaism would have done. There are too many fundamental differences between Christianity and Mormonism to list here that differentiate the two but as Robert, Eileen and Vinia have already pointed out some key basic principles can be distilled down to: 1) the belief in the Trinity as the Three in One; God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. 2) Christians are monotheistic (belief in one God) versus the commonly held Mormon polytheistic view that when we die we become Gods in our own right adopting the teaching of Joseph Smith who said “As man is God was, As God is man shall be”. 3) Based on a number of passages from the bible Christians accept only the Holy Bible as sacred scripture representative of the true and final authority on the teachings of Jesus. These include Galatians 1:6-9, Revelations 22:18-19 and John 14:6-7. The Mormon texts that include The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price do not follow the Christian belief that you cannot add to or “improve upon” Jesus’ teachings as He Himself taught us and described through His chosen Apostles. As I mentioned in my opening comments regarding Judaism and as another example Islam there are many faiths with distinctly different views than Christianity. In that respect, the Mormon faith is no different than these. What is different is that while the Jewish and Muslim cultures are proud to support and defend those differences, Mormons seem intent on “fitting in” as it were to the Christian theology rather than stand on their own as a uniquely different interpretation of Jesus Christ and His teachings. Founded by pioneers, Mormons have an opportunity to forge ahead and pioneer a new frontier on the tapestry of world religions without having to redefine what it truly means to be Christian. Peace in Christ to you all.

  • Anastasia

    Surely the Lady and Lord don’t care what titles we give to each other? I’m confident that whether we are Wiccan, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Daoist, Christian, Atheist, etc that we are simply meant to live the best we can.

    Labels in modern times only seem to cause problems. Instead of wondering if your neighbors are practicing “the correct faith”, why not wonder how best to help them? Perhaps if we did this we would ALL be better off!

  • humble

    Scholars from the LDS church (Mormons) and the Fuller Theological Seminary have met twice a year for the past 12 years. They have discussed this issue and many more. 8 articles have been produced, 4 LDS-Christian and 4 mainstream-Christian. I found these articles very informative and enlightening. Both sides seemed to have learnt a lot. I would encourage you good people to browse through the essays here:

    Be sure to read some of the articles under SIDEBARS & BOOK REVIEWS too.
    http://cms.fuller.edu/EIFD/issues/Fall_2012/Fall_2012.aspx


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