Mormonism and the Christianity Police

If one were to rank the issues about which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is most sensitive, near the very top of the list would be the persistant accusation that Mormons are somehow not Christians.  This is literally the first question in the FAQ section at

In responding to this charge over many decades, the church has sought to emphasize its Christian identity. Besides numerous discourses on the subject, the Church has projected a Christian image through the use of visual and material culture.  For the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, the Church acquired and displayed its now iconic reproduction of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s “Christus” statue, which appears on numerous websites and publications.  In 1996, the Church changed its logo to feature the words “Jesus Christ” more than twice the size of the other words in the name.  The image was meant to communicate the centrality of Jesus Christ to the faith.  Church leaders continue to offer impassioned sermons on the topic in recent years.

This election season has brought out renewed efforts from some evangelical leaders to “clarify” for their audiences that, in spite of being permitted to vote for a Mormon candidate for president, they are under no circumstances to consider Mormonism a part of Christianity.  This policing of the boundaries of Christianity raises the question of who gets to decide what Christianity is.  Different Christians have drawn the boundary differently, depending on whom they are seeking to exclude.  For many centuries Protestants drew the boundaries such that Catholics were out of the fold of Christianity, commonly charging the Pope as the Antichrist.  Catholics returned the favor.  Devastating wars were fought in Europe over precisely who was a Christian and who was not.

The contestation among Christians of all kinds over what it means to be a Christian underscores the fact that this is a contested category.  There is no single definition of Christianity.  Adolf von Harnack, one of the foremost Lutheran theologians of the nineteenth century, sought to identify the essence of Christianity in his volume, What is Christianity? He rejected the creeds, and any definition of religion which relied on “doctrines, regulations, ordinances, and forms of public worship.” He bitterly complained against an understanding of Christianity in which

 the living faith seems to be transformed into a creed to be believed; devotion to Christ, into Christology; the ardent hope for the coming of ‘the kingdom,’ into a doctrine of immortality and deification; prophesy, into technical exegesis and theological learning; the ministers of the Spirit, into clerics; the brothers, into laymen in a state of tutelage; miracles and miraculous cures disappear altogether, or else are priestly devices; fervent prayers become solemn hymns and litanies; the “Spirit” becomes law and compulsion. (Harnack, What is Christianity?, 193)

Harnack’s remarks are inspired by the similar kind of originalism that moved nineteenth century Mormonism’s Restoration perspective, an attempt to clear the historical board of learned theology and high church ritual and return to the “original purity” of early Christianity.  There is no question that Harnack and Mormonism see many fundamental aspects of faith quite differently, but there is much here that resonates for Mormons, most importantly the notion that Christianity is not about adherence to dogmas, but about life of faith.

It is easy for historians to discern today that Harnack’s understanding of early Christianity was deeply shaped by the theological frameworks of his own time.  Despite being a sophisticated scholar, he depicts early Christianity in his own image.  Those who are invested in a particular image of Christianity for their own normative purposes represent this image as self-evident, while to others it appears an a self-evident construction.  The question is whether any definition of Christianity which starts from the idea that it has an atemporal, non-historically bounded “essence” can succeed.

Social theory may offer more help than theology in understanding how the boundaries of Christianity are created and enforced.  Identity requires both a sameness and a difference over and against which to define oneself.  In order for there to be an inside, there must also be an outside.  The self always needs an other, and there is no other which is more fraught than the intimate other, who appears so similar as to be almost indistinguishable.  Lines must be produced and guarded in order to protect a particular understanding of what counts as Christianity.

Definitions of Christianity that seek to portray its essence are arguments about what that essences should be, not objective descriptions of fact.  They assume the very thing they are trying to prove.  Such definitions are rhetorical and ideological, producing similarities between themselves and what they see as authentic Christianity, and downplaying the differences.  Those that represent the boundaries as natural and fixed also represent themselves as atemporal, outside of the tumults of time and space.  But we know that such definitions fail the test of time.

If our definitions are always provisional, historically situated, and subject to change, what considerations should we make in determining the boundaries of Christianity?  One consideration must be the ethical.  As countless scholars have pointed out, the process of drawing boundaries can be fraught ethically.  Is it just to exclude a group who claim the title of Christians?  In answering this question it is useful to consider how defining some people as “outsiders,” as lacking a claim to some standard of authenticity, is the fundamental ideology behind so many of the ugly prejudices in this world. The Christianity police are often guilty of police brutality more than protection of their constituents.  Defining Mormonism out of Christianity sets, and follows, a troubling precedent.

  • Robert

    Okay so the most basic definition of Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ. Christ being derived from the Greek word that best represents the Hebrew Messiah. The early Church elders interpreted the Word of God differently until finally they agreed on a simple creed based on the Gospels that stated the basic truths that the church agreed were essential to truly be a follower of Christ. That creed acknowledges the Holy Trinity as God the father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit. Which means that Jesus was begotten not made from God and is a part of God and separate as well. My apologies if my terminology does not translate quite right. If I understand Mormon teachings they believe that Christ is separate from God and not one with God. Which is why most Christian’s don’t consider them Christians yet why Mormon’s can say they are Christian and still be correct. Both sides use different definitions. Personally I use the standard definition and so do not believe they are technically Christian in the truest sense but having taken a quick glance at their beliefs I believe they do try to follow a Christian life even if their path is more divergent.

    • Paul

      Are Mormons Christian?

      Yes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian church but is neither Catholic nor Protestant. Rather, it is a restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ as originally established by the Savior in the New Testament of the Bible. The Church does not embrace the creeds that developed in the third and fourth centuries that are now central to many other Christian churches.

      Latter-day Saints believe God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to save all mankind from death and their individual sins. Jesus Christ is central to the lives of Church members. They seek to follow His example by being baptized (see Matthew 3:13-17), praying in His holy name (see Matthew 6:9-13), partaking of the sacrament (see Luke 22:19-20), doing good to others (see Acts 10:38) and bearing witness of Him through both word and deed (see James 2:26). The only way to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ.
      Read more about Latter-day Saint Christianity

    • Paul

      What do Mormons believe about God?

      God is often referred to in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as our Heavenly Father because He is the Father of all human spirits and they are created in His image (see Genesis 1:27). It is an appropriate term for God who is kind and just, all wise and all powerful. God the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost constitute the Godhead or Trinity for Mormons. Latter-day Saints believe God is embodied, though His body is perfect and glorified.

      Do Mormons believe in the Trinity?

      Mormons most commonly use the term “Godhead” to refer to the Trinity. The first article of faith for the Latter-day Saints reads: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Latter-day Saints believe God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one in will and purpose but are not literally the same being or substance, as conceptions of the Holy Trinity commonly imply.

    • http://realclearpolitics ccimlay

      Robert you’re some what right. We believe that the Godhead ARE three seperate beings but are ONE in purpose. So Christ i s one with God in purpose but is a seperate being. I hope that helps.

    • Max Wilson

      Robert, I personally am fine with your characterization. I think it accurately conveys all the relevant facts of both viewpoints.


  • me

    Funny, the term “Christian” was originally used as a derogatory term in the early years against believers in Jesus the Christ. The early Church members were internally called “Saints,” yet here we are arguing about who gets to be called “Christian”! I think we are all going to be dissappointed when we get to the other side and are admonished for spending so much time and effort on this ridiculous argument, instead of focusing more on our faith in Him and following His example. (And I’m speaking to myself here, not preaching)

  • laverl wilhelm

    Basic Christian belief decries exclusion and encourages inclusion
    As Edwin Markham says in poetic form,
    “He drew a circle that shut me out –
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the will to win —
    We drew a circle that took him in.”

  • E B

    The press isn’t helping to dispel any false ideas, because they have yet to report that the core belief and practice in the LDS Church is to follow Jesus Christ. I’m not surprised by this, it’s not like they aren’t biased against Mitt Romney because he’s a Republican. They don’t represent him accurately either. I’ve searched out many personal accounts of Romney and they all agree that he is kind, caring, hard working, competent, thrifty, compassionate, generous, and funny. Does any of that come through in the media? Of course not. They leave it out just as surely as they leave out negative information about Obama. Read both sides, because both sides leave stuff out. How can you make an informed opinion using only one viewpoint?

    • Jared

      I think Mormonism’s biggest challenge in getting recognized as truly Christian is the shadiness of its founder and his first successor, Brigham Young. Joseph Smith was a charlatan. He married girls as young as 14, he claimed to receive golden plates with scriptures that amazingly disappeared when he was done with them.

      Other Christian denominations look at all that and reject it out of hand. It’s no wonder they don’t want them numbered as fellow a Christian denomination.

  • Paul

    Surely there is a way for people of goodwill who love God and have taken upon themselves the name of Christ to stand together for the cause of Christ and against the forces of sin. In this we have every right to be bold and believing, for “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

    You serve and preach, teach and labor in that confidence, and so do I. And in doing so, I believe we can trust in the next verse from Romans as well: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” I truly believe that if across the world we can all try harder not to separate each other from the “love of Christ,” we will be “more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Romans 8:32, 35, 37).

    • Paul

      Furthermore, we are always looking for common ground and common partners in the “hands-on” work of the ministry. We would be eager to join hands with our evangelical friends in a united Christian effort to strengthen families and marriages, to demand more morality in media, to provide humane relief effort in times of natural disasters, to address the ever-present plight of the poor, and to guarantee the freedom of religion that will allow all of us to speak out on matters of Christian conscience regarding the social issues of our time. In this latter regard the day must never come that you or I or any other responsible cleric in this nation is forbidden to preach from his or her pulpit the doctrine one holds to be true. But in light of recent sociopolitical events and current legal challenges stemming from them, particularly regarding the sanctity of marriage, that day could come unless we act decisively in preventing it.2

      The larger and more united the Christian voice, the more likely we are to carry the day in these matters. In that regard we should remember the Savior’s warning regarding “a house divided against [itself]”—a house that finds it cannot stand against more united foes pursuing an often unholy agenda (see Luke 11:17).

      • Don Harryman

        Perhaps you could give 2 0r 3 specific examples of ‘recent sociopolitcal events and current legal challenges stemming from them particularly regarding the sanctity of marriage…’ If the threats are that real and pressing, surely you can name two or three.

  • JLM

    I see both sides of this issue. For me, if you are a Christian you believe in only one god. The other gods would not be real. I was taught as an LDS person that we can become like god and some day share in his glory. That is why I went to the temple.
    Now, what is the deal here? If there are other gods out there then were more like Jain or Hindu peoples. If there is only Jesus then what is up with all the extra rituals? Mormons need to pick. If they refuse to then others will choose to tag them with any name they wish to.
    This has already split Mormons into many smaller groups. We need to stop pandering for politics and get real with regards to who we are. The church is to large to keep this dual nature up any longer. This is why so many leave and never come back.
    Donnie Osmond keeps a great blog about Mormonism. Go to his Q and A to read more about God and Kolob. I would say he of all people should know how a Mormon believes .

  • Charles Carter

    Unfortunately, I can’t take the time for a full response, so forgive me for replying only to some of what you posted. I’ll clearly mark the omissions.

    > I think I can definitely say that “Mormons” do not say that
    > believers of other Christian faiths are not Christian.
    One cannot be a Christian and an apostate at the same time. If you are apostate then you are NOT Christian. That is what the work means, a falling away from a previous state.

    > Why are there “Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians,
    >Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, etc.,”? Was it not because the founders
    > of these differing sects believed that the others were “apostates”
    and fell away from the “true” Christian religion?
    Actually, no. The reformers wanted reform, not restoration. Luther did not want to break away nhor did he think he was doing so. He wanted to purge the church. Likewise, the Puritans wanted to purify the church, not restore something that had ceased to exist.

    > In Joseph Smith’s day, that certainly was not the case as it was this
    > disunity that led him to pray about which church to join.
    This was during the Second Great Awakening. What about the Millerites and the Campbellites? They certainly grew faster, and there are more of them today than Mormans.

    > … members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
    > believe that Christianity did fall into apostasy. Furthermore,
    > we do believe that the priesthood, as exemplified in the living
    > apostles and prophets that they had in their day, was lost from
    > the earth and did not continue.
    Yes, this is exactly what I previously said. What about the Priesthood of the Believer?

    > … is this not what Christ and the early Christians faced when they first
    > brought the Gospel to the Jews and then to all?
    No, no, NOOOOOOOO! Christ came ti FULFILL the law and the prophets! The early Christians WERE Jews, including Jesus, Peter, Paul John, and all the rest.

    > … restoration of the authority and fullness of the Gospel, we certainly do not make the claim that others are not Christian

    • http://Patheos Mark

      Charles, thank you for your reply.
      Perhaps this line of thought will help you see my point more clearly. If a person leaves the Catholic church and becomes a Lutheran or a Baptist, by definition, they are a Catholic apostate. But, they are not a Christian apostate as they still believe in Jesus Christ. They have just adopted a different set of beliefs about him but they still believe in Jesus Christ. They don’t feel they have apostatized, they feel their former Church has gone astray and they are trying to get back to what in their view is closer to Christ’s original teachings. On the other hand, a person who leaves a Christian faith for another faith such as Buddhism is then considered a Christian apostate. Nevertheless, a person that leaves one Christian faith for another Christian faith is not an apostate of Christianity. It is certainly a mainstay of the Christian tradition to believe that a church has apostatized and lost its authority and to still believe that the followers of other churches are Christian. I see this as the main reason why we have so many differing Christian faiths. One quick search of Wikipedia and Martin Luther’s statements about the pope and the Catholic Church of his day establishes this line of thinking.
      As for you comment on this point I was making:
      >> Why are there “Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians,
      > >Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, etc.,”? Was it not because the founders
      > > of these differing sects believed that the others were “apostates” and fell away from the “true” Christian religion?
      >Actually, no. The reformers wanted reform, not restoration. Luther did not want to break away nor did he >think he was doing so. He wanted to purge the church. Likewise, the Puritans wanted to purify the church, >not restore something that had ceased to exist.
      I agree with you, they wanted reform as none of them claimed to have the authority for a restoration but you missed my point entirely. I wasn’t commenting on the differences between a reformation and a restoration, I was using this as an example to show that the reformers of the past believed that Christianity as they knew it had left its true course and apostatized from the true faith. After all, Christ did not start the Catholics, or the Methodists or the Presbyterians, or the Lutherans etc. . . He started a church that bore his name and had his ordained prophets and apostles as it duly authorized leaders. By 300 AD., that church was no longer on the earth.
      Finally, by definition the Lutheran’s apostatized from the Catholic Church. Furthermore, as one person commenting here on this thread has already stated, (and I take them at their word that this is true) Lutheran’s still officially view the pope as the Anti-Christ. Now, if that’s not a view of apostasy, what is? And do you still view Lutheran’s as Christians. I certainly do even, though they originally broke away and apostatized from the Catholic Church.
      You asked: “Yes, this is exactly what I previously said. What about the Priesthood of the Believer?” I think the point another individual made on this thread of comments speaks to this issue clearly. The fact that over 300 years after Christ came, King Constantine called for the Nicene Council to determine the nature of God is evidence that the church was already in full blown apostasy as they not only lost the Apostles and the priesthood, but they lost the most basic understanding of God. Where was the revelation or even claim to revelation? Where were the Apostles and Prophets with the authority to declare the doctrine and write scripture especially about such a basic doctrine about the nature of God? Do you think that in Christ’s and his Apostles day there was any doubt about the nature of God? Just read and study about this council and the others that followed. This was anything like a meeting of the Apostles to determine by revelation the answer to a basic question about the nature of God and man’s relationship to him. As far as the view of the Trinity that came out of this meeting, I will just quote Harper’s Bible Dictionary – Certainly not a “Mormon” publication. “the formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries is not to be found in the [New Testament].” (Paul F. Achtemeier, ed. (1985), 1099)
      Finally, on your statement: “No, no, NOOOOOOOO! Christ came ti FULFILL the law and the prophets! The early Christians WERE Jews, including Jesus, Peter, Paul John, and all the rest.”
      Again, I agree with your statement completely, but you missed my point entirely. Christ and his followers met great opposition to his message of this fulfillment of the law from the established leadership and many of the adherents of Judaism. Many of the people converted and some leaders of Judaism believed. In general, they did not and great persecution followed.