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 www.mormon.org.

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.

  • Don Harryman

    Commenting on complex theological or historical issues which may or may not define what Christianity is and who is or is not Christian is above my pay grade–more importantly, I don’t belong to any so called ‘Christian’ or other religion, so I fundamentally don’t care one way or the other who the real ‘Christians’ are.

    However, my experience with Mormonism compels me to label it anything but Christian, not because of creedal or theological issues, but because of how its adherents treat others: Mormonism is obsessed in its hatred of homosexuals, its never ending political campaigns fueled by millions of dollars and many many lies, past issues of racism (which the Mormon Church has changed by light years of progress since 1978), and its stubborn refusal to repent and be honest about the mass murder at Mountain Meadows. Unless I am mistaken, true repentance requires acceptance of responsibility, restitution, and apology. ‘The Church’ refuses to do any of these.

    It doesn’t help that the current most visible face of Mormonism, Mitt Romney, is a serial liar.

    Sorry foks, to me it is pretty simple. Your identification as ‘Christians’ require that you actually follow what Christ talked about: He said nothing about homosexuals, but plenty about caring for the poor, and nothing that I know of about multi billion dollar shopping malls, and political campaigns which tell outright lies and use gross fear mongering to demonize and to strip homosexuals of equal protection under the law.

    The Evangelicals and the Catholics will always take your money, as long as they can use it against gay people, but they are not now nor will they ever be your friends. Ironically, homosexuals for the most part, are mostly live and let live–as long as you leave us alone, we allow you the same privilege we ask for ourselves–to live our lives according to the dictates of our own consciences. Meanwhile, we claim our Constitutional protection of equal protection under the law, recognizing the same Constitution allows you to believe and practice as you choose.

    For me its pretty simple–you are not even very nice people.

    • Terrie Bittner

      Actually, you have some incorrect information. Mormons don’t hate homosexuals. In fact, the LDS Church specifically encouraged lawmakers in Utah to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing. There is a difference between a person and an action. When my children do something wrong, I may hate what they did, but I don’t hate them. In the same way, it is possible to love a person, but not the lifestyle he has chosen. Furthermore, there is a difference between temptations and attractions and the actions they might lead to. It is not a sin to be tempted or to have feelings. It is a sin to act on any temptation that is forbidden. It is impossible to read the Bible and come away with the idea that marriage is meant for anything other than men marrying women. Jesus specifically said, “And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
      And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” We don’t have all the words Jesus ever said, but He clearly defined marriage as involving a man and a woman. Other verses in the Bible are far more specific. You have given homosexuals credit for leaving everyone else alone, but in actuality, that is clearly not true. I heard a homosexual man speaking about how the gay community has discriminated against him for first being celibate and then marrying a woman he loved. He said they have tried to outlaw his right to receive help should he want to change his orientation and bullied Apple into removing an app that provided him with needed support for his marriage. There are good and bad people on every side of every issue.

      As for Mountain Meadows, the Mormons did an in-depth study of the subject and presented it at a conference. They were told they were too hard on themselves. No one pretends it was right, although I can understand how it happened. Today, I think we’d call it post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps you are familiar with the persecution of Mormons in those days–the mass murders and even an extermination order? That might not be an excuse, but it is certainly an explanation as to why some people might snap when they felt threatened.

    • Brian

      I’m gay, and I get far more hate from gay for being a “former” Mormon than I do from Mormons because I am gay. In fact, my Mormon family is more than accommodating, particularly when compared to fundamental Christian groups.

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

    I’m a Mormon and I’m a Christian. I love both of the nicknames and I love Christ. He died for my sins, and through his grace I can hope for salvation. I pray almost every day to my Heavenly Father and ask forgiveness for my sins and hope for that forgiveness through the grace of His Son – Jesus Christ. Call me what you will, but I’m betting Christ will decide who His followers are in the end Himself and none of us has the final word or even an ounce of sway.

  • https://twitter.com/jason_allred Jason Allred

    With all the media attention on Mormonism, I’d suggest to anyone that they find a fellow Mormon and ask them questions about what we believe. I’m a Mormon and am always happy to answer sincere questions about my faith. (Twitter: @jason_allred)

    Being a Mormon has brought me closer to my Savior, Jesus Christ. It has also helped me develop a love for others. I am grateful to have had a spiritual witness from God that what I believe is true.

  • Joel

    Mormons don’t consider themselves as part of the Christian (capital C) community, but because of their beliefs in Christ and devotion to Him as their God, they do nevertheless consider themselves a christian (little c) religion. A Christian bases his doctrines and beliefs about the nature of God according to the Athanasian or Nicene Creeds; which were theological, philosophical statements developed in the fourth century A.D. amid intense debate about the nature of God. A Mormon bases his beliefs about God purely on the scriptures and revelation from prophets of God (Amos 3:7).
    LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Church members as a people are bound (together) by a common love for our Master, who is the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. We are a covenant people who have taken upon ourselves His holy name.”
    An LDS Church Apostle, Boyd K. Packer said, “Every prayer we offer is in His name. Every ordinance performed is in His name. Every baptism, confirmation, blessing, ordination, every sermon, every testimony is concluded with the invocation of His sacred name.”
    Therefore while the Mormon church may not be Christian, it is nevertheless christian.
    And fianlly, only God Himself can look upon a person’s heart and regardless of their religion know for sure if they are truly christian or not.

  • Mike

    The problem with defining the boundaries of Christianity is that it boils down to the individual. I don’t care what a church teaches, I care what the parishioners do with the information (i.e. FRUITS – “By thier FRUITS, ye shall know them…”). Give me answers to 3 questions on an individual and I will tell you if they are a christian at that moment:
    1. Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior?
    2. Do you have faith in Jesus Christ, as exhibited by your trying to live according to His teachings?
    3. When was the last time you helped someone in need?
    Most good Mormons, Catholics, Protestants pass this test with flying colors…and are Christians in my book.

  • http://patheos.com S G Buck

    To Don,
    Just because someone opposes an others actions does not mean they hate them. You may oppose Communism but that does not mean you hate all communist. Mormons object to gay life styles because we believe family life may be detrimentally affected by the life style. Mormons I know do not hate gays.
    Personally I would not waste my time hating anyone.
    When using the word hate, please think first.

  • Busre dangle

    Mormonism is certainly not part of orthodox Christianity since they reject basic parts of the Nicene creed, such as to the nature of God and Jesus. Then again, Jehovah’s witnesses also are not part do orthodox Christianity for similar reasons. Does that matter? Only if truth matters, which in today’s world is very little.

    Google these things and read for yourself

    • Peter Marlow

      So what is Christianity? Perhaps it can be summed up best in this one scripture: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) I believe in this same Jesus Christ, that He is the only begotten Son of the Father, that He was given to us by His Father as a sacrifice for our sins because the Father loves us, and that only by believing in Him do we have eternal life. So, why this need to try to define me, a Mormon, as anything other than a Christian? I know God loves me. He allows me to continually experience – to feel deep within my soul – the greatness of His love and a very real and joyful forgiveness of my sins through Jesus Christ.

      How can traditional Christianity be considered more Christian or biblical than Mormonism? In their Nicene Creed – created over 300 years after Christ, not a part of the Bible, but worshipped with equal fervor as the Bible such that those who do not accept it are hated as non-Christian heretics – in this creed, the true nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son is undone. In it, the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father. They are a “Trinity” of “one substance” – words not found in the Bible.

      This is where traditional Christianity (or what we should call, “Nicenianism”) fails. Instead of believing the true teaching of the Bible (and Book of Mormon) that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” they wrongly believe that He gave Himself as His Son. Therefore, they cannot understand the true nature of God’s love for His Son and for each of us, also His children. Instead of being so obsessed about categorizing Mormons, and going after the mote in our eye, they should first remove the beam from their own. Their inability to believe in the Son as the Son may actually disqualify them from everlasting life.

      What are the fruits of this failure of Nicenianism? The most pernicious fruit is their bigoted intolerance of those who believe differently, the desire to silence them, even by murder. Of course, Nicenianism became the prevailing religion! For well over a thousand years, anyone who dared oppose it was killed. It started in Europe with the burnings at the stake by the Catholics, then the Protestants. Such murders were common in this country, too, even through the early part of the 20th century, with Mormons and others still being killed for nothing more than their beliefs.

      That bigoted mentality is still evident today in their anger at the LDS Church, their desire to tear down Mormonism on the basis of nothing more than their flawed interpretations of the Bible and their flawed understanding of the teachings of the LDS Church (which they could easily rectify by consulting mormon.org instead of their wildly misleading sources of misinformation).

      The fruit of true Christianity is love and trust in God, peaceably allowing all to experience the freedom He gives each of us to believe according to the dictates of our own conscience, and to love all as a brother or sister, regardless of what they choose to believe. The true Christian accepts that he is imperfect, and that his understanding and interpretation of the Bible is also imperfect. Therefore, he esteems as his brothers in Christ all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, even if they interpret the Bible differently. He doesn’t want to kill anyone.

      If God had wanted the Bible to be narrowly interpreted, He would have written it in a way that would have made more than one interpretation impossible. He clearly wants each of us to also rely upon His Spirit for understanding. This is not something you can lazily ask someone else to do for you. If you love God, plead with Him for His guidance as you study the Bible. Let each be responsible to God for their own interpretations, whether they choose to humbly follow the direction of the Holy Ghost in applying the teachings of the Bible, or whether they seek to twist its words to justify themselves in their sins. By their fruits you will know them.

      I testify in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that I know by the unmistakable power of the Holy Ghost, as sure as I know of my own existence, that Jesus Christ is the Lord, our Savior and Redeemer, that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are both true, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the work of the Lord, His restoration of His original Christian church, restored by Him through a man He had called as a prophet, Joseph Smith, and led by Jesus Christ today through living prophets and apostles through whom He reveals His beautiful truths. Imagine that! How can any true Christian not want to be a part of this great work being done today by our resurrected Lord!

      Don’t believe because of my words. Likewise, don’t turn away because of the words, traditions, opinions, philosophies, creeds or flawed interpretations of another. Seek the word directly from God. If you humble yourself before Him, trust Him and present to Him a loving desire to follow Him and do His will, He will reveal His truth to you by His Spirit. And it will be wonderful and beautiful beyond what you can imagine!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X