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.

  • jerry lynch

    Did the original Church exclude Blacks? Hey, you fixed that chink, so no matter, Love, and forget about the rest.

    • Ava James

      No, the church never excluded blacks.

    • http://thesacredgrove-nathair.blogspot.com Sam Smith

      Some blacks (those of African descent) were not allowed to hold the priesthood or to participate in some rituals for a time. Blacks from the Pacific Islands were not under the same restriction.
      However, all blacks were welcomed into the same chapels as everyone else, a state of affairs that was quite uncommon in other Christian churches at that time and place.

  • Kevin Krisher

    The author is correct that there is no single definition of Christianity. There is, after all, no single definition of practically anything. Why would Christianity be different?

    Anyone may define Christianity however they wish. But in order for the term Christianity to be useful and meaningful, it must have SOME definition for anyone who wishes to talk about Christianity. Most Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox define Christianity as a set of beliefs that conforms to the Nicene Creed, which was specifically formulated as a set of miminal Christian beliefs. Since this definition has been in place for more than seventeen centuries, no one should be too shocked when its adherents hesitate to discard it because it causes offense to Mormons or anyone else.

    Looking at the question from a Mormon perspective, the LDS Church teaches that it is “the only true and living church on the face of the earth, and “that God personally informed Joseph Smith that those who profess the creeds of historical Christianity are “an abomination.” Also unlike most Protestants, Cahtolics, and Orthodox churches, who accept the validity of each other’s baptism, the LDS Church does not accept the validity of any baptism other than its own. Some might say that this is inconsistent with the desire of many Mormons to embrace others as brother and sister Christians.

    But there is really little at stake here other than hurt feelings. Traditional Christians are free to continue to assert that the Nicene Creed defines Christianity. Mormons are free to continue to assert that they are just as Christian as anyone else. Jehovah Witnesses are free to continue to assert that they are the only real Christians. Muslims are free to continue to assert that they believe in Jesus too, though not as a divine being. Some New Age, Hindu, or Buddhist believers are free to continue to assert that they believe in Jesus as an avatar, or an ascended master, or a boddhisatva.

    Everyone can draw the line wherever he or she wishes. In my view, this does not reduce our obligations to treat each other with the same dignity, respect, and love that we would offer to the members of our own individual faiths.

  • Thom M

    Pretty good article. As a Christian I agree with it.

  • Jon

    The original church excluded gentiles (non hebrew/jewish/circumsized individuals) until the Apostle Peter received the revelation to take the gospel to all the world.

    The LDS view, in my own personal opinion as a latter day saint, is that by the time the Nicene counsel was called together and voted on the tenets in the Nicene Creed (roughly 325 AD), the authority to receive revelation for the whole church (conferred on the twelve apostles by Jesus when he laid his hands on their heads as described in the New Testament) was already lost. Passing this authority on to other individuals was done in the same manner (ordained by laying on of hands) to Matthias (see acts 1). In the LDS view this succession did not happen because the persecution of the Christians and specifically the Apostles (1) kept them separated to a large extent, and (2) resulted in the Apostles’ martyrdom before such ordinations could take place. I would argue that the very existence of the Nicene Counsel suggests that lack of any apostolic authority as the Counsel was convened not by the leaders of the Church (ie not by any Apostles) but by the Roman Emperor Constantine. By 325 AD the church had already been devoid of the authroity to receive churchwide revelation through any apostles. Yes, historicallythere were lines of bishops (the counsel being comprised of such) but no apostles. Why were there no longer Apostles? No one was alive who could confer this specific authority. We have no record of Christ appearing to anyone (such as he did to Paul) either. Incidentally, we have no record of anyone who attended the Counsel of Nicea ever interacting with either God or Jesus Christ (no visions such as Steven’s view of God sitting on his throne). So to say that the Counsel can authoritatively define the characteristics of the Trinity is, with no personal witness or experience on their part, suspect at the very least. To rely on this counsel, traditional or Nicene Christianity is essentially saying “the characteristics of the Trinity are the way we say they are because we say they are so, and we voted on it along time ago”.

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    OK, so I’m a non-Christian, so I thought I might provide an alternate view on this issue. This issue is not going to go away any time soon, because Mormons in general try to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. In other words, they argue very enthusiastically for the centrality and privilege of Christianity in the USA, at the same time that they hold to a lot of unorthodox beliefs and rituals.

    Imagine a large group of people calling themselves Muslims, for example, who nonetheless:
    –have multiple holy books that no other Muslims have;
    –believe that individual worshippers can become as Allah, and that Allah was once an ordinary man;
    –have special rituals that retroactively claim many famous people, such as the early Imams and even non-Muslims like George Washington and Anne Frank, as members of their own special group;
    –teach that all other Muslims in the world have fallen into error and that their group are the only true Muslims, since they rediscovered the true faith of Muhammad;
    –teach that Muhammad was NOT the last prophet, rather that their groups’ leaders are true prophets who give holy guidance from Allah, just as Muhammad did.

    Now, if there was such a group somewhere in the Middle East, the other Muslims would consider them heretics. And you wouldn’t find many area experts proclaiming that this group were mainstream Muslims because they still believe in Allah and that Muhammad is a Prophet. No, they would say that these guys are distinctively different from almost all other Muslims in the world today.

    And so it is with the LDS church. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a distinct and unique faith, but Mormons seem to want to have it both ways, enjoying all the benefits of being in Christian mainstream while rejecting that mainstream in significant ways. Embrace your diversity, my brothers! There’s room enough in the world for all of us.

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

      There’s a difference between mainstream and traditional Christianity. In no way do I want to be identified as a “Traditional Christian” but mainstream….obviously we already are. We’re everywhere and we’re about 2% of the population and we’re the fourth largest denomination in America…. We’re also the one of the fastest growing religions in America. That’s mainstream.

  • Two of Six

    Have you ever noticed that certain products make claims about themselves that prove to be totally untrue? “Captain Crunch stays CRUNCHY in milk.” No it doesn’t. It goes mushy faster than any cereal you can find; tho I’ll frankly admit that I haven’t eaten such things in decades, so who knows, maybe they’ve changed. But I doubt it. Anytime I read a product claim, and I’ve only quoted one example, red flags fly up for me. Things that “are” or have a certain quality to them, usually don’t need to flaunt that: reputation or word of mouth does the trick. New movies that put out a lot of advertising are universally awful. Great movies put out very little advertising: word of mouth does it, and people go in droves.

    Alright, I have a confession to make: former Mormon missionary, and have since formally resigned from the church. I taught seminary and Sunday School for decades. I loved the the teachings of Mormonism and the Mormon Church. And I’ll still defend it when I see misinformation about it.

    The Mormons are Christians in that they acknowledge the historic Jesus and put very heavy stock in his atoning sacrifice. This is central. They just add a lotta other stuff into their recipe. But Jesus is one of the main ingredients. I say “one” because to be a Mormon you must accept a number of major ingredients and it’s difficult to quantify which one or ones are most important. But Jesus and the atonement are added first into the mix.

    The problem though, as I see it, is that though they say they worship God through Christ, I don’t think they really do. I know they think they do. I thought that I did, as a true believing Mormon. But I realized that the Mormons worship the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church is their god.

    • Robyn

      I don’t think we do a very good job when we try to read what is in other people’s hearts. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I can truthfully say that I do not worship the Mormon Church. Maybe I don’t understand what you mean, but I believe in trying to become more like Christ, and I believe this is only possible through his atonement. I believe the organization of the Church is here on the earth to help us in our efforts to become like Christ–to learn and grow, to give us opportunities to serve our neighbors, and most importantly to provide the ordinances we need to return to our Heavenly Father. If there were people who you came in contact with who truly worshiped the church, whatever that means, then this reflects their personal actions only. It doesn’t imply that the gospel was not restored through Joseph Smith. It implies that we are all human and don’t always do everything perfectly correctly. I hope you see the difference.

      • Two of Six

        While I’d agree with you that trying to read what’s in other people’s hearts can be very subjective, when you connect a lot of points and they all seem to be heading in the same direction, one can usually say with a fair amount of accuracy that “thus, is thus.” And it’s with that in mind that I continue to say that the god of Mormonism is the Mormon Church itself. While I know for a fact that most, if not all faithful believing Mormons don’t believe this, and that they universally worship the god of their spiritual heart, and believe that that god is GOD himself, when push comes to shove, it always comes down to what the Mormon Church says on a particular subject that colors and shades every aspect of a member’s beliefs. Yes, Mormons believe and worship the God of all creation. But that God is the total reflection of everything that church authorities say he is. He’s a god with many footnotes and caveats. You must observe this god thru the filtered lenses of the Mormon Church in order to be in good standing. There is NO discussion, NO dissent. There is NO opportunity to question or allow members to bat the issue around a little, so that they can come to their own decisions about the nature of God, or any other major doctrinal issue within the LDS church. It’s always amazes and impresses me, for instance, that among Jews, questioning everything is the standard by which they learn and by which they believe. Perhaps you’ve heard the comment: “where ever there are two Jews, you’ll find three opinions.” This incredibly heathy attitude and experience is the very thing that unites the Jews and what has kept them as a single – tho highly opinionated – people for thousands of years, with no pope, ruler, head, or president to keep them in line. Their love of “ideas” unites them, even when those ideas might take different directions. That just doesn’t exit within Mormonism. Those who have tried to do things like that, get put down, criticized, ignored, chastised, excommunicated, and shunned, often by their own loving families. Like Mr Santorum who recently said that conservatives will never have the “elite and the smart people” backing their cause, the Mormon church has said the same thing: Boyd K Packer said: “The dangers I speak of come from…the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” And the church continues to believe this and act like it is the truth, no? But then the church says that in order to be “saved” and exalted you must have a clear and proper view of certain doctrinal points, such as, for instance, the nature of God. That alone is SO obseurred that it boggles my mind: how can we finite ignorant beings have any kind of correct concept as to the nature of the GOD of all creation? We might enjoy a certain basic concept about this God we believe in, but to have the matter pronounced and defined as completely and unalterably as the Mormon Church wants its faithful to accept, is basically saying that we are all too ignorant to understand what God is like — which is true btw — so we’re going to define God in such simplistic terms as to defy anyone to get much past a 2nd grade understanding of him. If you really believe in the god that appears in the temple movie, then you really shouldn’t be driving on the highway.
        Now regarding the “church”: when Mormons say the word “church” they always write, and even think it, in terms of a capital letter “Church,” not “church.” It’s always THE Church. They believe that THE Church is THE kingdom of THE God on earth. All other churches are an “abomination” and are “wrong” and that all their “professors were all corrupt.” That’s in Mormon scripture and you just can’t get away from it. Your church is not corrupt or an abomination, and thus you do everything it tells you to. You worship it. If you didn’t worship it, there’s be more dissent in it, and more discussion about different issues. But there isn’t. Mormons worship their church. They do what they are told. I know you don’t like to think of it like that, but that’s what you do.

        • 2Cents

          @Two of Six , That sounds just like what Satan said in the war in Heaven said. I grew up in the Baptist church and the Assemly of God churches and they said the same thing that you do ,so tell me which Church is Truth and which church isn’t.Can’t we all just getalong. is this what God want or is it what SATAN want?

        • Michael

          Two of six,

          You make some interesting points in your post, but I would like to correct one particular thing that you said, if I may. I am a volunteer for MormonVoices.org. We try and educate the general public about issues relating to the ones that you have mentioned.

          You make the point that there is no room whatsoever for any discussion or disagreement of doctrine between regular Mormons and the LDS Church hierarchy view of doctrine. To use your own words, “There is NO discussion, NO dissent. There is NO opportunity to question or allow members to bat the issue around a little, so that they can come to their own decisions about the nature of God, or any other major doctrinal issue within the LDS church.” As a source for this statement, you gave the quote from President Boyd K. Packard. I can kind of see where your views have come from, if they came just from this quote. But I think that if we look at the full context of what President Packard was saying, and in light of official church doctrine, I think that we might be able to see more clearly what he was trying to say.

          The members of the LDS faith believe in revelation from God, and that that revelation guides the church and it’s doctrines. When President Packard made that statement, he was concerned that other social, academic, and political entities were taking the place of revelation in the minds of some members of the LDS Church. When I read the entire speech in its entirety, I didn’t leave with an impression that he was saying that scholarship, intellectuals and academics were intrinsically bad – his problem with them was that they cannot take the place of revelation from God.

          Here is another quote from President Packard which clarifies his meaning even further (regarding tolerance for members of the church who have different views then the orthodox) which he gave during an interview for the PBS show Frontline:

          “First, in the Church, we don’t criticize; we don’t discipline members for what they think. But if they teach things that are going to lead people astray and to unhappiness, then we sound the alert. We don’t discipline them for their attitudes or their tendencies.” In other words, people are free to think whatever they wish to think and even if they have views that are different from orthodox Mormon teachings, they are not disciplined. Everyone’s quest to find God takes them to slightly different paths, however, the LDS Church, like every other institution, has to draw the line when someone uses a church podium to teach doctrines that are not official LDS doctrine. That is where church discipline comes in, only when false doctrines are being openly taught.

          Imagine what would happen in a Christian church if the Pastor got to the podium and announced to the congregation that Christ didn’t really die for our sins. Since the role of Christ as the Savior of the World is central to Christianity, my guess is that that Pastor would not last very long on that podium. He would be removed by the hierarchy of the church or even by the parishioners. Persons who are members of institutions always have to play by the rules of that institution, or that institution will deal with that person in one way or another. That is just the way that institutions work; it must defend itself if it is to survive.

          There are many thousands of prominent Latter-day Saints who are scholars and intellectuals. You might be interested to learn more about them by visiting http://mormonscholarstestify.org/category/testimonies. These are individuals who are very respected in their fields and who are also practicing and devoted Latter-day Saints at the same time.

          One of the LDS scripture states: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;” (Doctrine and Covenants 109:7). Learning and scholarship are, in fact, very fundamental to the LDS faith.

          I enjoyed your post and hope that I have been able to shed some light on a few of these issues for you.

  • http://www.annajonesbuttimore.com Anna Buttimore

    Two of Six, you make an interesting point and one which does come up in my book. I’m a Mormon and I don’t worship the church, although I do love being a part of it. But I see that it can become synonymous with “the gospel” and “the saviour” at times if we’re not careful.

    Anyway, as I said, I’ve written a book which is a novelised version of these very issues. It’s currently free to download for Amazon Prime members, and free to borrow on KDP Select. http://www.amazon.com/The-Saved-Saint-ebook/dp/B009VIEW6A/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1351325632&sr=1-2


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