Because of a certain person who shall go nameless — let’s call him M. Romney or Mitt R. — the question of Mormon differences from historical Christianity has been very much in the air. Not too long ago, for instance, we published an article (part of a broader discussion on the topic) in which Warren Cole Smith explained why he, as an evangelical, could not vote for a Mormon. This became a very controversial piece, eliciting no fewer than three responses in the Washington Post. I have staked out the opposite position: as an evangelical, I’m very comfortable voting for a Mormon. But Warren and I agree on a more fundamentally theologically question: we both believe there are clear and important theological differences between Mormonism and historical Christianity. Those differences worry Warren when he assesses a presidential candidate, while I don’t believe those differences would lead a Mormon to make different policy decisions than a Christian.
Now, along comes a study that purports to show that Americans in general are more Mormon in their theology than they might be prepared to admit. The study comes from Gary Lawrence, a Ph.D. from Stanford (which earns him plaudits in my book, being a Stanford man myself) and a Latter-Day Saint.
You can read about it in this piece from the Deseret News’ excellent religion reporter, Michael DeGroote. As you’ll discover if you read the article, DeGroote asked for my perspective on a couple questions in the study — and I’ll flesh it out in detail here. The two questions under discussion are these:
QUESTION A: Half of those polled were asked: Do you believe that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are:
- “three separate beings” — 27%
- “three Beings in one body or substance” — 66%
QUESTION B: The other half were asked: The New Testament says that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one. Do you believe that means they are:
- “one in purpose” — 58%
- “one in body” — 31%
When Michael read the questions aloud to me, I started chuckling before he had finished. Do you see the slipperiness in the questions? From the article:
Lawrence said that Mormons say the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament is an oneness of purpose. The positive response of Christians to this concept in the second question surprised Lawrence. “I was wondering if there was a difference. I wasn’t expecting a flip-flop. But it was. It just shifts from two-to-one one way and almost two-to-one the other way,” Lawrence said.
In other words, the first question gets more or less the results you would expect. Traditional Christians know they cannot say that God is “three separate beings” (the Mormon view, roughly speaking) so they choose the other option: God is “three beings in one body or substance.” When they do not choose to say that the Triune God is “one in body” in the next question (only 31% say that), then Dr. Lawrence calls this a “flip-flop.” When you focus on the differentiation in the Trinity, he says, Christians by and large do not accept the Mormon view. When you focus on the manner of their unity, however, orthodox Christians show that they really agree with Mormonism. But is this really a flip-flop?
Of course not — and anyone should be able to see why. The first question asks whether the Triune God is “three Beings in one body or substance,” whereas the second question just says “one in body” (i.e., no “substance” option is given here).
QUESTION A puts together two very, very different options into a single answer. As shown by the low percentage who answer “one in body” in Question B, Christians know they should not say that the Triune God is “one in body” (because God is immaterial). But they also know they cannot say that God is three separate beings. So they say “one in body or substance,” but they really mean “one in substance.” The orthodox language is that God is three Persons (hypostases – “Beings” here is not good language) in one substance (ousia). But this is like asking: “Do you believe that Jesus is (1) a vegetable, or (2) a devil or the Son of God?” You would have to choose B, right? But that hardly implies you believe that Jesus is the devil.
QUESTION B then reduces the options in order to get an opposite result. If I went on to ask, “Do you believe Jesus is the devil?”, then I could not accuse people who answered in the negative of flip-flopping, because I really wasn’t asking equivalent questions. But Question B is deceptive in another way. My understanding is that the people polled were encouraged to answer one of the two options (although some apparently wriggled out). Now, given a choice between “one in body” and “one in purpose,” I too would have to choose “one in purpose” because “one in body” is repugnant to historical theology. So, yes, it’s true enough that they are united in purpose, but I also believe they are united in other ways that are profoundly important (such as being one in substance). This is one way in which these kinds of “which one is closer” questions can be misleading.
Lawrence, however, defended his wording of the questions, “The average American is not a trained theologian in any denomination. And so you have to phrase the question to capture the variable you want in words that the respondent can readily relate to and understand.”…To Lawrence, the difference in wording between “one in body” and “one in substance” is “theological minutia” and wouldn’t have made a difference.
But this is absurd. First, the problem is not one of theological wording. It’s a logical problem. You cannot claim that “X is A or B” conflicts with “X is not B.” There is simply no justification for altering the wording in the two questions and then being surprised when you receive different results. Also, neither Mormons nor orthodox Christians will agree that it’s a trivial matter whether the Triune God is one “in substance” or one “in body.” These are very different things! The possession of bodies is precisely one of the distinguishing factors between Mormon and traditional Christian conceptions of God. No orthodox Christian who knows the slightest bit of theology — and, granted, many don’t — will refer to the three Persons as united “in body,” whereas every Christian who genuinely knows her theology will affirm that they are united in substance.
I’m all for improving relationships between Mormons and evangelicals. Many evangelicals have a crude and unfair understanding of Mormon beliefs and practices. I’m also all for encouraging evangelicals to understand that they can vote for a Mormon in good conscience. But there are two principles to bear in mind:
First, we do not improve understanding between two communities by blurring the differences between them. We cannot articulate the reasons why we believe the things we believe, and we cannot properly understand why another community believes what it believes, until we know exactly the differences between us. When we blur the distinctions between two religious groups, we alienate the true believers in those groups (who will see that we’re watering down their beliefs), we create the conditions for explosive misunderstandings later, and — most importantly — we do an injustice to the traditions we represent.
Second, differences of belief between Mormons and evangelicals can be important theologically and even soteriologically (in regards to salvation) without being important politically. Your personal view on whether the Triune God is “one in substance” or “one in purpose” will not shape your view on the New START Treaty, and it will not shape the way in which you’re likely to respond to an economic crisis. Some fundamental theological questions — questions like the existence of a God, or the sanctity of life, or the importance of family — will clearly have policy consequences and predictive value for a politician’s behavior, but those happen to be the areas where Mormons and evangelicals are substantially united. When it comes to the finer theological distinctions, important though they are, the best guide to what a politician will do or promote in office is what the politician has actually done and promoted in office before.