In the 177 years since its founding, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown to become the fourth or fifth largest church in the United States. Yet poll after poll has shown that a sizable minority of Americans still acknowledges some discomfort about the “Mormon” faith, and many more who readily admit knowing little about its teachings.
Last week, the intensity of the national debate about Mormons reached a new high in this country, but I suspect the average American hasn’t been enlightened much about what Latter-day Saints believe and practice. In particular, the most commonly discussed question still being asked is whether “Mormons” are Christian, or whether their views are sufficiently unorthodox to warrant the pejorative term “cult.”
Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl, Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm and the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, offers three rules of engagement when trying to understand faiths other than your own. Space in this column allows reference to only the first: When trying to understand a religion, first ask its adherents.
The question, “Are Mormons Christian?” is a good starting point for this discussion. When some conservative Protestants say Mormons aren’t Christian, it is deeply offensive to Latter-day Saints. Yet when Latter-day Saints assert their Christianity, some of those same Christians bitterly resent it. Why? Because both sides are using the same terms to describe different things.
When someone says Mormons aren’t Christian – and I’m trying not to break Stendahl’s first rule here by interpreting conservative Christian thought incorrectly – he or she usually means that Mormons don’t embrace the traditional interpretation of the Bible that includes the Trinity. “Our Jesus” is somehow different from “their Jesus.” Further, they mean that some Mormon teachings are so far outside Christian orthodoxy of past centuries that they constitute almost a new religion.
The irony is that most Latter-day Saints wouldn’t argue with those statements. When a Mormon says he or she is Christian, they are not trying to minimize differences or fudge the issues. Mormons are well aware of the many deep doctrinal differences with other Christians. For instance, Mormons reject the Trinity as non-biblical, and believe the concept to be the product of the creeds that emerged from the 4th and 5th centuries. Further, while embracing the Bible (the King James version is preferred), they don’t interpret it the same way as some Protestants – for instance, that the earth was literally created in six days of 24 hours. Neither do they believe that the scriptural canon was closed with a period and an exclamation mark after the death of the apostles, but that God is perfectly able to talk to prophets today as He did in ancient times.
But for Mormons, these belief differences have nothing to do with whether or not they are Christian in the true meaning of the word. Mormons believe in the Jesus of the Bible, the same that was born at Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached His gospel in Galilee and Judea, healed the sick, raised the dead, and finally offered Himself as a sinless ransom for the sins of the world. They believe that Jesus Christ was literally resurrected, that He lives today, and that He is the only name under heaven by which mankind can be saved. This is the Jesus whose name is depicted on the front of every Mormon place of worship. This is the Jesus in whose name every Mormon prays and every sermon is preached. This is the Jesus whose body and blood are commemorated in weekly worship services by Latter-day Saints from Nigeria to New Zealand, from Michigan to Mongolia. For Latter-day Saints who try to live their lives as they believe Jesus taught, assertions that they aren’t Christian are as bewildering as they are wounding.
Mormons have no argument with assertions that they are not “creedal Christians,” or not “orthodox” Christians or “Trinitarian Christians.” Frankly, the whole point of Mormonism is that it is different. Just how different is best explained not by pastors of other faiths, or by secular journalists or by those whose self-interest lies in marginalizing a growing religion, but by Mormons themselves. For those interested in the basics of Mormon belief, two good starting points are:
In their 177 years of history, Mormons have felt the sting of persecution. Even today, extremists emerge occasionally who would seemingly wish to turn the clock back to the 19th century. But for the most part, Mormons are now seen simply as part of the religious mosaic that makes up the United States. Senator John Kennedy made a speech in 1960 that bears quoting at some length – and I’m not talking about the speech about his Catholicism that has been much quoted of late. Less than two weeks after delivering the famous address in Houston, Kennedy spoke from the pulpit of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
“Tonight I speak for all Americans,” he said, “in expressing our gratitude to the Mormon people – for their pioneer spirit, their devotion to culture and learning, their example of industry and self-reliance. But I am particularly in their debt tonight for their battle to make religious liberty a living reality – for having proven to the world that people of different faiths of different views could flourish harmoniously in our midst…”
Kennedy added: “They suffered persecution and exile, at the hands of Americans whose own ancestors, ironically enough, had fled here to escape the curse of intolerance. But they never faltered in their devotion to the principle of religious liberty – not for themselves alone, but for all mankind. And in the 11th article of faith, Prophet Joseph Smith not only declared in ringing tones: ‘We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience” – he also set forth the belief that all men should be allowed “the same privilege. Let them worship how, where, or what they may.’
“And what has been true of the Mormons has been true of countless other religious faiths – Jews, Quakers, Catholics, Baptists, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many, many others. All encountered resistance and oppression. All stuck by both their rights and their country. And in time the fruits of liberty were theirs to share as well; and the very diversity of their beliefs enriched our Nation’s spiritual strength… Many a great nation has been torn by religious feuds and holy wars – but never the United States of America. For here diversity has led to unity – liberty has led to strength. And today that strength – that spiritual, moral strength – is needed as never before.”
“On Faith” panelist Michael Otterson has served as director of media relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1997.