Who would have thought that one of the most hotly debated questions in the months leading to the 2012 US Presidential election would be: “Are Mormons Christian?"
Thanks to the leading roles of two Mormons in the Republican primary campaign, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., as well as the prominence of fellow Mormons and political adversaries Glenn Beck and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) have suddenly assumed a higher profile in the public consciousness than they have enjoyed, or rued, in many years. At the same time, the LDS Church has launched a web site called Mormon.org, and a media campaign in several large markets, in an effort to show non-members that Mormons are ordinary, yet special, people with unique and positive beliefs. There has even been a "Book of Mormon" Broadway play (hardly flattering to Mormons) that won nine Tony Awards in 2011, including "Best Musical." All this seems to have alarmed many doctrinally conservative "evangelicals," who tend to strenuously disagree with the peculiar tenets of Mormonism, and prompted some (such as Rick Perry supporter Rev. Robert Jeffress) to disparage that faith as a non-Christian "cult" and its members as people whom one should at least hesitate to support for public office.
This contest is hardly a new one. Since the founding of the LDS Church in 1830, Mormons have struggled against the fierce opposition of, and outright persecution by, people associated with "orthodox" Christian denominations, to the point of being lynched and forcibly driven from home to home across the east, the midwest, and finally across the plains and deserts to a region of relative safety in the far western United States. Even there they were harassed and subjected to military campaigns by the federal government, until they officially disavowed the practice of plural marriage in 1890.
In succeeding years, however, the friction eased as Mormons were gradually assimilated into mainstream American life and became widely known for their integrity, industry, and generosity. Outside Utah and a few other western states, however (and with a few exceptions, such as Mitt Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney and former federal Agriculture Secretary and Church President Ezra Taft Benson), they generally kept a low profile politically until their forthright stance on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion thrust them into the wider political struggle over these questions. Now, with two Mormons seeking the Presidency and social issues so heavily weighing in the national debate, popular attention to the Church, its teachings, and its role in public life is inevitable.
At other times and in a purely theological context, "Is Mormonism Christian?" or "Are Mormons Christian?" might be appropriate matters for discussion. Though perhaps inevitable given the heightened activism of Christian conservatives in American politics today, I submit that such questions are at best irrelevant to the matter of qualification for the Presidency, and at worst unfair to Mormons and counterproductive in the movement to restore respect for Christian values in American public life.
Those who seem to dimly view LDS candidates for President should remember that according to Article VI, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." That means that religious affiliation, or lack thereof, is not a legal condition to holding the Presidency or any other federal office. If the Framers thought this important enough to make clear in the language of America's most fundamental document, would it be right or patriotic to dismiss a candidate out of hand because of his or her religious affiliation? In 1960 Americans elected their first Roman Catholic President, who became one of our most admired and beloved, despite suggestions by some that he might take his orders from the Vatican. Voters having overcome such prejudices more than half a century ago, is it right that a Mormon candidate today must still endure endless questions about his church and its teachings, sometimes to the near-exclusion of his views on the economy, foreign policy, and other pressing public issues? Would Protestant critics of Mormonism give a Catholic candidate the same treatment just because his church might teach some doctrines at odds with their own? Would they even make a candidate's Jewish identity such an issue?
Aside from the political irrelevance of asking whether Mormons or Mormonism are "Christian," we should consider how the question is being asked, and what is gained and what lost by dwelling on it at this time. Before going further I should point out that I'm not a Mormon believer myself. I was raised Roman Catholic but embraced fundamental Protestant doctrines in early adulthood, and still consider myself an adherent of that tradition. However, I married a wonderful Mormon lady (who's still "mine," I'm proud to say) and two of my three children are active Mormons. I've lived rather happily "among" the Mormons for almost 35 years, and have had ample opportunity to study their history and teachings. Consequently, I think I have a valuable perspective to share as a non-believer who has nevertheless had unusually extensive and intimate familiarity with this people, their beliefs, and how they live their daily lives.
It is crucial that everyone understand what is meant by a question whether Mormons or Mormonism are "Christian." If the questioner's intent is to measure Mormonism's conformity with orthodox, fundamental Christian doctrine as historically received and generally accepted among the major Christian denominations of today, one would probably have to say that many official teachings of the LDS church, on such crucial matters as the nature of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the origin of the universe, the process of salvation, the authority of scripture, and the destiny of man, differ from--and in some ways even contradict--many of the central tenets of historical Christianity. [To explore these teachings and tenets in detail would go far beyond the limits of a single blog post; to learn about the basic teachings of the Mormon faith, go to Mormon.org; for learned Mormon responses to common criticisms of LDS teachings, go to FAIRmormon.org]. Of course, many Protestants would suggest that aspects of Roman Catholicism likewise deviate from their understanding of Christian orthodoxy and tradition, but there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of support for the idea that Catholics aren't Christians. Nevertheless, from a strictly doctrinal standpoint and in a very shorthand way, it might be fair for a non-Mormon to say that some LDS teachings are not "Christian."
But in common parlance, the word "Christian" connotes much more than just theological orthodoxy, particularly when referring to people rather than abstract principles. When a person is described as "a Christian," it is generally understood in our culture that that person is not only a believer in Christ but exemplifies essential Christian virtues, such as peacefulness, patience, generosity, and love for others. When it is said that a person is "not a Christian," it is widely understood as meaning that he or she is not a believer in or a true follower of Christ and is lacking in Christian virtues, or that he or she is a pagan or heathen, or is corrupt, wicked, and depraved. Thus, to say that "Mormons are not Christians" is to suggest that they are a blackhearted people indeed, unless it is made perfectly clear that the statement is limited to the matter of theological orthodoxy. From my long experience with them, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. I know of no church or denomination that has a more passionate love and appreciation of Christ, nor a firmer grasp of what it means to live like Him, than the Mormons. Their faith in God and their sense of ethics and morality are second to none in Christendom. They carefully provide for the future, materially and otherwise, but are generous nearly to a fault with non-members as well as with their own. I've never heard any of their members or leaders endorse something that was evil or hateful, or even profoundly unwise. No group of people has a firmer commitment to the family than the Mormons. If their tree was so rotten at the roots, wouldn't it be bearing evil fruit? How people approach God in their hearts, and how they treat their fellow man, is to me a more meaningful criterion of "Christianity" than the finer points of dogma. I suspect that will be the measure applied to each of us when we finally stand before the Lord Himself.
Not only is it inaccurate and unfair to portray Mormon people as "not Christian," outside a strictly theological context, it is grossly misleading, at least outside that context, to characterize today's LDS church as a "cult." If the modus operandi of a cult is to control its members through coercion and distortion of the truth, then the church has failed miserably, as differing opinion (for example, contrast the views of Mitt Romney or Orrin Hatch with those of Harry Reid) and frank, if privately expressed, criticism of other members and sometimes even church officials is probably as common as you'll find in any religious organization. And how many "brainwashed" people would you expect to find in the top echelons of business, science, and the arts, as so many Mormons are? While LDS members do believe that theirs is the only divinely commissioned church on the earth today, they don't teach that they have a complete monopoly on truth or virtue; just last week I listened to an address by the local stake president (roughly akin to a Catholic bishop)--who is also an ecumenical chaplain at one of the major secular universities in this area--and he spent most of his address emphasizing the need for greater charity toward and contact with Muslims, and looking forward to a scheduled visit with some other local church members to the Islamic Center down the street.
At a time when all sincere religious believers should be standing together to resist the relentless debasement of our culture by materialism and radical secularism, casual references to Mormons as "not Christian" or to Mormonism as a "cult" are as bad for their divisiveness as they are inaccurate and unfair to LDS members. Much can be accomplished through interfaith efforts like the Manhattan Declaration, a coalition of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox clergy, ministry leaders, scholars, and ordinary citizens devoted to restoring in our culture the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty. But if followers of Christ are shunning each other and refusing to cooperate just because their respective churches differ on points of doctrine, important as those matters may be, such efforts could be mortally weakened. As strong and forthright an agency for promoting Christian values as is the LDS Church should not be excluded from the common struggle, nor left to fight on its own. Prominent conservative Christian leader Chuck Colson recently wrote that in this struggle, even though "there are significant and un-reconciled doctrinal differences between Mormonism and Christianity, . . . there may be no other group of people I appreciate more as co-belligerents than the Mormons."
So, in the political sphere, we should judge Presidential candidates on the merits of their governmental philosophy and the policies they propose, not on the church they belong to. In the theological context, testing a church's teachings against a historical and accepted doctrinal standard is legitimate, although in public discussion, it would be better to say that Mormon doctrine differs from traditional Christian orthodoxy than to say baldly that it is not "Christian." And, in my humble opinion, it should never be said that Mormon people, individually or as a group, are "not Christian." For, in following Christ's example in everyday life, they seem to me to be at or near the forefront.