Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Romney’s Religion – Cult, Christian, or something else?

The question of the role of religion in one’s politics continues to make itself felt.  The days are gone that our national leaders come from a small circle of Mainline (Old-line) Protestant churches.  If nothing else serves as a reminder of this note that the Supreme Court includes six Catholics and three Jews – no Episcopalians or Presbyterians anywhere in the mix.  

Although our vision has broadened out, there are traditions that still raise questions in the minds of some.   Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are always “suspect” in the minds of some Americans, but interestingly enough Mormonism also fits into this mix.  According to a report in Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace, only Islam outranks Mormonism in the disdain of the American populace.  So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that some 20% of Americans say they won’t vote for a Mormon, including the front-running Mitt Romney.  Over the weekend, a Southern Baptist Pastor and noted backer of candidate Rick Perry (he introduced Perry at the “Values” event), made it clear that Perry is a real Christian, that though Romney is a moral person, he’s part of a cult.  Thus, Mormonism is back in the conversation, especially among the more conservative evangelical elements of the Republican Party.

The question raised by this issue concerns the relationship of one’s faith commitments to one’s politics.  There are those who say that one’s religion is private and shouldn’t matter.  That was the argument of John Kennedy.  But, can we really separate our faith from the rest of our lives, including our politics?  Of course, our politics can influence our religious convictions as well!  

One area where religion has made itself felt in recent years is the response of many Republicans to science.  It’s pretty hard to get elected as a Republican and embrace evolution, which is probably one reason Jon Huntsman can’t get any traction.  More common is the view of Rick Perry that evolution is just one of many scientific theories about origins – and it has lots of holes.  With views of science like this it shouldn’t be surprising that Republicans by and large reject the scientific consensus on climate change.

But, back to this question of whether Mormonism is a cult.  Rick Perry may not accept this appellation offered by his SBC pastor friend, but this is a very common view among his evangelical supporters.   As I remember from my conservative evangelical days, when I was an avid devotee of Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults, this was the consensus of my fellow evangelicals, and thus we didn’t have a very positive view of Mormonism.  

The raging question concerns whether Mormons are Christians?  What do you think?

In reality this isn’t an easily answered question.  Any answer needs to recognize the complexity of Mormon theology and practice.  In fact, as Jana Riess points out in a Christian Century article, Mormon doctrine continues to evolve, drawing closer to evangelicalism in some ways, but remaining separate in others.  It has left behind some beliefs and practices and emphasized others that were once marginal.    

So, who are these Mormons and are they Christians?   In answering we might start with their official name:   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Mormons affirm Jesus as Savior.  They’re baptized into Christ, by immersion.  They affirm the authority of Scripture, but add to it other sacred books, including the Book of Mormon that claims to be another gospel delivered to the peoples of America (Jesus’ other sheep).   They also have a Prophet who offers continuing revelation, and this fact allows the church to change and adapt to the times.  Thus, Mormons no longer practice polygamy, which was a prominent practice in the movements earliest days.  There are marginal groups that seek to maintain the practice, but it’s not allowed by mainstream Mormonism.   Their understanding of God is interesting (and apparently evolving).  Their understanding of the Trinity, for instance stands far distant from traditional Christianity – believing that  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate beings, having bodily existence separate from each other.    

Recognizing that Christianity is by no means uniform it’s difficult to either include or exclude them from the Christian family.  However, Jan Shipps, one of the leading experts on Mormonism, suggests that there are enough differences between Mormonism and the rest of Christianity that it might be best to consider them a separate religion with roots in traditional Christianity. 

What marks the Mormon faith is its commitment to a Restorationist perspective.  There is a desire to restore or create the pure church, one that is true to its origins.  In this they’re not that different from other restorationist traditions, including my own.   Mormonism was not an attempt to restore the New Testament Church; in this they differed markedly from the Disciples.  Yet, like the Disciples Joseph Smith represents a reaction to American denominationalism.  Like the Disciples the Mormon movement was an attempt to restore a pure primitive Christianity, but the form of that Christianity was very different.  A seeker after the true church, Smith was disturbed by the pluralism of his day.   He wrote in his History of the Church:

  "So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.  .  . .    In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinion, I often said to myself, what is to be done?  Who of all these parties are right; or are they all wrong together?"  (Quoted in Hughes and Allen, Illusions of Innocence, p. 136) 

Smith concluded that based on the great variety of religious options, the true church must have disappeared.

Smith's claims to prophethood and the production of a new bible proved attractive to seekers such as the former Campbellite, Parley Pratt.  Converted by Sidney Rigdon in 1829, Pratt found himself dissatisfied with the authorization of this restored religion.  Campbell and Rigdon seemed to lack the authority to do this work, but Pratt found the necessary authorization in the Book of Mormon and Smith's claims to prophethood.  In Mormonism, Pratt and then Rigdon, found the contemporary restoration of apostolic ministry.  In addition, the Mormon faith of Smith was anti-pluralist.  You either were in the true church, that of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith or part of the great apostate church.  This sense of certainty appealed not only to the founder, but also to his followers.  

Richard Bushman has distinguished between Campbell's desire to restore primitive Christianity and Smith's desire to restore all things.  He notes that Alexander Campbell’s father Thomas  objected to Mormonism because Smith went beyond restoring New Testament teachings to restoring the New Testament methods.  That is, in Smith's plan one not only followed the apostles and prophets, but one could become a prophet or an apostle.  The Campbells recognized a sense of distance between themselves and the world of the Bible, whereas Smith collapsed them.  Bushman writes:

"Mormons claimed to have the apostolic authority and confidently bestowed the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands.  The ethos of Mormonism was epitomized in the enlargement of the Campbellite word `restoration' into the phrase `the restoration of all things'."  (Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, p. 183). 

Jan Shipps has noted that for Mormonism, the true church disappeared when the direct channels of communication between God and humanity ceased at the end of the apostolic age.  Restoration, on the other hand, occurred when these channels were restored.  For the channels to be restored there needed to be a prophet, and Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, along with his successors, was that prophet. 
Once Mormons recognized the prophet's authority, then he and his successors could develop the distinctive Mormon faith.  Campbell and Stone limited themselves to the text of the New Testament to answer their questions.  Smith and Brigham Young, on the other hand, could point to the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and their own continuing revelations published as the Doctrines and Covenants.  Not only that, Smith  prepared his own edition of the Bible.  Not only did  he add annotations and correct textual errors, but through an appeal to further divine revelation, he filled the gaps he believed were in the record.  Thus, Jan Shipps is convinced that Mormonism is not simply a heterodox form of Christianity, but in reality it is a totally new religion born on the American frontier.

So, is Mormonism a cult?  The term is so infused with negative connotations that it is rather useless.  Is it Christian?  In terms of traditional orthodoxy, probably not, but in terms of their own self-understanding perhaps one should be willing to extend the borders.  Indeed, as the church’s theology has evolved, it has drawn closer to more traditional understandings.  This already has happened with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ.  Or, is Shipps correct in suggesting that it is simply a new religion, rooted in Christianity, but taking Christian views in a new direction, abetted by continuing revelation?  

Back to Mitt Romney, does his adherence to this religion, whatever its nature, by itself disqualify him from serving in the nation’s highest office?   Before you answer, remember that Mormon politics aren’t uniform, for not only are Romney and Huntsman Mormon, but so is Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid! 

Being that I’m not a member of the Republican Party it’s likely I’ll not be voting for Romney or Huntsman, but that’s not because they’re Mormons.  In fact, although I find much LDS doctrine  less than appealing, I have great respect for many LDS practices.   I’ll also note that in life I’ve had a number of LDS friends, and I’ve always found them to be loyal and honest and supportive people, people I’ve been proud  to call friends!   Religion has important implications that need to be taken into consideration, but religion by itself is no disqualification – for we all practice our faith in  nuanced ways!


Brian said...

I don't believe we should attempt to determine whether someone/group is 'xian' or not. Rather, let them identify themselves and work with them based on that. (Of course, I am a chaplain.)

A) Does the Risen Christ care if someone/group is 'xian'?

B) What is a "real" xian?
- Many would say that most Disciples seminary professors (and myself) are not xian because we are not orthodox.
- Many liberals say those who support war are not real xians (Craig M Watts)
- Some Pentecostals claim that trinitarians are not real xians.

I don't find it to be a helpful question. (Bob, this is not criticism of you. You're just bringing the discussion into focus.)

Mormanism and Shakerism were two of the Stone-Campbell movement's biggest competitors. (Stone was pissed!) In fact, I believe most historians consider us to be in the same movement under the label of the "restoration movement".

Personally, I suspect the founders of Mormanism were either con artists or had mental illness. Yet, that can be said for other religions as well. Today, however, they are our sisters and brothers.

Instead of whether or not somebody is xian, maybe we could focus on how their policies line up with the teachings of Jesus as found in the bible.

Gary said...

Mormanism is a perversion of Christianity. It is heresy. But it isn't the only one, there are many others.

If Romney is elected, he will join the list of presidents who professed to be Christians, but were not. That list includes Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and obama. Having a fake Christian as POTUS is nothing new.

Brian said...

Gary - By your understanding, has the US ever had a real Christian as POTUS?

John said...

What is heresy? Is it anything more that me saying that your disagreement with my beliefs is threatening to me and to those who agree with me? Saying that your alleged relationship with God threatens my genuine relationship with God?

John said...

I am often torn between affirming the faithfulness of others and challenging those aspects of their faith life which I feel contradict mine. I am embarrassed when I find myself in error, so if we directly contradict each other I feel compelled to work through the contradiction to find the better solution for me. If we continue to disagree,then so long as your faith doesn't pose an existential theta to me I pray for wisdom for both of us, and that the grace of God will continue to guide each of us on our way.

Gary and I are a good example of this. So I pray that both of us will continue to be guided by the gracious will of God to live and work honestly and lovingly as God's ambassadors in the world, he with his concern for God's wrath and me living out God's call for compassion.

In the end God does not need help from either of us, so in truth we are both trying to do the best we can to live out the good news of Christ as we have heard it.

Doesn't mean there won't be friction. That's just being human.

Glenn said...

Haven't commented here for a while, but I still check out the blog on a regular basis because I always find Bob's postings very thought provoking. However, I do like to play a game with this blog that I call "What Would Gary Say? Here's how you play. Read the title of the article without reading the article itself (it's not cheating to read the article, but it's more challenging not to). Ask yourself, "What would Gary say? Choose your answer from one of 4 main categories 1. Nothing. 2. Gays are bad. 3. You are not a Christian 4. They are not a Christian. Then go to the comments and see if you were right. I don't want to brag, but I've been playing this for a while now and have gotten pretty good.

Gary said...


I don't know enough about some of the presidents before FDR to have an opinion on that. But, I would say that, beginning with FDR, we have not had a president who is a real Christian. Based on what they have said, and what they have done, both personally and in office.

Gary said...


It might interest you to know that I never play "What would Glenn say?"

roy said...

Hey Bob,

I have to agree with Shipps... Mormonism is not Chritianity, at least in any sense that I recognize.

But that is not the real question here. That is whether or not one can vote for a Mormon. If Romney holds his faith the same way Kennedy claimed to "as a private matter," then indeed, it may be ignored. If Romney holds his faith as a more central part of himself, then we must look at it and understand the implications it would have for the way he would live out a presidency. If I were running for office, I would hope any potential voters would look at my understanding of what it means to be a Christian (and a liberal Baptist at that) as a window into how I see life and how I understand politics. It would not only be fair game, it would be necessary.

I am left with two concerns. I don't know enough regarding how seriously Romney takes his faith and I don't know enough about Mormonism to make an informed guess as to how a serious Mormon's faith might influence his or her politics. I have hints... and they are mixed for me (as I would expect with generalisms about just about any religious group). The good piece is that I'm about as likely to vote for a Republican as a true socialist is to get the Democratic nomination... so the questions are moot.

Glenn said...


I knew you'd say that. That's 10 points for me!

John said...

Here is a question, is Mormonism more or less Christian than Islam?

Are the tenets of whichever faith such as may be held by the candidate compatible with core American political, social and moral values. If they are different, are they sufficiently at odds that we could not accept candidate as our leader.

David said...

The oldest and newest religions are so... comic bookish.

Rocky2 said...

(Check this out, Bob. Discovered it on the web.)

The Living River of History

by Bruce Rockwell

Can you name a meandering river which can affect the 2012 US Presidential election? I can. And are you aware, as I am, that a Presidential candidate can be influenced by a 19th century teenager's occultic "revelations"?
All humans are affected by the Living River of History. The "headwaters" of it was Adam, according to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and some other faiths.
In the Old Testament (Deut. 28) we find that "tributaries" (those who choose to be part of this River) will be blessed while "distributaries" (those choosing to flow away from it) will be cursed. Those deciding to be totally disconnected from the fresh Living River soon find themselves in polluted, dying "oxbow lakes."
The OT period was notable for its fluidity: Israelites repeatedly flowing away from God and then repenting and returning back to Him numerous times; heathen "oxbow lakes" creating their own "gods" and being allowed by the true God to take into captivity the erring Israelites.
Then, at the right moment, came the arrival of the only One who could fulfill all of the OT's detailed predictions of a future Messiah, His arrival happening before the 70 AD destruction of the Jewish temple which contained records proving that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham - records that would be unavailable to anyone after 70 AD who might falsely claim to be the long awaited Promised One. The same timely arrival guaranteed that the Living River, led by the One who offers "living water," would take on new life.
Since the emergence in the 7th century of Islam - which drew greatly from both OT and NT, yet chose to be a distributary away from the River - many scholars have viewed it as the final "scourge" or Antichrist (note references like "Assyrian," Euphrates," "land of Nimrod" in Daniel, Micah, Revelation etc.).
The end-time Islamic "scourge" will be allowed by God to temporarily persecute and purify Jews and Christians who have "fallen away" from their faiths. (Jews, especially those in entertainment, are more expert in apostasy than Christians since they've been at it 2000 years longer than Christians have - but Christians seem to want to catch up to the Jews!)
I should add that Islam won't play its predicted role all alone; it has more than enough oil money to "buy" leaders of foreign countries while at the same time bribing disloyal American leaders to turn against true American patriots.
Re the occultic "revelations" by a 19th century teenager (above) - who heavily "appropriated" many King James Bible verses in order to create one of the most delusive distributaries of all time - see the internet which has tons of data on this religious innovation of 1830.
Finally, if you ignore the God-ordained Living River of History or (much worse) try to destroy or even dilute it, you will be swept down it to an ocean made by your own never-ending tears of agony and despair!