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!