Is Mormonism Christian? A Respected Advocate for Interreligious Cooperation Responds

Is Mormonism Christian? A Respected Advocate for Interreligious Cooperation Responds

Copyright © 2000 Richard John Neuhaus. All rights reserved. Used with permission..

That is not the only interesting question, but it is probably the most important. Most non-Mormons have little occasion to think about Mormonism, and those who do tend toward distinctly negative thoughts. Although there is this curious thing of recent years that many conservative Christians warmly welcome Mormons as allies in various cultural tasks. To cite but one recent instance, it was an alliance of Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons that was instrumental in persuading the people of Hawaii to reject same-sex marriage. Yet a few issues ago we published an article by a Mormon doctor presenting the case for Natural Family Planning and received blistering letters of protest. We thought that the fact that the argument was not being advanced by a Catholic might make it more persuasive to some. But at least some readers did not see it that way. Didn’t we know that Mormons are the enemies of Christ and his Church? Such views are stronger in the Northwest and, increasingly, in the Southwest where the Mormon presence is a force to be reckoned with.
 

"For missionary and public relations purposes, the LDS may present Mormonism as an 'add-on,' a kind of Christianity-plus, but that is not the official narrative and doctrine."


Ours is an interreligious enterprise, basically but not exclusively Jewish and Christian. Dr. Bruce Hafen is on our Editorial Advisory Board. He has held prominent positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), including that of provost and dean of the law school at Brigham Young University. I can’t say that many of my friends are Mormons, but some are. We are obliged to respect human dignity across the board, and to affirm common discernments of the truth wherever we find them. Where we disagree we should try to put the best possible construction on the position of the other, while never trimming the truth. That will become more important as Mormons become more of a presence, both in this country and the world. There are about ten million of them now, with about one-half of the membership in the U.S. Sociologist Rodney Stark — a non-Mormon with strong personal connections to the LDS — predicts that, on the basis of present growth patterns, there will be more than 265 million Mormons by the end of this century, making it the most important new religion in world history since Islam. For reasons I will come to, I think that is improbable. Put differently, if that happens, Mormonism will be something dramatically different from what it has been over the last century and a half.

Some while back we were sent for review the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s a big five-volume set, written largely by professors at Brigham Young; we weren’t sure what to do with it, but I’ve been reading in it with great benefit. Then comes a big new book by Richard N. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, published by HarperSanFrancisco (454 pp., $26). It is a remarkable piece of work and likely to be the best general introduction to Mormonism for years to come. The Ostlings are evangelical Protestants. Dick was for many years religion editor at Time and now covers religion for the Associated Press. I have had frequent occasion to say that he is one of the two or three best religion reporters in the country. Joan is a freelance writer with a background in the practice and teaching of journalism. What they have achieved with this assiduously researched and very readable book puts us all in their debt. Apparently the powers that be in Salt Lake City are ambivalent about the book, but it is probably as thorough and fair a treatment of the LDS by outsiders as they are likely to get.

Much to Admire

The Ostlings find much to admire. Mormonism gives a whole new meaning to being "pro-family." In Mormon belief, families are, quite literally, forever. Proxies are baptized on behalf of the dead, and families and relatives hope to go on living together and procreating in a celestial eternity. All children are baptized at age eight, and at twelve boys (no girls allowed) take their place of responsibility and status by entering the first level of the priesthood — the priesthood, according to Joseph Smith, having been restored by John the Baptist in upstate New York in 1829. While bar mitzvah among Jews and confirmation among Christians too often means that young people graduate from their religious responsibilities, Mormon youth at that point in life graduate into intense and clearly defined responsibilities within the community. Also widely and justly admired is the LDS welfare system, whereby the community takes care of its own when they get into economic or other difficulty. At present, in a time of economic prosperity, only about 5 percent require help from the welfare system. (A figure, interestingly, about parallel with Edward Banfield’s famous claim about the percentage of people in any society who will never be able to make it on their own.)

There is no denying that the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine has a payoff. Mormons live; on average, eight to eleven years longer than other Americans, and death rates from cancer and cardiovascular diseases are about half those of the general population. Of course, it is fair to note, they do die of other things, and one may do one’s own calculation about the risk worth taking for a scotch before dinner and a cigar afterward, never mind one’s morning coffee. (The most recent Harvard longitudinal study found that the strongest positive correlation between health and habits is the daily consumption of about three ounces of wine or liquor. Go figure.) In addition, a strong emphasis on chastity sharply reduces sexually transmitted diseases, while a tightly knit and supportive community makes homicide and suicide rare. Put it all together, and one concludes that Mormonism is good for your physical health. Whether it is good for your spiritual health is a disputed question. (It should also be noted that medical data on the strongly committed in other religious communities are comparable to the Mormon findings.)

There are other things to admire. Brigham Young University, for instance, where, because of church subsidies, young Mormons get the entire package (tuition, room, board, etc.) for less than $10,000 a year. The ticket is slightly more for non-Mormons, but there are very few takers. There is also the Church Educational System, which involves hundreds of thousands in continuing education programs here and around the world. Nor can the most severe critics deny the energy, enthusiasm, and organization of the LDS in its missionary zeal, and in its dramatic presentation of its colorful history, whether through the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or annual pageants reenacting the key episodes of its sacred stories. In a world that seems to be largely adrift, it is no little thing to be part of an organized crusade in which you and those who are closest to you view your life as crucial to the unfolding of the cosmic drama.

Restoring the Church

The LDS is, among other things, a very big business tightly controlled from the top down. If one believes that the entire enterprise is based on revelation that is authoritatively interpreted by divinely appointed officers, it makes sense that control should be from the top down. The LDS claims that God chose Joseph Smith to reestablish the Church of Jesus Christ after it had disappeared some 1,700 years earlier following the death of the first apostles. To complicate the picture somewhat, God’s biblical work was extended to the Americas somewhere around 2000 B.C. and continued here until A.D. 421. This is according to the Book of Mormon, the scriptures given to Joseph Smith on golden tablets by the Angel Moroni. American Indians are called Lamanites and are part of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Jesus came to preach to these Indians and for a long time there was a flourishing church here until it fell into apostasy, only to be restored, as the golden tablets foretold, by Joseph Smith. In addition to giving new scriptures, God commissioned Smith to revise the Bible, the text of which had been corrupted over the centuries by Jews and Christians.

Today’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is, allegedly, in direct succession to Smith, and the First Presidency claims powers that would have made St. Peter, never mind most of his successors, blush. The top leadership is composed, with few exceptions, of men experienced in business and with no formal training in theology or related disciplines. The President (who is also a prophet, seer, and revelator) is the oldest apostle, which means he is sometimes very old indeed and far beyond his prime. Decisions are made in the tightest secrecy, inevitably giving rise to suspicions and conspiracy theories among outsiders and a substantial number of members. Revenues from tithes, investments, and Mormon enterprises have built what the Ostlings say "might be the most efficient churchly money machine on earth." They back up with carefully detailed research their "conservative" estimate that LDS assets are in the range of $25-30 billion.

Protecting the Stories

But, of course, the most important control is over the sacred stories, and attendant truth claims, upon which the entire enterprise rests. Of the telling of history, Orwell wrote, "He who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past." The Ostlings devote a great deal of attention to "dissenters and exiles" who have tried to tell the sacred stories honestly, and in a manner that might bring them into conversation with other stories of the world. Some may think the Ostlings devote too much attention to these "troublemakers," but I think not. In my limited experience with, for instance, people associated with the publication Sunstone, these are devout Mormons who are seized by the correct intuition that truth that must be protected within the circle of true believers, that cannot intelligently engage critical examination by outsiders, is in some fundamental sense doubtfully true. Some of the "dissenters and exiles" may be dismissable as troublemakers — a species all too familiar in other religious communities as well. I expect, however, that what most of these people are trying to do is much more important to the possible futures of the LDS than all the billions in assets, massive building programs, and ambitiously organized missionary campaigns combined.

To give a credible account of the sacred stories and truth claims is no easy task. Not to put too fine a point on it, the founding stories and doctrines of Mormonism appear to the outsider as a bizarre phantasmagoria of fevered religious imagination not untouched by perverse genius. Germinated in the "burnt-over district" of upstate New York in the early nineteenth century, where new religions and spiritualities produced a veritable rainforest of novel revelations, the claims of Joseph Smith represent a particularly startling twist of the kaleidoscope of religious possibilities. In 1831, Alexander Campbell, cofounder of the Disciples of Christ, said that Smith pasted together "every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years." Much of the teaching reflects the liberal Protestantism of the time, even the Transcendental and Gnostic fevers that were in the air: e.g., a God in process of becoming, progressive revelation, the denial of original sin, and an unbridled optimism about the perfectibility of man. Mix that in with the discovery of golden tablets written in a mysterious language, the bodily appearance of God the Father and Son, angelic apparitions, and a liberal dose of Masonic ritual and jargon, and the result is, quite simply, fantastic. The question, of course, is whether it is true.

In what sense true? It is true in the sense that it is meaningful for those who believe it uncritically, and even for more critical souls who embrace the community whose fabulous founding, they contend, points to higher truths. In the conventional version controlled by LDS authorities, it is true if you believe it is true. Thus is the back door shut against potentially subversive reason. One possible response is to say that all religion is finally based on faith and is incapable of rational demonstration. Did not St. Paul say that the gospel of Christ is "foolishness" according to the wisdom of the world? Of course he did. But every part of the traditional Christian story has been and is subjected to critical examination, by believers and nonbelievers alike — and that examination, with its attending disagreements, will go on to the end of time. Over two thousand years, from Origen and Augustine through Anselm, Aquinas, Newman, Barth, and Balthasar, the truth claims of Christianity have engaged, with utmost intensity and sophistication, alternative and opposing construals of reality. In short, there is a very long Christian intellectual tradition. There is not, or at least not until very recently, such a Mormon tradition. And those who are interested in encouraging such inquiry typically find themselves in the company of "dissenters and exiles." Keep in mind, however, that Mormonism is not yet two centuries old. A youngish Mormon intellectual today is in relation of time to Joseph Smith roughly comparable to Origen in relation to the apostles.

But his task is ever so much more difficult than that of Irenaeus, Origen, and the many other early Christian thinkers. There is, for instance, the surpassingly awkward fact that not a single person, place, or event that is unique to the Book of Mormon has ever been proven to exist. Outside the fanum of true believers, these tales cannot help but appear to be the product of fantasy and fabrication. There is, moreover, a corrosive tradition of make-believe in the LDS, such as the claim that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham — a book he said was written by Abraham — from Egyptian papyri that were later proven to be nothing but conventional funerary inscriptions.

The sanitized story of Mormonism promoted by the LDS tries to hide so much that cannot be hidden. The Ostlings are to be commended for resisting sensationalism in relating the sensational history of polygamy in the LDS, including Joseph Smith’s coercive use of threats of eternal damnation in order to procure young women he desired as additional wives. (On this score, the quasi-official Encyclopedia is also considerably more candid than the usual LDS presentations.) And how, except by a practiced schizophrenia, can LDS biblical scholars engage with other scholars if they are required to give credence to the normative status of Smith’s "translation" (i.e., rewriting) of the King James Bible? There is a long list of particulars in the formidable obstacles to be overcome if anything like a credible intellectual tradition is to be secured, and not least among the obstacles is the history of LDS leadership in backstopping secretiveness with mendacity. Taking note of these realities is not to deny the frequent moral courage, indeed heroism, of the early leadership, or the continuing devotion and talent of their successors.

Missionary Zeal

The LDS is much given to boosterism, and it is no surprise that its leaders relish the projections of almost exponential growth offered by such as Rodney Stark. Nobody can help but be impressed by the thousands of clean-cut Mormon young men who go on mission, two by two, knocking on the doors of the world, but the Ostlings helpfully put this missionary enterprise into perspective by comparing it with the many times larger enterprise of various Christian groups, noting as well that, unlike the Mormons, these missionaries do not limit themselves to winning converts but minister to the illiterate, the poor, and others in need. Moreover, these Christian efforts result in large and thriving indigenous churches that engage and transform local cultures, whereas the Mormon mission, totally controlled and directed from Salt Lake City, is about as pure an instance of American cultural imperialism as can be imagined, albeit a benevolently intended imperialism.

It appears also that the figures of Mormon growth are considerably inflated, not taking into account the massive defections through the back door, especially in developing countries. The Ostlings observe, "Mormonism succeeds by building on a preexisting Christian culture and by being seen as an add-on, drawing converts through a form of syncretism. Mormonism flourishes best in settings with some prior Christianization." There is, in this view, a parasitic dynamic in Mormon growth. Yet the Ostlings suggest that, despite doctrinal and demographic problems, Mormonism may continue to thrive. "Ours is a relational era," they write, "not a conceptual one. Members are more likely to be attracted by networking and community than by truth claims. The adherents appear to be contented or docile in their discontent, except for some thousands of intellectuals." I am not so sure, and that brings us to the opening question of whether Mormonism is Christian or a new religion tenuously founded on fables and sustained by authoritarian management. Maybe ours is a time in which truth does not matter that much in terms of institutional flourishing, a time in which communities can get along with useful, if not particularly noble, lies. But we should not too easily resign ourselves to that conclusion.

An Insulting Question

Asking whether Mormonism is Christian or Mormons are Christians (a slightly different question) is thought to be insulting. "How can you ask that," protests a Mormon friend, "when we clearly love the Lord Jesus as much as we do?" It is true that St. Paul says that nobody can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). But that only indicates that aspects of Mormon faith are touched by the Holy Spirit, as is every element of truth no matter where it is found. A Mormon academic declares that asking our question "is a bit like asking if African Americans are human." No, it is not even a bit like that. "Christian" in this context is not honorific but descriptive. Nobody questions whether Mormons are human. To say that Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists are not Christians is no insult. It is a statement of fact, indeed of respect for their difference. The question is whether that is a fact and a difference that applies also to Mormonism.

The question as asked by Mormons is turned around: are non-Mormons who claim to be Christians in fact so? The emphatic and repeated answer of the Mormon scriptures and the official teaching of the LDS is that we are not. We are members of "the great and abominable church" that was built by frauds and imposters after the death of the first apostles. The true church and true Christianity simply went out of existence, except for its American Indian interlude, until it was rediscovered and reestablished by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, and its claims will be vindicated when Jesus returns, sooner rather than later, at a prophetically specified intersection in Jackson County, Missouri.

The Ostlings, in a manner common among evangelical Protestants, address the question of whether Mormons are Christians exclusively in terms of doctrine. Mormonism claims that God is an exalted man, not different in kind as Creator is different in kind from creature. The Mormon claim is, "What God was, we are. What God is, we will become." Related to this is the teaching that the world was not created ex nihilo but organized into its present form, and that the trespass in the Garden of Eden, far from being the source of original sin, was a step toward becoming what God is. Further, Mormonism teaches that there is a plurality of gods. Mormons dislike the term "polytheism," preferring "henotheism," meaning that there is a head God who is worshiped as supreme. If Christian doctrine is summarized in, for instance, the Apostles’ Creed as understood by historic Christianity, official LDS teaching adds to the creed, deviates from it, or starkly opposes it almost article by article.

LDS teaching that believers are on the way to becoming gods has, of course, interesting connections with early church fathers and their teaching on "theosis" or "deification," a teaching traditionally accented more in the Christianity of the East than of the West, but theologically affirmed by both. Some Mormon thinkers have picked up on those connections and have even recruited, not very convincingly, C. S. Lewis in support of LDS doctrine. (Lewis simply offers rhetorical riffs on classical Christian teaching and in no way suggests an ontological equivalence between Creator and creature.)

Christianity and the History of Christians

Beyond these doctrinal matters, as inestimably important as they are, one must ask what it means to be Christian if one rejects the two thousand year history of what in fact is Christianity. Christianity is inescapably doctrinal but it is more than doctrines. Were it only a set of doctrines, Christianity would have become another school of philosophy, much like other philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity is the past and present reality of the society composed of the Christian people. As is said in the Nicene Creed, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." That reality encompasses doctrine, ministry, liturgy, and a rule of life. Christians disagree about precisely where that Church is to be located historically and at present, but almost all agree that it is to be identified with the Great Tradition defined by the apostolic era through at least the first four ecumenical councils, and continuing in diverse forms to the present day. That is the Christianity that LDS teaching rejects and condemns as an abomination and fraud.

Yet Mormonism is inexplicable apart from Christianity and the peculiar permutations of Protestant Christianity in nineteenth-century America. It may in this sense be viewed as a Christian derivative. It might be called a Christian heresy, except heresy is typically a deviation within the story of the Great Tradition that Mormonism rejects tout court. Or Mormonism may be viewed as a Christian apostasy. Before his death in 1844, Joseph Smith was faced with many apostasies within the Mormon ranks, and since then there have been more than a hundred schisms among those who claim to be his true heirs. Still today LDS leaders quote Smith when censuring or excommunicating critics. For instance, this from Smith: "That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that man is in the high road to apostasy."

With respect to the real existing Christianity that is the Church, the words apply in spades to Joseph Smith. He knew, of course, that he was rejecting the Christianity of normative tradition, and he had an explanation. On the creation ex nihilo question, for instance, he declared only weeks before his death: "If you tell [critics] that God made the world out of something, they will call you a fool. But I am learned, and know more than all the world put together. The Holy Ghost does, anyhow; and he is within me, and comprehends more than all the world; and I will associate myself with him." By definition, he could not be apostate because he spoke for God. It is an answer, of sorts.

The history of Christianity, notably since the sixteenth-century Reformation, is littered with prophets and seers who have reestablished "the true church," usually in opposition to the allegedly false church of Rome, and then, later, in opposition to their own previously true churches. There are many thousands of such Christian groups today. Most of them claim to represent the true interpretation of the Bible. A smaller number lay claim to additional revelations by which the biblical witness must be "corrected." One thinks, for instance, of the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. There are other similarities between Mormonism and the Unification Church, such as the emphasis on the celestial significance of marriage and family. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Gods and humans are the same species of being, but at different stages of development in a divine continuum, and the heavenly Father and Mother are the heavenly pattern, model, and example of what mortals can become through obedience to the gospel."

Another Religion

Some have suggested that the LDS is a Christian derivative much as Christianity is a Jewish derivative, but that is surely wrong. The claim of Christianity is that its gospel of Jesus Christ is in thorough continuity with the Old Testament and historic Israel, that the Church is the New Israel, which means that it is the fulfillment of the promise that Israel would be "a light to the nations." The Church condemned Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament, and she never presumed to rewrite or correct the Hebrew Scriptures on the basis of a new revelation. On the contrary, she insisted that the entirety of the old covenant bears witness to the new. While it is a Christian derivative, the LDS is, by way of sharpest contrast, in radical discontinuity with historical Christianity. The sacred stories and official teachings of the LDS could hardly be clearer about that. For missionary and public relations purposes, the LDS may present Mormonism as an "add-on," a kind of Christianity-plus, but that is not the official narrative and doctrine.

A closer parallel might be with Islam. Islam is a derivative of Judaism, and Christianity. Like Joseph Smith, Muhammad in the seventh century claimed new revelations and produced in the Qur’an a "corrected" version of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, presumably by divine dictation. Few dispute that Islam is a new and another religion, and Muslims do not claim to be Christian, although they profess a deep devotion to Jesus. Like Joseph Smith and his followers, they do claim to be the true children of Abraham. Christians in dialogue with Islam understand it to be an interreligious, not an ecumenical, dialogue. Ecumenical dialogue is dialogue between Christians. Dialogue with Mormons who represent official LDS teaching is interreligious dialogue.

One must again keep in mind that Mormonism is still very young. It is only now beginning to develop an intellectually serious theological tradition. Over the next century and more, those who are now the "dissidents and exiles" may become the leaders in the forging, despite the formidable obstacles, a rapprochement with historic Christianity, at which point the dialogue could become ecumenical. As noted earlier, there is the interesting phenomenon of Mormon thinkers appealing to the Christian tradition, from Irenaeus through C. S. Lewis, in support of aspects of their doctrine. And there is the poignant and persistent insistence of Mormons, "We really are Christians!" Sometimes that claim means that they really are Christians and the rest of us are not. Increasingly, at least among some Mormons, the claim is that they are Christians in substantively the same way that others are Christians.

It is a claim we should question but not scorn. Such a claim contains, just possibly, the seed of promise that over time, probably a very long time, there could be within Mormonism a development of doctrine that would make it recognizable as a peculiar but definite Christian communion. Such attempted development, however, could produce a major schism between Mormons who are determined to be Christian, on the one hand, and the new religion taught by the LDS on the other.

Meanwhile, Mormonism and the impressive empire of the LDS will likely be with us for a long time. They are no longer an exotic minority that is, by virtue of minority status, exempt from critical examination and challenge. Such examination and challenge, always fair-minded and sympathetic, is exemplified by the Ostlings’ very helpful book, Mormon America. I am skeptical about the more dramatic projections of Mormon growth in the future. That depends in part on the degree to which the Ostlings are right in thinking our era is "relational" rather than "conceptual." It depends in larger part on developments internal to the LDS and transformations in its self-understanding and self-presentation to the world. The leadership of the LDS will have to decide whether its growth potential is enhanced or hampered by presenting Mormonism as a new religion or as, so to speak, another Christian denomination. Sometimes they seem to want to have it both ways, but that will become increasingly difficult. And, of course, for Mormons whose controlling concern is spiritual, intellectual, and moral integrity, questions of marketing and growth, as well as questions of institutional vitality and communal belonging, must be clearly subordinated to the question of truth.

As for the rest of us, we owe to Mormon Americans respect for their human dignity, protection of their religious freedom, readiness for friendship, openness to honest dialogue, and an eagerness to join hands in social and cultural tasks that advance the common good. That, perhaps, is work enough, at least for the time being.

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