Mormon or Christian?

Huzzah! New question in the mailbag! I’m proud to say that this question was asked just a couple days ago (as opposed to the last questions I answered 2 months late…) This one comes from Joey at Wide White:

Do you consider yourself more Mormon or Christian? Or does the distinction even matter? Within Christianity it seems that some, such as Catholics or Baptists or others, identify more with their sect/denomination, while others, particularly “evangelical Christians,” identify themselves more broadly as Christians.

I wonder because I asked 2 Mormon missionaries who approached me once why it was so important to convert me if I was already a Christian. You don’t really see Lutherans trying to convert Methodists. I’ve seen Baptists try to convert Catholics, but that’s only if they don’t consider the Catholic (or even Catholics in general) to be Christian in the first place. I wondered why it mattered that I specifically be Mormon if we’re all Christians anyway. They said something about heaven having tiers and Mormons are the top tier and other Christians are on a lower tier. At least that’s how I remember it. I could be totally misrepresenting it.

Anyway, if this is a dumb question, feel free to make all sorts of fun of me.

Good question! The great Are Mormons Christians? debate is always a fun one, and it’s being asked a lot lately due to Romney’s likely success at securing the Republican nomination. I think the answer is simple – of course Mormons are Christian. When taking an overview of worldwide religions, it is very clear to me that Mormons fit under the Christian umbrella.

In my shallow understanding of Mormon history, I get the impression that past generations of Mormons weren’t overly concerned about whether other Christian sects accepted them into the Christian body or not. In fact, I get the impression that until the mid 20th century, Mormons considered their rejection by other Christians a badge of honor – evidence that Satan was trying to tear down God’s chosen people – evidence that the rest of Christianity had been corrupted. However, today’s Mormons are very quick to insist that they are Christian, and that the chasm between Mormonism and other Christians isn’t as wide as many think it is. Being accepted into the body of Christianity is very important to the modern church.

Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant differences between Mormonism and other Christian sects, which most Mormons also quickly acknowledge. Mormonism likes to maintain a comfortable arms length from the rest of Christianity – close enough that we share many common beliefs – far enough that we’ve got enough unique truth that you should leave your current church to join us.

As for me, I definitely identify with the Mormon label more than I identify with the Christian label. Mormonism is more than a set of beliefs – it’s a culture, a way of life, a group of people. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I don’t always agree with the LDS church – I’m not Mormon necessarily because I agree with it – I’m a lousy Mormon as far as other Mormons are concerned. But I’m proud of the Mormon label because it represents a people and a way of life that have always been good to me. It’s not really about beliefs. It’s about people – and I LOVE Mormons.

Any more questions?
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11 thoughts on “Mormon or Christian?”

  1. Longest running debate in LDS circles. I would agree with you in my reading about the history of the church, especially Bringham Young’s era they really didn’t care less about what other religions thought of them. I think they viewed most other Christians, especially Catholics as apostate and therefore irrelevent to the development of the LDS church. They were more concerned with removing themselves from persecution and influence gentiles.
    That being said, I have been watching with fascination how the Christian right has been dealing with Romney’s candidacy. Predictably, and sadly, they’ve chosen the “anyone but the Mormon” path. As of this morning the evangelicals have decided that a 3X married guy who divorced his whife while she was in the middle of cancer treatments, cheated on his second wife with his congressional page, all the while accusing the president of infidelity, is a better “moral” choice than a fellow who doesn’t drink, cheat, curse.. has a impecable family values.. except one. He’s not what they consider to be a Christian and so..
    And I’m watching this party tear it’s self apart looking trying to reconcile it’s hypocracy. Apparently we haven’t come very far from the days when it was leagal to kill Mormons on sight in Missouri.

  2. I think it’s also important to remember that Joseph Smith’s first epiphany as a young man came at a time in American history when evangelical revivalism had run amuck and sectarian fighting among Anabaptist or pre-fundamentalist Christian churches was pretty high. If I remember my history correctly, Smith implored God to show him which church was the “true” church, and God subsequently revealed the book of Mormon. As a non Mormon and as someone who grew up in an Evangelical church, I see this history and the Book of Mormon itself as central to Evangelical antipathy toward Mormons. ConservativeEvangelicals generally and Fundamentalists in particular see the Bible as the sacred center of their belief and strongly reject other claims of authority. I think this is why the Koran is a focus of anti-Muslim sentiment. Because the LDS church claims both an additional authority in both the Prophets and the Book while identifying with Christianity, Evangelical anti-Mormonism is especially potent. I personally identify myself as a Christian and not as an Evangelical and because of my underying reasons, I am also non anti-Mormon.

  3. @Sank – I agree entirely with your assessment of Romney’s candidacy. I find the “he’s not Christian” criticism baffling and pointless.

    @Peter – yes, the Book of Mormon has always been a sticking point – and the criticism typically has nothing to do with anything the Book of Mormon actually says as much as simply that it exists.

  4. I think the sentiment against Romney for being Mormon versus Christian is more about fear of the unknown (or, ignorance) than an indictment on the religion itself. I’ve spoken with many people who have lived their lives without ever meeting a individual who is Mormon, other than a missionary. They are forced to resort to the little they do know, which includes that there is another book of God that is relied upon, the church’s past institutional discrimination against Blacks, past support of polygamy, their war against the United States, and the secretive and exclusive nature of the Mormon Temple. All of these attributes are very contrary to “mainstream” American Christian tradition. As a non-Mormon myself, I don’t really know where to put Mormon theology – not for the above reasons but more because of the differences in the interpretation of the holy trinity, the interpretation of heaven, and because of the reliance on and the importance of the Book of Mormon (not unlike the relationship between Jews and Christians regarding the New Testament). I see these as fundamental differences. But what I was getting at before – the truth is, in many parts of our country, the Mormon customs are very foreign and for many people (regardless of religion), it is hard to relate. And it is being played out in regards to the election in the conservative Christian community, probably because religion can by easily used as justification for political beliefs and conservative Christians are the republican base, but it certainly isn’t limited to that community or to just people of faith.

    (sorry tried to edit so that it would make sense – failed. I enjoy your blog!)

  5. And to clarify, I am religious, and see myself as a Christian who is not conservative, and has a great deal of respect for the major religious doctrines, including those of the LDS Church.

  6. In the 1800’s Mormons were severely persecuted for their beliefs. They maintained their own community and actually left the US in order to escape persecution. Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) have always thought of themselves as Christians but felt the need to seperate from other denominations.

    Today, Mormons still have no desire to be associated with other Christian denominations. Mormons believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is THE church of Jesus Christ restored to the earth by Jesus Christ and led by revelation from Jesus Christ. Mormons do not think of other churches as being bad but do not acknowledge them as Gods church. If other churches lead people to do good, than that is good.

    On the other hand, Mormons take a stand when others state that Mormons are not Christian. If people are taught that Mormons are not Christian then proselyting becomes more difficult. One of the major goals of the church is to teach the gospel to the world.

  7. I agree that Mormons don’t seem too concerned about what other Christians think. It also seems pretty clear that they view their sect as superior to other sects. I suppose you could argue that’s the same for anyone since we tend to naturally assume our beliefs are best (otherwise we presumably wouldn’t hold them). It’s just a little odd to me that Mormons consider themselves Christian but don’t consider other Christians to be…I don’t know, good enough? I guess I figure if you think others still need converting, they haven’t quite arrived yet. That’s what’s most odd to me, since I don’t really have any motivation to convert someone to my beliefs unless I think their beliefs are wrong, and as a Christian, I’m not real particular about which sect of Christianity people fall into.

    Anyway, I love your blog, and thanks for giving my question the light of day here!

  8. Hmm. It’s interesting to me that you’ve tried to answer the question more from a sociological perspective…

    I look at it from a theological perspective, and from the perspective of religious authority.

    Mormons have a completely different way of answering fundamental questions like: “Who is God?” and “What is the nature of our relationship to him?” and “What is the purpose of life?” But also questions like, “How do we recognize spiritual truth when we see it?” (Protestants say: By reading it in the Bible. Mormons say: Through the Holy Spirit and modern-day revelation!) Also, Mormons have a large canon of scripture that is not accepted anywhere else in the religious world!

    I tend to see the answers to these questions (and the existence of an independent canon) making Mormonism at least as different from Nicene Christianity (Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox Christianity) as Christianity is from Judaism or Islam. Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Mormonism all have beliefs and values that they share with these other faiths. Sometimes they share at least part of the scriptural canon. (Mormons, Jews and Christians, for instance, all read and believe in the Old Testament, and Mormons and Christians both read and believe in the New Testament. Though each of these groups interpret the Bible differently!)

    The tricky part comes in how Mormons and Christians define themselves in relation to Jesus Christ. Like Christians (and unlike Jews and Muslims) Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and the Savior of the world, and they see their entire religion as being based both on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. So it understandably rankles when non-Mormons accuse us of not being “Christian.” That sounds very much like an untruth, if it means we don’t believe in, love or follow Jesus Christ.

    However, if it refers to Christianity as a brand or a label that includes things like belief in the Trinity or the insistence that all truth is contained in the Bible, then, no, we don’t affiliate with that brand…

  9. BTW… If I had to choose between the label “Mormon” or “Christian”… if I HAD to choose… I’d probably choose Mormon.

    Though if I’m allowed the luxury of self-defining, I would describe myself as a “Saint” (not in the Catholic sense of being a holy person, but in the Mormon sense of being a person who is striving to follow Christ). Or I would describe myself as a “disciple of Jesus Christ.” (Not to be confused with the “Disciples of Christ,” a Christian denomination.)

    Dang, this label thing is hard! 🙂

  10. I could have gotten into he theological side of the commentary as well, John, but chose to stick with the sociological commentary.

    It’s important to note in your discussion of labels that you are very specific with the terms with which you self-identify. This is because history, theology, and practice transform these labels into powerful symbols. Non-Mormon Christians, particularly hose who choose to exclude Mormons from this category, have reasons for doing so related to the power of the term’s symbolism for them. Not that I’m defending the exclusion per se, but regardless of the fact that both camps identify with the historical person of Jesus Christ, each has substantially different theological understandings of who this person is.

  11. Interesting point, Peter.

    The “Mormon” label was originally imposed on the Saints as a derogatory term by non-Mormons… Well, the earliest version of the epithet was “Mormonites.”

    Mormons themselves have never fully, fully embraced the label, I think. I remember as a kid hearing General Authorities specifically say over the pulpit that we should NOT refer to ourselves as “Mormons.” If asked, we should tell our friends that we are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Well, nobody followed that advice because it was TOO long.)

    It is sort of weird, though, that the PR department of the Church has kind of embraced it in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. As far as I’m concerned, that will take some getting used to. I still use the term Mormon far less than “LDS” or “Saints.”

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