Chris Henrichsen has been hosting a blog round table at Patheos via Faith Promoting Rumor and his own blog, Approaching Justice, focused on the question, “Are Mormons Christians?” So far, insightful contributions have been published by (if I may be indulged some simple labels) a Latter-day Saint scholar of early Christianity, a Lutheran feminist theologian, a scholar of Buddhism, a Jungian Neopagan, and a devoted Catholic. While not a formal part of the blog round table, I have addressed the titular question myself on this blog before, and religious identity has been a research interest of mine for some time. I would like to offer some reflections on the question and make a case for its continued circulation.
To start off, according to the only actual research I’ve seen done on the question recently, most Catholics and most Protestants believe Mormons are Christians. It is only within White Evangelicalism that the slight majority rejects Mormonism’s Christianity. The assumption that Christianity broadly rejects Mormonism as a Christian religion is simply not true. If it is to come down to a simple majority vote, Latter-day Saints are Christians.
If a majority vote is out, then we move on to the question of authority. Who gets to decide? The answer is simple: no one. Nobody speaks authoritatively on behalf of all of Christianity. Shoot, in most instances nobody speaks authoritatively on behalf of an individual congregation. There will be no authoritative answer to this question.
So now we move on to the necessary and sufficient features identified by those who would either include or exclude Mormons. These are the “foundational,” “central,” “critical,” or otherwise “defining” features that commentators come up with that mean you’re either in or out. The most common argument is an appeal to the Trinity, which is the appeal made by Kathy Schiffer above:
The thing is, the question of WHO JESUS IS is a singularly important question for all of us.
Christians know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
While it is certainly true that the question of who Jesus is has and always will be a singularly important question (Matt 16:13–18), and the bolded portion of Kathy’s answer is fundamental even within the New Testament to identification as a Christian, her elaboration of that answer does not find universal support within the history of Christianity (it didn’t exist at all anywhere within a century of Christ’s lifetime), and it is upon that elaboration that she hangs her exclusion of Mormonism. If she insists on the Trinity as the single identity marker of Christianity, then she excludes the first one to three centuries of Christianity, depending on her specific views of subordinationism, Christ’s generation, etc.
Related to the Trinity concern is the accusation of polytheism. According to this accusation, monotheism is the foundation of Christianity, and Mormonism flatly rejects it. By way of example, in his ten-part blog series addressing my response to a video he posted, Mr. White insisted that monotheism is not just “a defining issue,” but “the foundation, the definition.” For White, it’s not Christ, but about God’s own singularity:
the consistent rejection of Mormonism as a Christian religion by the entire spectrum of Christian churches has been based, first and foremost, upon the doctrine of God.
As I pointed out (in addition to his “entire spectrum” claim being flatly false), this makes Christianity’s single foundational and defining feature a feature that is shared by most of Judaism and Islam. This is a laughable case against Mormonism, but it highlights the fallacy that attends virtually all attempts to include or exclude Mormonism in/from Christianity: begging the question. Most arguments about Mormonism within or without Christianity begin with the conclusion and then move on to finding justification. The scope of James White’s case was so narrow and unthinking that his dissection of Mormonism actually sewed Judaism and Islam right into the foundation of Christianity.
I also take issue with the accusation of polytheism. Few Mormons would call themselves polytheists. Most would consider themselves monotheists. Now, mainstream Christians like James White would laugh at the notion that Mormonism is monotheistic, but most non-Christians in the Greco-Roman world would have laughed at the notion that the Trinity was monotheistic. Christians took a long time to fashion a conceptual framework they felt justified the claim, but that claim to monotheism is certainly still criticized in many different places. They still assert that that is their belief, though, and that’s their prerogative, just like it should be the prerogative of any Mormon to insist they are a monotheist. The difference between a Trinitarian and a Latter-day Saint, in the end, is just the ontological level at which they place the “oneness” of their divine persons. Trinitarians see different divine persons included within one divine being, while Latter-day Saints see different beings included within one divine agency. Both positions are certainly attested in the christological milieu of of the early Church, and it’s no one’s right to make declarations about how another groups is allowed to see themselves.
What I would be interested in is a person’s real and personal view of what makes a Christian a Christian, apart from rhetoric aimed at including or excluding anyone else. When no one else is looking, what is a Christian? Does it even matter? James White accidentally betrayed this view in one of his responses to me:
I define the faith very clearly, but I do so not on the basis of a 19th century self-proclaimed prophet, but upon the basis of the consistent testimony of the ancient Christian scriptures, whose authority bears the stamp of approval of the crucified and risen Son of God Himself. I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.
Now, White’s definition here is not free from sectarianism, but that is the result of his particular brand of Christianity. What he shows is that his definition of Christianity is relative to his audience. When he’s trying to exclude certain groups, his definition takes one form. When he’s trying to show the unity of groups he includes, it takes an entirely different form.
My final reflection has to do with the nature of categories. There are a number of different ways to approach the human mind’s processes of categorization, but common to most of them is the rejection of simple and binary Aristotelian notions of absolute membership within, or exclusion from, clearly defined categories. Categories tend to have fuzzy boundaries, and particularly with abstract categories (like religious identity). The category “game,” for instance, was famously observed by Wittgenstein to not have any boundaries until we decide to draw them in. The specific boundaries we draw generally serve whatever rhetorical end or goal we may have in mind.
As an example related to Mormonism, some often criticize the Church’s self-reported membership numbers (15 million at last reported count), which are based on the pure number of members on the books, whether or not they attend. Critics will place the real number of “members” at the level of regular activity. Thus, an actively attending Latter-day Saint is a qualified “member of the Church” (the Church considers a member attending at least quarterly to be active). This serves the rhetorical goal of reducing the number of total members as much as possible. But how many people out there know completely inactive members of the Church who still self-identity as Latter-day Saints? I know several myself. This number obviously doesn’t add up to 15 million with the active members, but it illustrates the way our methodologies are often subordinate to our rhetorical goals. My own goal might be to assert as high a number as possible of Church members, so I may be looking for reasons to reject the argument from activity (in reality, I really couldn’t care less about the number).
As a second example, what makes a Mormon a Mormon? Are “Fundamentalist Mormons” Mormons? The official position of the Church is that they are not, but obviously this has more to do with PR than with a critical look at the category. The broader use of the category will inevitably lead to misidentification with The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that’s troubling for Church leaders when it comes to things like polygamous organizations. Any group that asserts ideological descent from Joseph Smith and/or the Book of Mormon probably has just as much a right to the designation as any Latter-day Saint.
In the end, there’s never going to be universal agreement on whether or not Mormons are Christians. As long as there are people out there who don’t want to be identified with Mormonism even in broadest religious terms, there will be attempts to draw Mormonism out. In light of this, and in light of the further insight the discussion can facilitate for all aspects of religious identity, however, I believe the question should remain an open one that finds circulation in ever wider circles. In Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Paganism, and other ideological groups, the question of who belongs will never end. Mormonism ought to have a place at this table.