With Mitt Romney’s campaign for president concluded, his co-religionists are left to reflect on what has been, for them as well as for him, a very revealing day in the sun. Mormons and non-Mormons alike have learned many interesting things about the place of Mormonism within the American religious landscape.
The good news for Mormons is that America does not hate them. A year ago many Democrats were hopefully predicting that Americans would be unwilling to elect a Mormon president. In the end, though, Romney’s Mormonism does not seem to have been a serious obstacle. It may even have been a mild asset, insofar as it added a truly “American” note to his polished, upper-class image. In any event, conservatives were clearly willing to rally around their Mormon candidate in the heat of a close election.
From the Mormon perspective, however, there is also some bad news. According to a recent Pew survey, about half of Americans still believe that Mormons are not Christian. Mormons are familiar with this claim, but in the past they have tended to attribute it to irrational anti-Mormon prejudice. Now it becomes clear that conservative Christians still believe this, despite their willingness to accept Mormons as friends and allies in other endeavors. In light of this unique “Mormon moment,” it may be time for Mormons and Christians to determine where they stand with respect to one another.
For Mormons, it might be useful to reflect a bit more on the extent to which they want to be included in the larger Christian community. Although they often insist that they are Christians (and wish to be universally regarded as such), Latter-Day Saints also regard themselves as exceptional in many ways. The Mormon historical narrative includes a lengthy period that is normally termed “The Great Apostasy,” extending from the death of Christ’s original disciples until the time of Joseph Smith. During this time, the true Church is said to have been absent from the earth. Needless to say, Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism were not absent from the earth during this period, and the implication would seem to be that the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants are apostates, or at least not members of Christ’s true Church.
Mormons assert their institutional independence in other ways, too. Converts to Mormonism are baptized absolutely regardless of whether they came from a Christian sect or not. If, as most Christians believe, we enter Christ’s Church through baptism, then it would seem that Mormons regard only themselves as members. Of course this impression is only reinforced by the fact that Mormons take themselves to be the only ones with the true priesthood and regard their prophet as God’s truly appointed seer and religious authority for our time.
It would clearly be unreasonable to demand that Mormons stop calling themselves Christians. As they tirelessly point out, they are devoted to Jesus Christ, and they view themselves as the embodiment of Christ’s true Church on this earth. But it is odd in many respects that they should insist, in their interactions with Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, that they are Christians also. This smacks of wanting to have their cake and eat it too. Mormons need to consider carefully whether they prefer to be unique and independent, or whether they would rather be members of a larger, Christian family.
Non-Mormons, for their part, could benefit from a clearer understanding of what Mormonism really is. Mormons are confusing because their heterodoxy does not fit the familiar mold. Contemporary Christians have considerable experience with laxity, ignorance, and duplicity concerning Christian dogma. In a pluralistic world filled with secular influences, the core of believing, orthodox Christianity is subject more to erosion than to dramatic collapse. Thus, we have ample experience with what sociologist Christian Smith terms “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a watered-down collection of quasi-Christian ideals that provides emotional satisfaction without really adhering to the historical or philosophical roots of Christianity. We are familiar, as well, with defiant statements from people who wish to be identified with the great religious traditions, but who take umbrage at the suggestion that they should submit to religious authority. These forms of heterodoxy are readily recognized and understood by orthodox Christians.
Mormonism does not fit these familiar molds. As a rule, Mormons are neither lax nor liberal. They go to church regularly and affirm the value of religious authority. They have large families and a strong marriage culture. They are prolife. Whatever Mormonism is, it should not be classified with the various strains of “Christianity lite” that run rampant in our society. We need another angle from which to illuminate the oddities of Mormonism.
Committed theological deviants are somewhat exceptional in today’s religious landscape, but they are common in the history of the Church. It may be helpful, then, to try viewing Mormonism as a heresy of an older style. Its errors spring from a genuine commitment to faulty principles rather than a loose and lax attachment to good ones.
Mormons can appear threatening at times, insofar as they adhere to (and promote) their beliefs with conviction and energy. Still, they are morally serious and concerned about truth, and these laudable traits can provide openings for cooperation on moral issues, and for fruitful dialogue. Like most heresies, Mormonism includes some very strange elements. History has shown us again and again that this tends to happen when the careful, precise theological formulations of the early councils are rejected. By the same token, history shows that the Church can benefit enormously from exchanges with heretics, insofar as these provide an opportunity for her to clarify and promulgate her own teachings. So it may prove in this case.
History has presented us with a Mormon moment. Let us see that it does not go to waste.
Rachel Lu is an independent scholar and an instructor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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