Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, in an editorial in the March 2000 issue of First Things, discussed the issue of Mormon claims to be Christian in considerable detail. He explained that as an ecumenically oriented magazine, First Things was primarily interested in topics related to the relations between Christians and Jews, but his intention in this column was to extend the outreach a little further. Certainly, since Mormons (Latter-day Saints) often claim to be Christian, this attention was reasonable. But if Mormonism is a variant of Christianity, he writes, the differences with other Christians are enormous:
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.
Adding to the complexity is the “phantasmagoria” of Mormon theology—
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.
In a following issue, Neuhaus was besieged by letters from Mormons, maintaining that they hold to Christian doctrines, albeit with variations. Neuhaus responded thusly: “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.”
In the February 2012 issue of this magazine, Steven H. Webb published “Mormonism Obsessed with Christ.” He recounts how in reading the Book of Mormon for the first time he was astounded that Mormon scripture is to a great extent all about Christ—albeit a Christ reinterpreted so completely that orthodox Christians would consider it a work of fiction. But Webb concludes that we should not be concerned about the hardly believable stories about Jesus coming to America after his ascension into heaven and preaching to the ten lost tribes of Israel. It is enough to realize, he says, that these stories show a great interest, almost an obsession, with Jesus on the part of Mormons, and great affection—possibly more affection than most Christians.
Evidently, the more we know about Mormonism, the more we can see that we have been asking the wrong question. From the Mormon point of view, the question to be asked is not, “Are Mormons Christian?” but, in view of the alleged apostasy in early Christianity after the death of the Apostles, a more appropriate question would be: “Are any non-Mormons Christian?”
Posing this question changes the criteria by which we can evaluate Mormon claims, and helps put some of the more exaggerated fears of orthodox Christians into perspective. Yes, Catholics and Protestants are viewed by Mormons as practicing an incomplete Christianity (at best). This offers justification, for instance, for the Mormon practice of “baptizing the dead,” in order to bring them into communion with Jesus Christ and the Latter-day Saints. But this paradigm also means that Christians need not fear that a Mormon in the White House would not align himself with Christianity; the only reasonable fear would be that a biased Mormon occupant would look down on them as less than Christian. But fortunately Mormons, in spite of their desire to convert the world, are not noted for extreme intolerance or for an inability to work with other persuasions for the common good.
However, the fact that Mitt Romney, the first Mormon candidate for the presidency in our nation’s history, is not only a bishop in the LDS church but a High Priest of the highest echelon (the “order of Melchizedek”) within that religion, and is not being opposed because of the “separation of church and state,” is an indication that Americans do not consider him a bona fide Christian. In contrast, one can imagine what would happen if a Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian bishop or priest sought the presidency. An impossibility! Fears of theocracy and relentless invocation of the First Amendment would nip such an attempt in the bud.
Clearly, no such fears have been instigated by Romney’s “ecclesiastical” status. It is becoming clear that—from the ‘ordinary’ Christian point of view—Mormon “high priesthood” is a sui generis order, possibly analogous to higher Masonic degrees, incorporated into a religion quite different from most Christian denominations.
So while Romney’s religion is—to say the least—heterodox, it raises fewer ethical or ideological “red flags” than the beliefs of many preceding presidential candidates. Ironically, it may be because his faith is seen as so eccentric and cannot be analogized to the usual standards that he may actually be seen to pose less of a threat to Christian life in this country than a mainline progressive or modernist Christian would.
Howard P. Kainz is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Marquette University. His most recent book is The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Is Mormonism Christian?
Stephen H. Webb, Mormonism Obsessed with Christ
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