Are Mormons Mormon™?

I discovered a couple of resources that highlighted an interesting conversation within Mormonism to me. What does a Mormon have to believe to be a Mormon?

The first was this interview on Mormon Expression Podcast with a Bishop who is currently serving despite experiencing a crisis of faith. I enjoyed hearing his thoughts and think the LDS church would be well served by his leadership. But then I heard him express some rather unconventional theological viewpoints, namely this one quoted from Millennial Mormonism:

You are the golden plates that have been hidden (deep in the mountain side) and are now coming forth. You are being translated correctly and published to the world. You are the most correct book on earth.

The counter-point to Bishop “X” is this article by J Maxwell Wilson (hat tip to Andrew S.). Wilson argues for Mormon orthodoxy to the extent that he thinks those who think orthopraxy is all that is required of Mormons are Pharisees. I think he does an excellent job of making his case and encourage you to read his thoughts for yourself.

I’m not going to weigh in on the debate, lest I be accused of being a critic seeking a definition of “Mormonism” that I can use as a lever against the LDS church. Nonetheless I think the debate is extremely important as Mormonism adapts to the 21st Century.

Many will say that there are no thought-police within Mormonism. Mormons are free to believe any theological position they desire; there is only a problem when a person starts teaching others to join them in their heresy. It’s at that point the Mormon church exercises its prerogative to define itself and discipline the heretic or excommunicate him. I can understand this viewpoint, I’m beginning to wonder though, if recording podcast episodes and writing blog entries might not be “teaching” and wonder how long the LDS church can sustain non-traditional definitions without undermining its centralized authority.

I also wonder why Mormons are upset at orthodox Christians for holding the same standard in defining who is and who is not a “Christian”. To my knowledge there are no thought police in any well known Christian denominations or churches. Members and attendees are free to believe anything they want, there is only a problem when a person starts teaching others to join them in their heresy. Joseph Smith and any who teach his unorthodox style of Christianity are welcome to do so, but they are not allowed to redefine Christianity any more than Mormon heretics are allowed to redefine Mormonism.

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54 thoughts on “Are Mormons Mormon™?

  1. “I also wonder why Mormons are upset at orthodox Christians for holding the same standard in defining who is and who is not a “Christian”.”

    Oh, c’mon. You’ve been over that issue enough times to know that that’s a big gloss. Mormons are upset because 1) the definition used combines criticizing us for straying from the Bible along with criticizing us for rejecting non-Biblical standards, and 2) the wording is blatantly misleading to a vast majority of people, since for most people “Christian” = “believes in the Jesus guy and all that.” Old debate. You’re trying to look at it all nuancy here.

    PS. J Max did a horrible job making his point, because he pointed the finger of Pharisaism as only a Pharisee would.

  2. I have to agree with BrianJ here, Tim. Your remark about the Christian label mars what otherwise is an excellent post. Your argument holds true only if you and people who have the same theology as you were the only Christians around, and then we (LDS) strayed from that. The fact is that since the first century, there have always been a wide range of viewpoints that were seen as “Christian” — heretical Christian, perhaps, but still Christian. By popular usage and dictionary meaning, evangelicals have no more claim to the word “Christian” than anyone else does.

    If you want to say we aren’t Protestants, that’s fine. If you want to say we’re out of the Christian mainstream (and we definitely are!), that’s fine. If you want to say we aren’t evangelicals, that’s fine. If you want to say we aren’t Methodists, that’s fine. If you want to say we’re heretics, that’s fine. But as the whole word uses the term, nearly everyone except for evangelicals, “Christian” is an appropriate label. Deal with it.

    More about the main topic of the post later.

  3. What about members of the mainstream LDS Church who insist that splinter groups like the Community of Christ and the FLDS Church are not “Mormon”?

  4. Kullervo:

    If the FLDS and the Community of Christ want to apply the Mormon label to themselves (and, to the best of my knowledge, the CoC doesn’t), that’s fine with me.

    I don’t want to get sidetracked on this issue more than I already have; the issue has been hashed over and hashed over, and Tim’s question in his original post is a more interesting one.

  5. I don’t want to get sidetracked on this issue more than I already have; the issue has been hashed over and hashed over, and Tim’s question in his original post is a more interesting one.

    Fair enough.

  6. If the FLDS and the Community of Christ want to apply the Mormon label to themselves (and, to the best of my knowledge, the CoC doesn’t), that’s fine with me.

    Awesome. Now when anyone asks if Mormons practice polygamy, I will without any qualification answer, “YES!”

  7. “And by the same measure, Andrew (an atheist) can define Mormonism any way he wants.”

    He can even define “measure,” “same,” and “the” any way he wants. But he’s not going to make any sense to others, or he’s going to confuse or mislead them. But yeah, it’s his choice.

  8. Kullervo beat me to it.

    The LDS church already polices who can use the term “Mormon”. For example:

    ~ There are 13 million Mormons in the United States and around the world, and not one of them is a polygamist.

    ~ “Mormon” is the most common and widely accepted name for a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City. “Mormons” have nothing whatsoever to do with the Texas sect known as “FLDS,” or with any other polygamous group.

    Individual Mormons might be fine with other groups descended from Joseph Smith’s teachings calling themselves “Mormon,” and I certainly think that’s the most reasonable position.

    But the church’s attempts to control the term “Mormon” pretty much mirror the attempts of some evangelical Christians to control the term “Christian.”

    I feel pretty ambivalent about the efforts on the part of both groups.

    Re: J. Max’s post, I don’t really buy his “Pharisee” argument because most of the “orthopraxy”-centric I know don’t even care all that much about making other Mormons keep the “orthopraxy” stuff. They just technically do it themselves because they know the church requires it. If someone else is breaking the “orthopraxy” stuff, they aren’t going to rat them out and probably won’t even try to dissuade them. One of Jesus’ critiques of the Pharisees was that they would pile heavy burdens on others which they themselves refused to lift. I don’t think the same can be said of the liberal or intellectual “orthopraxy” crowd.

  9. Max lost me on the pharisee charges as well, but I think he’s right that orthopraxy is not the proper way to define a religion.

  10. I don’t think Max represented the Pharisees correctly. While they were committed to the observation of the law they also held to doctrinal beliefs like resurrection of the body, existence of angeles, and the coming of the Messiah. To say the Pharisees had orthopraxy without orthodoxy doesn’t seem to match what little we know about this group.

  11. “orthopraxy is not the proper way to define a religion”

    My Jewish friends would strongly disagree. Not that that makes it wrong or right.

    Anyway, why not? I agree that it can’t be only about orthopraxy—there has to be some common belief about why everyone’s acting and working together. Is that what you’re getting at? In other words, exactly how much of J Max’s argument do you buy?

  12. I don’t see orthopraxy as much of an end in itself because it strikes me as rather obtuse to think that what we do can be consistently divorced from why we do it. Rituals, liturgies and sacraments were all devised with a specific meaning behind them—and if they don’t have a meaning behind them, if they have a “choose-your-own-meaning” behind them, then what’s really the point?

    Let me borrow an analogy from Rob Bell: say that my husband walks in on Valentine’s Day with some flowers for me. And say that when I start to thank him for the flowers, he replies, “Well, I had to. I’m your husband.” Or, “I got them because they were on sale.” I’d turn cold to the entire act of bringing me flowers really quickly, because it isn’t the flowers I want. It’s his heart. The flowers are only meaningful to me in as much as they’re a sincere token of his love for me. If he’s only getting them out of a sense of obligation or because they were cheap, I don’t want them.

    I don’t think that God wants us to bring him flowers—that is, go to church, participate in rituals, read our Scriptures, etc.—for just any reason. He wants our hearts. Our religious routine, our praxy, is only meaningful in as much as it’s an expression of our love for him. And I would say that who God is (i. e. orthodoxy) does matter in that regard. And I would argue that this view is supported by the Bible (but it’s late, so I’ll hold off on backing it up unless someone is interested).

    That said, I can see prescribing orthopraxy as a tool for rehabilitating someone who is struggling with orthodoxy. But the goal should be to eventually move that person from heterodoxy to orthodoxy, not stagnate them and make them comfortable in their heterodoxy by telling them that only their orthopraxy matters.

    And yeah Tim, I agree with J. Max’s broad point that orthodoxy matters. But that’s a bit like saying I agree with Cameron Diaz that women should exercise their right to vote while disagreeing with her alarmist “If you think rape should be legal, then don’t vote” rant.

  13. Part of the problem is the kind of orthopraxy that the LDS church espouses. BrianJ is correct that Judaism espouses a type of orthopraxy, but it is completely different from the LDS variety and that is why I think comparing the two doesn’t work.

    Jews emphasize orthopraxy, most visibly in things like Sabbath observance, kosher food laws, and circumcision. However, Judaism also encourages (I would say demands) a deep study of the laws that one should follow. These reflections are recorded in the Midrashim, the two Talmuds, and various other documents of the Jewish faith. Once you start reflecting on the laws, you naturally are going to reflect on what they mean, why are we doing doing them, how they apply to changing circumstances etc. While this doesn’t lead to a Jewish orthodoxy, since differences of opinion are rampant, it still encourages one to connect belief, meaning, and practice. This means it functions in many ways like Christian orthodoxy does.

    The difference in Mormon theology is that you have two ideas which tend to short circuit an LDS version of Jewish patterns of religious belief and practice.

    First, there is a strong undercurrent of obedience for the sake of obedience. A scripture that Mormons love to quote, and which is emphasized in the temple is the following from Moses 5:5-6:

    5 And he gave unto them commandments, that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord.

    6 And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.

    The take home message is clear: do what you are told, even if you don’t know why.

    Second, there is a strong institutional discouragement in the correlated church to not engage in speculation. See Daymon Smith’s work for more on this. This has the effect of short circuiting the type of reflection that allows Judaism to bridge orthopraxy with belief and meaning. If no reason for practices are given, the only route to connecting it with belief is a sort of speculation. But that’s precisely what is discouraged.

    I think the discouragement towards speculation also works in reverse. The LDS church does demand some orthodox beliefs, contra the liberal Mormons. These would be belief in the existence of God, belief in Jesus Christ, belief in the restoration, belief in the priesthood, and belief that the prophet leads the church by revelation (basically, the stuff in the temple recommend interview). What is demanded is bare assent to these beliefs, which is fine.

    The problem is if a Mormon decides to try and connect these beliefs with practices. They might ask questions like: What does the nature of God mean for how I should act and why I should act? Or they might ask: How does the life of Joseph Smith provides an example of how one should live? And to answer these types of questions means going beyond the correlated materials. This is often labeled as seeking after mysteries, speculation, or going beyond the mark. All of which are discouraged. Because, after all, if you are speculating on the nature of God, that’s time you are taking away from home teaching, genealogy, food storage, canning peaches, family home evening, meeting attendance, etc. Not to mention the fact that doing this often converts conservative Mormons into liberal Mormons, or even worse, ex-Mormons.

    So the only real behavior one can end up connecting to the beliefs Mormons must hold ends up being “Follow the Prophet” through listening to the latest conference talks and the current correlated materials. Which again encourages more obedience for the sake of obedience.

  14. Max lost me on the pharisee charges as well, but I think he’s right that orthopraxy is not the proper way to define a religion.

    Not the proper way to define his religion or your religion. Defining “religion” turns out to be really problematic once you get down to it.

  15. Jack said
    I don’t see orthopraxy as much of an end in itself because it strikes me as rather obtuse to think that what we do can be consistently divorced from why we do it.

    Exactly.

    Rituals, liturgies and sacraments were all devised with a specific meaning behind them—and if they don’t have a meaning behind them, if they have a “choose-your-own-meaning” behind them, then what’s really the point?

    I think for some (like Enoch at FPR and Bishop X) the point is to hang on to Mormon identity at all costs; even if it does damage to the faith they purport to love.

    The interesting thing to me is that some of them choose to do it anonymously. This seems to be a sign that they know what they are saying is an illegitimate expression of Mormonism, but they dare not risk the consequences. This extends to basically lying during their temple recommend interviews, which if they actually believed in Mormonism would be something they couldn’t bare to think of.

    I think J. Max mistakenly used the word “pharisee” where he should have said “hypocrite”. A hypocrite in the classic Greek sense; someone playing a part.

  16. I have a problem with orthodoxy: regardless of the immediate source advocating it, it has always ended up being (in my experience, anyway) an impediment to personal growth, a stumbling-block between me and God, to use Christian terminology. Over the years, I have had the privilege of learning a great deal of doctrine from many teachers whose ideologies are all over the map (Mormon, Christian, pagan, ancient, modern, Buddhist, atheist). All have given me things that enriched my personal life (from a moral standpoint: they improved my mores). All justify the efficacy of their teaching by articulating some kind of orthodoxy, i.e. a rational justification giving the fixed reason(s) for the things they do. Inevitably, something in their justifications (i.e. some piece of orthodoxy as they define it) always stands out to me as pure bullsh!t.

    I am a simple person who likes getting along with others, so I generally smile and nod, taking the useful moral teachings along with the bullsh!t that purports to justify them. But after twenty years trying, I cannot remain a believer in (strict) orthodoxy. Thought as I experience it is eternally more than words. Every utterance (and every creed) is only an approximation of something that can never really be said. Even my motives for simple actions (like giving flowers to my wife) is not fully expressed in some single word or words expressing unified purpose. I see it that way because I am wired to distinguish points and draw causal connections between them, but the reality of my behavior remains an inscrutable, undefinable mystery that no one can adequately explain (without resorting to bullsh!t). Looking at my faith journey over the past 10 years, I see that what really matters to me is the reality that people are, not the bullsh!t that they give me to justify that reality. I care about the person and the praxis that we have had together, praxis that has shaped me into a better person. I do not care what bullshit they gave me to justify that praxis.

    So put me down for orthopraxy against orthodoxy. At the end of the day, I would much rather live with an atheist who talked crap all day and practiced real human kindness (I know it when I see it; please don’t ask me to define it) than with any kind of believer or atheist who talked an impeccably smooth game and treated others like dirt. By the same token, I do not get mad at people for having opinions. You are welcome to think (and preach) that God commissioned some desert fanatic to organize his one true cult and spread it across the world. Until you start hijacking airplanes and blowing up civilians, I will not give you grief for your crazy beliefs (as I hope you will refrain from pestering me about mine). From my perspective on human history, this outlook is something really valuable: society should be built around deeds, which provide a concrete reference point for reward and punishment, not ideas, which waffle all over the place, no more so than when they pretend to be fixed and immutable. Is Islam a religion of peace or not? Are Mormons Christian? Are Christians Christian? The only meaningful answers to these questions involve deeds done by real people (i.e. praxis), deeds that I can interpret immediately without any reference to rationalized bullsh!t (orthodoxy). That’s my opinion (my own personal flavor of bullsh!t), and I’m sticking to it!

  17. Of course, the answer to the question “What does a Mormon have to believe to be a Mormon?” all depends on what you mean by the question. So I’m going to offer several answers based on different interpretations of what has been asked.
    Membership definition: At its most clear-cut level, a Mormon is simply one who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is the dictionary definition and is probably what most English-speaking people mean by the term (if they’ve thought about it). In a sense, you don’t have to believe anything to be a Mormon, as long as you made the fairly minimalistic statement of faith when you were baptized as young as 8. It is against current policy to kick anyone out of the church for mere inactivity, so by this definition the number of Mormons who no longer set foot in an LDS church is in the millions.
    Self-identification definition: In another sense, anyone who identifies with the Church — and this includes not only active members but many inactive ones as well as some former members and descendants of members — can be considered Mormon. I don’t know what the numbers are, but certainly there are people who believe very little of what the Church teaches yet would consider themselves LDS. This number might even include some people who belong to churches that have descended from the church organized by Joseph Smith, such as certainly polygamous groups, who believe that the LDS church is not following the path preached by Smith.
    The definition I think was meant: Obviously, I don’t think Tim had the above in mind when he posed the question. I’m still not totally sure what he meant nor why it would matter to someone outside the church, but one way of approaching the question is to ask what one has to believe, assuming one is open about one’s beliefs, in order to be a regular participant in Church activities, have a temple recommend, receive important callings and have the possibility of callings above the local level. Such required beliefs aren’t necessarily written down anywhere but may represent a consensus of some sort.
    With this understanding, first and foremost one would have to believe that Jesus Christ was and is the Savior, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Godhood, a physically resurrected human, the Creator and all such items of Mormon doctrine that are taught repeatedly. One would also have to believe that Joseph Smith was called as a prophet to restore Christianity because of centuries of apostasy, and that subsequent church presidents (as well as the apostles and other high authorities) have also been called by God to lead the Church. One would also have to believe that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document that was revealed on the plates that Joseph Smith was led to, as well as to believe that the Bible and other scriptures are the Word of God.
    As a practical matter, such a person would likely also see church leaders as de facto infallible, even if in theory fallibility was a possibility. And, of course, although this isn’t directly a matter of belief per se, such a person would meet all the explicit behavioral expectations (e.g., Word of Wisdom) as well as certain cultural ones (e.g., the conservative corporate look) to have the highest callings.
    In terms of belief, whom does this exclude? It would exclude anyone who believes that the Book of Mormon is substantially a modern document. And it would exclude anyone perceived as being less than 100% loyal to the church leadership.
    In other words, I don’t think that if the bishop mentioned in Tim’s original post had used his real name that he would remain a bishop for very long.
    The above group would include, however, a fairly wide range of theologies. Even in the Quorum of the Twelve, there are different emphases on grace and works, and different approaches to how other religions should be treated. And I can imagine many issues that drive some anti-Mormons batty, such as the possibility that our Heavenly Father may have had a Father, would never come up one way or another as long as the person wasn’t teaching a particular viewpoint as the church’s position.
    OK, that’s one answer to the question. One might also ask what one has to believe in order to remain an active member and be welcome to participate fully at the local level, although perhaps not expect to be called as a bishop or Relief Society president. This group I would say is a bit broader, although it would depend on the particular ward. But the basics would be these: 1) Belief in Jesus as the Savior and the Son of God and related basic doctrines such as that he was physically resurrected. 2) Belief that Joseph Smith was called to restore the Church, and that subsequent prophets and apostles also have been called of God. 3) Belief in the Standard Works. 4) Although not a matter of belief per se, adherence to practices such as the Word of Wisdom and tithing.
    There is some room for fudging in these beliefs. Certainly there are those in the bloggernacle who openly hold to some fairly unorthodox views (e.g., believing that the Book of Mormon includes substantial interpolations of Joseph Smith) who continue to be active and welcomed. But those who are able to get away with such fudging are those who can couch their beliefs in a way that affirms other basic Church teachings.
    There may be social pressures against talking about unorthodox views during classes, but as long as one doesn’t teach such viewpoints in a way that undermines the authority of search leaders, disciplinary action is unlikely to result.
    I’m not sure how well that answers the question, but I’d be happy to answer any questions about specifics. Of course, there’s the standard disclaimer that I’m speaking only for myself here and what I have observed.

  18. I would argue that without some common practices, you will not have common thoughts. The distinction between doctrine and practice is often artificial.

    The practices mold the doctrine and vice versa. Drop one element and it inexorably effects the other.

  19. David Clark: I was referring to my Jewish friends (including their rabbi) continually reminding me that “faith” is not essential to Judaism. Which means that even as they engage in deep study of the Law, they do not necessarily try to reflect on the meaning of that law, or how the law symbolizes something about the nature of God, etc. Rather, they focus on what the law itself means and how it applies in multiple scenarios (they’d make great Supreme Court justices!). Thus, they would disagree with your statement, “This means [Jewish orthopraxy] functions in many ways like Christian orthodoxy does.”

    To be clear, I wasn’t trying to compare Mormonism (or anything in particular) to Judaism. I’d contrast the two more than anything.

    “The take home message is clear: do what you are told, even if you don’t know why.”

    I’m not sure why you left out the ubiquitous follow-up point made by Mormons when quoting that scripture. Perhaps you were unaware? Anyway, here it is:

    And then the angel spake [explaining the purpose]…

    And in that day the Holy Ghost fell upon Adam…

    And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy…

    And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying…

    And then the invariable conclusion reached and preached by Mormons is that faithful obedience like Adam and Eve demonstrated leads to revelation and a deep understanding of things that were previously not revealed or known (i.e., mysteries). Thus, I reject your idea that there is “a strong undercurrent of obedience for the sake of obedience.”

    As for a “strong institutional discouragement in the correlated church to not engage in speculation,” I think you missed some important qualifiers.

    Here is Elder Eyring discouraging speculation when teaching someone who is new to or wavering in faith (because it’s an ineffective teaching strategy): http://lds.org/liahona/2009/04/teaching-true-doctrine?lang=eng

    Here is Elder Kendrick, quoting Joseph Smith as saying there “will be no room for speculation” after the Holy Ghost reveals the meaning of the scriptures to the individual directly:
    http://lds.org/ensign/1993/05/search-the-scriptures?lang=eng

    (Elder Kendrick goes on to encourage us to “look for doctrinal relationships and for possible hidden meanings of that which has been recorded.”)

    Here’s a chapter from the Harold B Lee manual where Lee discourages speculation that contradicts the scriptures or the revealed word of God (kinda a no-brainer):
    http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?hideNav=1&locale=0&sourceId=7d4197a7c1d20110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=88021b08f338c010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD

    Here is where Elder Oaks discourages seeking to understand mysteries if it comes at the price of “a firmer understanding and a better practice of the basic principles of the gospel”—as part of a larger discussion about strengths (e.g., a desire to understand everything) that Satan can exploit into weaknesses:
    http://lds.org/ensign/1994/10/our-strengths-can-become-our-downfall?lang=eng

    (He also mentions “the fringes of orthodoxy,” so that’s an added bonus for this thread.)

    So yeah, I pretty much reject your notion that Mormons discourage seeking deep understanding of the doctrine behind our practices. I don’t for a second think I’m going to convince you otherwise, but at least I can lay down my reasons for thinking you’re wrong.

  20. I would argue that without some common practices, you will not have common thoughts. The distinction between doctrine and practice is often artificial.

    The practices mold the doctrine and vice versa. Drop one element and it inexorably effects the other.

    Bingo. The categories of “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy” and the dividing line between the two are rhetorical constructs only.

  21. The practices mold the doctrine and vice versa. Drop one element and it inexorably effects the other.

    I agree with this. But I also think that the church has tried to do exactly that, severely limit how doctrine can affect practices. That was part of what I was getting at with my earlier lengthy comment. So much of current church practice just reduces to “Do it because we say so.”

  22. “But I also think that the church has tried to do exactly that, severely limit how doctrine can affect practices.”

    I can’t see that, in the history of churches doctrine will always develop or morph to support or accommodate popular practice. And practices will morph to support popular doctrine.

    This is found throughout entire history of the church (LDS or otherwise.)

    Scholarship, science, popular opinion, politics, public relations, self interest, practical requirements all effect the church and shift both practices and doctrine.

    Of course a conservative church like the LDS, that is dedicating lots of central resources to growth will create doctrine to resist the disruption of change in order to streamline growth and management. It doesn’t want to become a bunch of sects or independent groups, that is not at all in keeping with its mission and vision for itself. I would suggest the only practical way of doing that is to artificially quell dissent to some degree.

    Churches are not ever in it for the “truth” through any means because there is no way to ensure people agree on what that is, they are in it for the church. A dogmatic approach is inevitable.

  23. Here’s another example from the most recent episode of Mormon Stories, an interview with Dan Wotherspoon.

    http://mormonstories.org/?p=1468

    Listen to part 2. He rejects just about every Mormon truth claim.

    In part 3 he answers what he thinks of the questions raised in this post.

  24. @Brian J (from the beginning of the thread): Actually, I disagree. Most people in America believe that to be Christian, you have to believe in the Trinity. And a large amount also believe that you have to take the Bible as the only source of authority (a belief that also throws Catholics under the bus, though they don’t realize that they are doing this). Why do most people believe this? Because most of them are either Protestant or grew up in Protestant areas. Their definition of Christianity is whatever they have been taught Christianity to be. They think Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t Christian because they’ve been taught that they aren’t Christian, not because they have any deep theological reasoning.

    Because of the variety of religious beliefs, it is difficult to create labels. If you want to be charitable, you can say that a Christian is someone who believes Christ is the Messiah (this includes Mormons but excludes Muslims, who view Jesus as only one of many prophets) If you want to be REALLY charitable, as I’ve seen some websites be, you could say that anyone who views themselves as a Christian is a Christian (this again, includes Mormons, but excludes Muslims. But unlike the last definition, it would include Muslims if they wanted to be included).

    @ Eric: It should be noted that many early Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, the Marcionites, the Gnostics, and the Arians, would view you as the heretical Christian. I don’t think any Mormon or Protestant can use the argument “these denominations don’t exist any more so God must have ended them because they are wrong” because it should be noted that during the year 1000, Protestants and Mormons did not exist. If Protestants and Mormons can say that they recreated themselves, maybe the Ebionites, Marcionites, the Gnostics, and Arians can as well.

    @Kullervo makes a good point. If we define Mormonism as “the belief that Joseph Smith is the most important prophet” then that would include the Community of Christ and FLDS church as well. The argument “the LDS church is the only true Mormon church because it is the biggest” isn’t a good definition of Mormon

    @Jack: If a person is struggling with Orthodoxy, shouldn’t you discuss the issue with them instead of saying “go do some rituals and eventually you’ll believe”.

    @Tim: Well, that sort of gets into the whole New Order Mormon situation. Many Cultural Mormons may not agree with the doctrinal beliefs of Mormonism, but enjoy the culture. Others may want to escape the doctrinal beliefs and the culture, but can’t because if they live in a majority Mormon area they might fear (with some justification) that their friends will abandon them if they leave the church. They may lie to their bishop about their beliefs, but especially in the second case, they might feel they have no choice if they want to have friends.

  25. Rollingforest: “Most people in America believe that to be Christian, you have to believe in the Trinity.”

    I doubt that.

    And you can’t just quote the number of Americans who belong to Trinitarian churches, because most of them probably wouldn’t list that as a definition of “Christian” and definitely wouldn’t be able to define “Trinity” correctly themselves.

    “They think Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t Christian because they’ve been taught that they aren’t Christian…”

    Right. That’s the problem. They’ve heard that Mormons aren’t Christian, and in their minds they define “Christian” as someone who believes in the Bible (or some other very broad classification), and thus they are misled and confused.

    I agree with your statements on being charitable. However, I don’t think that’s the only rubric to use. When someone asks me if Mormons are Christian, they almost invariably mean “believers in the Bible” (etc.); I know that and so I answer based on their definition. That’s not being charitable; it’s just being…fluent and conversant. (Sometimes, rarely, they follow up with a question like “But I’ve heard people say that you aren’t Christian, so…?” in which case I explain the controversy.)

  26. PS. Interesting article from an interesting site: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_defn1.htm

    Visitors to this web site send us many E-mails daily that comment on its contents. About 80% are positive. But among our negative and sometimes angry Emails, and occasional death threat, the two most common topics are the proper definition of “Christian” and our use of BCE and CE format to identify years instead of BC and AD.

    and

    This web site needed to adopt a definition of “Christian.” Otherwise it would be impossible to organize our essays on various faith groups. We decided to not invent a new definition, because that would merely add to the confusion. We decided to adopt the inclusive definition that is used by public opinion polls and government census offices:

    Anyone who seriously, thoughtfully, sincerely, prayerfully considers themselves to be a Christian is considered a Christian for the purpose of our essays.

  27. @BrianJ: Yes, religioustolerance.org was one of the websites I was thinking of. As suggested by its name, it takes the most liberal definition possible.

    I tried to find a poll on what Americans view as essential doctrine that one must believe to be Christian, but the closest I could find is a poll of Protestant Pastors about whether they think famous people are true Christians or not, which isn’t really the same question.

  28. While not a poll showing whether or not Americans consider Mormonism to fall under the broader category of Christianity, I find it telling that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life says the following to explain its sub-heading of Christianity, which contains many well-accepted polls on religion in America:

    … the Christian religion and its members, as well as many of the religious groups that it encompasses: evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, members of historically black Protestant churches, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Christians and other Christians.

    I am quite aware that there are many who do not accept Mormonism to be the same kind of Christianity that they observe, but I think that there are many more who are willing to agree that Mormonism is classified as a Christian religion. The only Christians I’ve met who feel otherwise tend to be those of the Evangelical movement, particularly those who are part of the counter-cult ministry strain. To be honest, though, I’ve never had a discussion with my various non-Evangelical Christian friends about whether or not Mormons are Christians, most likely because they don’t consider the question one way or the other.

    As far as Tim’s specific question, I’m quite in agreement with Eric’s definitions provided. I’ll also point out that many countries (although not the United States) have accepted the right of the LDS church to determine the definition of Mormon and associated phrases by granting trademarks to Intellectual Reserve, Inc. The US Patent Office, however, says the word is too general to apply to a particular group.

  29. I’ll also point out that many countries (although not the United States) have accepted the right of the LDS church to determine the definition of Mormon and associated phrases by granting trademarks to Intellectual Reserve, Inc. The US Patent Office, however, says the word is too general to apply to a particular group.

    Completely irrelevant.

  30. How is that “completely irrelevant”? I mean, if we’re talking about how most people use the word “Mormon” in conversation, certainly trademarking will heavily influence that.

  31. RollingForest ~ If a person is struggling with Orthodoxy, shouldn’t you discuss the issue with them instead of saying “go do some rituals and eventually you’ll believe”.

    Are these mutually exclusive or something?

    Alex said:

    I’ll also point out that many countries (although not the United States) have accepted the right of the LDS church to determine the definition of Mormon and associated phrases by granting trademarks to Intellectual Reserve, Inc. The US Patent Office, however, says the word is too general to apply to a particular group.

    I think this is totally relevant, and I also think that the U. S. Patent Office made the correct ruling. I don’t know what the other countries’ reasoning was for granting the application, but I can only imagine that at least some of them were less aware of the existence of other Mormon groups and didn’t carefully consider the matter.

    I don’t have it in front of me right now, but I seem to recall reading the U. S. Patent Office’s response to the application. They basically said that “Mormon” can’t be copyrighted and assigned to one organization any more than “Presbyterian” can because the term describes a broader religious movement. That reasoning strikes me as perfectly sound.

  32. RollingForest ~ To be a bit clearer on what I was advocating before: religion is a lot like a marriage to me. It’s a long-term commitment that should not be easily broken, and it includes covenants and vows and duties. I even thought that the membership induction ceremony for my denomination was a lot like a wedding ceremony.

    If a friend came to me and said she was struggling with her marriage and was not sure that she really loved her husband anymore, I would not say, “Well, then you should immediately stop fulfilling your responsibilities as a wife until you love your husband again. Stop sleeping with him, stop paying your share of the bills, stop taking care of the children and doing housework until you’re sure that you love your husband and want to be a part of the marriage again. In the meantime, let’s talk about why you’re struggling with your marriage.” I would tell her to continue with the orthopraxy of her marriage while we try to figure out what’s not working.

    It’s the same thing with Christianity. If someone is struggling with his faith, I’m not going to tell him to stop going to church, stop praying, stop reading his scriptures, etc. until he figures out whether he really believes. I would tell him to keep up that routine while we try to figure out why his faith is flagging.

    So I wasn’t really advocating orthopraxy as a means of avoiding discussion of the problem. But I think abandoning orthopraxy in the meantime is only going to exasperate the problem.

  33. BrianJ,

    Rather, they focus on what the law itself means and how it applies in multiple scenarios

    You should have stopped there, as that concedes the point I was making about Judaism. Jews extract meaning from the law which then allows it to be applied in different scenarios.

    In Christianity belief provides the meaning for the actions.

    Thus, the end result is that both end up providing meaning, which provides a basis for action. Therefore they have the same functional purpose. QED.

    As for discovering the meaning behind Mormon rules, you provide a bunch of quotes which basically reinforce the point I was trying to make, though I have learned to never underestimate the ability of a bloggernacle Mormon to read into any quote whatever he/she needs to be in that quote.

  34. Well, I confess that I lost your point. I think I see where: you tossed Mormonism aside as though deeper study does not also provide reinforced meaning for Mormons—both in terms of action and belief. You reserve such reinforcing for mainstream Christian orthodoxy (the study of which reinforces orthodoxy) and Jewish orthopraxy (the study of which reinforces orthopraxy). Instead, I thought you were arguing that reflecting on Jewish orthopraxy or Christian orthodoxy “serve the same purpose; viz. to inform faith/spiritual belief.”

    “… though I have learned to never underestimate the ability of a bloggernacle Mormon to read into any quote whatever he/she needs to be in that quote.”

    I love it when you’re cute like this. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I’m thinking of starting a t-shirt company where I print these kinds of quotes on it. Would you mind? I’m thinking of calling it: “Mormons are idiots. By definition. So says David Clark. QED.” Although on second thought, that name is a tad long.

  35. I don’t think he’s saying Mormons are idiots. He’s saying Mormons lack integrity.

    Those are two vastly different things.

  36. Jack said:

    If someone is struggling with his faith, I’m not going to tell him to stop going to church, stop praying, stop reading his scriptures, etc. until he figures out whether he really believes. I would tell him to keep up that routine while we try to figure out why his faith is flagging.

    I like the analogy. Unless the person were in some sort of an abusive religion (there’s the marriage analogy again), I’d advise the same thing, regardless of the particular religion.

  37. “… though I have learned to never underestimate the ability of a bloggernacle Mormon to read into any quote whatever he/she needs to be in that quote.”

    “I don’t think he’s saying Mormons are idiots. He’s saying Mormons lack integrity.”

    Hmm. . . Mormons use to mental gymnastics to continue to justify the belief in the implausible. . . they might be closer to Protestantism than you guys think. 😉

  38. Some of the first Christians, the Ebionites, did not believe in the Trinity, but rather viewed Jesus as a Jewish Prophet. So considering that, it would be unfair not to allow Mormons to be called Christians.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebionites

    If we are going by the definition that “a Christian is someone who can trace their history of their movement back to Christ” then Mormons are Christian, but at the same time that would mean that the FLDS and the Community of Christ could claim the title ‘Mormon’.

    @Ms. Jack: I’m sorry if I sounded condescending. You are, from my experience, a fair person to talk to. Sometimes I make a point too bluntly without rewording it in a respectful fashion. This isn’t because I’m trying to be disrespectful, but rather because I rush into making my point without being tactful. It seems that I misrepresented your original point when I did that.

    I think you make some very good points in your post. I agree that if people are wavering in their faith, they shouldn’t give up all of the ritual and culture until they are sure of what they believe. They should continue doing what they are comfortable with and figure out what they believe along the way.

    However, I do think there is a difference (in my view anyway) between marriage and belief. If you commit to a marriage, you are committing to doing certain acts, such as caring for the kids. You can not get out of those commitments unless you go through a long process which cuts you off from that relationship. But if you believe in something, you are only committed to it so long as you believe. If you lose your belief then that second you are no longer committed to it any more. You can go to church if you want or not. You should seek the truth and if going to church makes you more comfortable then that is okay. If not going makes you more comfortable, that is also okay.
    There are people who leave church to find themselves and then ultimately feel that they should go back to church and have a stronger faith because of it. There are others who are forced to go to church because their family and neighbors only view them as good people if they go. Forcing someone to go to church is the best way to solidify their hatred of it.

    Now, many of you will have had more experience than me in this and I’d love to hear your responses, but I’ve heard of many cases where Mormon Bishops encourage those wavering in their faith to participate in Mormon culture because it will revitalize their faith. They aren’t saying “we accept whatever level of belief you have”. What they are saying is “merely being with us will make you more like us”. But it won’t. Or at least it shouldn’t. Your belief should dictate your culture. Your culture should not dictate your belief. Ms. Jack is correct in saying that you should not quit doing rituals just because your faith wavers. But the Mormon Bishop here seems to suggest that the rituals in and of themselves will grow your faith. If that is true then your faith is based on rituals and nothing more.

  39. Hi RollingForest,

    In the short time I’ve known you, I’ve found you eminently reasonable to talk to. Your comment didn’t come off as condescending at all.

    With all due respect though, I don’t think breaking up with faith is as simple as what you say here:

    If you lose your belief then that second you are no longer committed to it any more.

    A person of faith may have a lot of commitments within his or her religion that are difficult to walk away from even if s/he stops believing. He or she might hold important callings at church, there might be students that the person is mentoring or people in the community that are being reached out to, or a spouse who has been living a life-long dream of attending church as husband and wife. In the Protestant world (and less common but still possible, in Mormonism), the person might even have a job with the church. Leaving is rarely as simple as, “I don’t believe in this anymore, so good-bye.”

    Your belief should dictate your culture. Your culture should not dictate your belief.

    It’d be nice if things worked this way.

    But 99% of the time, I don’t think religious conversion works like this.

    What I mean is, most people do not join a religion because they were compelled by its doctrine alone. Most people are socialized into it, or raised in it, or the religion provided powerful catharsis from a dark past, or liberation from current maladies. And after one of those things, they find ways of being “okay” with what’s taught.

    I don’t necessarily think that this makes their faith fake. I don’t see why God can’t work through one of those things to bring a soul to him. The bishop who recommends that a ward member stay active even with a flagging faith is just trying to capitalize on this.

  40. I like the marriage analogy Jack. I think some Mormons (as mentioned in the OP) may be married to Mormonism, but they’re having an emotional affair with another worldview.

    At some point they’re making a sham out of both relationships.

  41. BrianJ,

    Just to correct you, I would never say that Mormons in the chapel are idiots. My remarks were aimed at bloggernacle Mormons, sometimes also known as “Internet Mormons” or “Sunstone Mormons.” I also didn’t call these groups idiots.

    However, to be perfectly frank, I would love nothing better than to talk with average Mormons about the issues I see that are problematic in Mormonism. The problem is that most Mormons either can not or will not engage these issues. So, I’m stuck discussing stuff with bloggernacle Mormons who will engage the issues but don’t like referring to lived Mormonism all that much. Their Mormonism bears little resemblance to the Mormonism preached at General Conference or contained in the LDS lesson manuals.

  42. Tim, I don’t really like the marriage analogy (since in my view it assumes a degree of authority and coherence for impersonal ideologies that I find dangerous for various reasons: personally, I am not comfortable “defining” myself by the church I attend, preferring to leave myself some wiggle-room for personal integrity no matter the crowd I hang with to talk about spirituality and practice rituals). But if I humor you and play along, how do you feel about the following question?

    Let’s say you married young: your spouse was bright, energetic, and beautiful, and the two of you had a lot in common. Some friends and family disapproved your union; some of them even went so far as to tell you that your spouse was mentally unstable, a danger to you and the rest of the family. At first, you could not tell what their problem was, but eventually (a year or two or more down the road; make it more than 10 in my case) you learned that your spouse was a little odd, that your friends’ objections were not entirely unfounded. Maybe, in certain situations, your spouse might be dangerous to you (if you did whatever she recommended without thinking about it). Maybe she had a habit of saying stupid things or backbiting about other people. What’s a good husband to do? Do you read her the riot act, wait for her to blow her top, and then apply for divorce? Do you pretend nothing has happened? Do you go to therapy to learn about methods for coping with her problem without breaking the union between you, a union that has value for you (maybe you have a few kids, a few special memories of good things done together)? It would be awfully easy sometimes to walk away, to put the crazy lady in a home and play the field. But what happens when you really love your spouse, broken as she undoubtedly is?

    Many people who describe themselves as Mormons are “married” (literally in some cases) to the LDS church. They get things there that they cannot get elsewhere (interaction with friends and family are important to us all). If I “quit” Mormonism, sure my personal life becomes easier in some ways, but only at the expense of relationships with my family. My parents, in-laws, and teenage twin-sisters aren’t theologians or philosophers; they’re just nice people who want the best for their son or brother: I tried telling them about my problems with church, and it took them a year to even begin to understand what I was saying. If I had marched out in a blaze of righteous indignation the moment I caught “Mormonism” in flagrante, they might never have spoken to me again. The tenuous connection I maintain with the church allows me to interact with them positively. I value that (even more than I value my right to say what I really feel about theological and philosophical issues: for that I have the university and the Internet).

    So what am I to do, Tim? Do I kick my spouse to the curb because she’s not all I thought she was when we were young and in love, or did I mean it when I made my decision “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer” (and all the rest of it)? I’ve already said that personal integrity does matter: in my case, I look for non-threatening ways to talk to friends and family in the church about the theological, philosophical, and historical problems I have with Mormonism as it is presented in venues maintained by church leadership. I think folks are slowly coming around, recognizing that I am not a bad egg even if I do not toe the line perfectly (as per the directives from the COB). Thanks for hearing me out on this one: sorry to go on so long.

  43. Hermes,

    I like the marriage analogy, but like all analogies it’s tricky to apply.

    Your overriding concern seems to be family and friend relations. That’s a valid concern. If you were to make a clean break there would definitely be hurt feelings and anger. In my case there certainly was. However, I think you may want to give your loved ones more credit, people get over these things.

  44. Clearly the analogy is going to break down. Bonding yourself to a spouse and bonding yourself to a church are two different things. But both can relationships can be righteously severed with just cause.

    But what happens when you really love your spouse, broken as she undoubtedly is?

    If you really love your “spouse” then I would say that having an emotional (orthodox) or sexual (orthoprax) affair with another belief system is not the way to show her that you love her. If you love her you will commit yourself to her fully and display it in your heart and your actions.

    What I think I hear you and others expressing is not love but fondness for Mormonism. I don’t think you “really love” your spouse. You just love the house you live in with her. There is certainly reason to hold on “in sickness and in health”, but I would take that to be the blessings and curses that come with faith. Not the discovery that your spouse was not who she claimed she was. In real life marriage terms, that’s reason for an annulment; divorce isn’t even necessary.

  45. Not the discovery that your spouse was not who she claimed she was. In real life marriage terms, that’s reason for an annulment; divorce isn’t even necessary.

    Indeed, a marriage procured through fraudulent means is generally voidable.

    Not that you’re required to void it. But its voidable.

  46. If you really love your “spouse” then I would say that having an emotional (orthodox) or sexual (orthoprax) affair with another belief system is not the way to show her that you love her. If you love her you will commit yourself to her fully and display it in your heart and your actions.

    Mormonism does not demand monogamy in the same way as Evangelicalism does. 😉

  47. Thanks, Jared! And thanks to everyone else for hearing my concern. At the end of the day, I am not really comfortable as an orthodox Mormon; I am also not really comfortable anywhere else (though the best religious experiences I have had since my faith crisis have been mediated through Buddhism). So far I prefer dealing with the problems I know (Mormon ones) to going it alone (as a hardcore agnostic skeptic, which is what I would be — hello, Bart Ehrman) or committing myself lock, stock, and barrel to another “spouse” who (from my point of view) is no more likely to prove “faithful” than my first. (Every religion contains nutcases like the guys running the show in Salt Lake, and all orthodoxy that tries to be dogmatic looks ridiculous to me.)

    I like the community that religion provides. I like serving my community, the one I grew up in, as far as I am able without going against my conscience. As long as I can have a positive relationship with the LDS church, I will. If “she” wants to kick me out at some point, the bishop has my number (and I would totally understand). I intend to go on exploring positive aspects of spirituality that I find outside the Mormon church, because for me that has always been part and parcel of Mormonism. (Brigham Young somewhere said, along with all that other crap, that Mormonism embraces all truth: I found that early in my faith journey and really latched onto it; I don’t feel that I am being untrue to Mormonism when I go to Buddhist or Greek Orthodox services and participate. Weird, huh? I guess I am an unrepentant religious polygamist.)

  48. I think it’s better to think of the spouses as worldviews rather than religions. Atheism, naturalism and skepticism are as much a “spouse” as Mormonism. You’ve probably already married one, you just keep visiting your old wife on the side.

  49. @Ms. Jack: I agree with you about how a person might have responsibilities in the church that they can’t give up at the drop of a hat. If a person loses faith in that particular church, they should slowly back away from their responsibilities until they have none and then slowly move to the other church or community. If you only see certain friends at church, that might involve making new friends. If you see them outside of church, hopefully you can ease them into accepting your new faith or belief.

    I also agree with you that most people get their religious and political beliefs from whatever community they grow up in. A person’s faith in those beliefs is real. They really do believe in the truth of those views. But anytime where you have beliefs for any reason other than logical deduction, you have a huge chance of believing false claims. Some people may think that is okay as long as it doesn’t hurt you, but given how much religion and, obviously, political views can affect a person’s vote, it is reasonable to ask them to question why they believe what they do. Sure, it is possible for God to work through people of all faiths and political beliefs, but this doesn’t seem to always happen in many cases considering how many different opinions there are on moral issues. It would be easier for people to know what they had to do if they had solid understanding of what was true. But if they are seeking the truth, they can’t just go with the beliefs of whatever community they’ve grown up in because there are many reasonable people from different communities who disagree about important issues. And they can’t just always say “I’ll pray and God will make it clear to me” because there are many reasonable people who still disagree after doing that.

    @Hermes: I can understand not wanting to anger your family by your religious choices. However, once you are no longer financially dependent on them (which you may be now, if you are at a university) you should begin to assert your own views in a subtle way. Instead of coming out and saying “I am a ______” you should continue to ask skeptical questions about what you don’t agree with. If you do it as if you are inquisitive rather than confrontational, they can’t be too angry at you. If you debate well, you can force your family to give you some room to believe as you wish. Don’t let them use the “just trust the religion, leaders, religious books ect”. It isn’t your job to trust anything. If something is the truth, then it should be able to verify itself when needed. Try to get your family to understand your new beliefs without labeling yourself as that while at the same time make friends with people of this new belief (or at least people who are accepting of your new belief). If you don’t put yourself in a box by saying “I am a ____” you should be able to slowly ease into it without alienating your family too much.

    In terms of communities, you can find online those that you can’t find in your area in real life. There are Buddhist online communities, Greek Orthodox online communities, and yes, there are also many online communities for Skeptics. Make acquaintances with those you meet online. Then maybe you can find a group nearby that will satisfy whatever view of religion you want to be attached to.

  50. Pingback: Who gets to determine what Mormonism is with respect to Christianity? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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