Every so often the question “Are Mormons Christians?” gets batted around; the question has probably grown tedious for many. The discussions I’ve heard or read, though, usually leave me dissatisfied, in part because they treat Mormonism as if it were some unitary thing of definite and agreed upon content, and then argue about whether that unitary thing should be placed in the general category of “Christianity.” To me this approach seems false to the more complicated reality, and it misses the ways in which the question of Mormonism within Christianity is not just an abstract theological issue, or a polemical point (one that gets made in connection with Mitt Romney, for example, or Prop 8) but a live and important personal issue– at least for some of us.
Here I venture, with trepidation, onto ground that some contributors to this blog have certainly traveled and charted more carefully than I have. But my own judgment has long been that Mormonism has elements and teachings that fit well with historic Christianity, and it has other elements that are more distinctively or even uniquely “Mormon” and that are pretty hard to square with historic Christianity. I think of the Book of Mormon– its teachings– as a source and locus of the more “Christian” ideas and teachings (if I can call them that). And I might take the King Follett discourse as representative of the more uniquely “Mormon” ideas that are harder to reconcile with historic Christianity (and that combative evangelical types accordingly like to call attention to).
In this respect, Mormonism is like any large-scale and lasting movement, which is likely to give rise to diverse ideas and teachings that the movement tries over time to reconcile and harmonize. Religious movements do this; Christianity surely has had to do it. Law does too. In this ongoing process of harmonization and self-interpretation, some ideas and themes will typically be taken as more fundamental or constitutive, and other ideas and themes will be interpreted in light of, or absorbed into, those primary ideas. And some ideas and themes will drop out. The movement may or may not explicitly repudiate these themes, but in any case they come to be ignored, and forgotten, and even people who know about them understand that these are not themes that should be brought up. You don’t talk about Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings in Sunday School.
So it seems to me that Mormons have– and maybe have always had– a choice of sorts (although these things are not usually presented as pure, deliberate choices) to emphasize the Christian dimension of the religion or the more distinctly Mormon dimensions. We could emphasize King Follett-type elements, or we could linger on the Book of Mormon, reading it for what it actually says and not imposing other, later notions onto it. One can imagine a Mormonism in which a lot of the peculiarly Mormon ideas have gone the way of the Adam-God theory (and polygamy?), and in which the live differences between Mormonism and historic Christianity seem relatively marginal. Indeed, we don’t even need to imagine but only observe a condition in which Mormons believe many of the doctrines of historic Christianity– the literal resurrection, the Second Coming, the virgin birth– more whole-heartedly than many other self-identifying Christians do.
You may be able to tell that I’m engaging in a bit of wishful thinking here. I’ve long been attracted to the Christian dimension in Mormonism– to some of the more distinctly “Mormon” ideas not so much. (I suppose that’s why I felt pretty comfortable at Notre Dame– more so, maybe, than I might have felt at BYU?– and why I’ve somehow felt at home when I’ve occasionally done talks or whatever up at Pepperdine.) My own choice or judgment is based on the criterion of truth (as I very fallibly understand it, of course): I believe that the Christian story and Gospel are true. I regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed (understanding “catholic” to mean “universal,” as some translations have it), and I don’t see anything in that creed that Mormons should object to. If I didn’t focus on the Christian side of Mormonism, or if I came to think that this side was missing or discarded, I wouldn’t have much excuse to keep coming.
But I’ve had friends in the Church who see basically the same tension and choice that I see but who (if I understood them correctly) would make the opposite choice, emphasizing the distinctly Mormon elements and downplaying the ideas or teachings that tie Mormonism more closely to historic Christianity. I suppose that choice reflects what they find to be true. And I also admit that if the choice is viewed in strategic or prudential terms, there are pros and cons each way. Taking the “Christian” path might ease some of the tensions that arise with evangelicals, for instance, but it might also make it harder to justify, say, missionary work. (If we basically believe what other Christians do, why should we be trying to convert them?) And so forth.
For myself and in my situation, I don’t have to worry about these prudential pros and cons. I’m thankful that I can just go to Primary and play “I Am a Child of God” for the kids and leave the larger matters to the Church leaders (and to God). Even so, I know which direction I’d like things to go.