Tuesday, September 27, 2011

five myths about Mormonism?

The given catalyst for the essay is the presidential candidacies of Romney and Huntsman-- along with the Broadway musical, "The Book of Mormon"-- and a desire to correct / moderate caricatures of the faith. Her format is to address five "myths". (Church members usually prefer Church of Latter-Day Saints, but she uses Mormon and it's easier, so I'll follow her lead.)  

1. Mormons practice polygamy.

Mainstream Mormons do not practice polygamy today, but it remains part of our history and theology...In 1890...yielded to political pressure and phased out the practice...Polygamy remains a source of tension for mainstream Mormons. Mormon public figures routinely play down our polygamous history...But the LDS Church, which teaches that marriages — or “sealings” — performed in its temples are eternal, has never disavowed elements of Mormon theology...

This is handled with considerable finesse by knowledgeable Mormons. But it is always challenging to argue for changing dispensations on theological matters of primary importance.

2. Mormons aren’t Christians.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, received a bread-and-water sacrament memorializing the body and blood of Christ, and discussed Christ’s teachings in Sunday school. We Mormons view ourselves as Christians. Many Christian pastors and scholars, however, point to theological technicalities that disqualify us from the mainline tradition. Some evangelicals do not see us as Christians for reasons rooted in antiquated anti-Mormon prejudice. And Mormons distance ourselves from other Christians by claiming that our faith offers a “restoration” of doctrines lost to mainstream Christendom...

Let's handle these one at a time: 
-It's interesting that the sacrament is water and bread, instead of wine (or grape juice) and bread. To the extent that Mormonism has a tendency toward works-righteousness, the picture of a "watered-down" sacrament is apropos.
-Discussing the teachings of Jesus is nice-- especially if you cover all of them-- but not a clear indication of a saving faith. 
-Whether or not Mormons are routinely saved by faith in God's grace as manifested by the atoning death of Jesus, it is odd (and dishonest?) to describe the doctrinal differences as mere technicalities.
-I agree that some Evangelicals oppose Mormonism out of prejudice and ignorance. Even so, there are good reasons to ask some tough/difficult questions about Mormon doctrine, history, Scriptural revelation, etc.

-The last point is huge: If you claim to be "the only ones" or claim to have a special and important revelation, then you can't complain when you're seen as unorthodox or cult-like! (See also: Catholics and Church of Christ.)

I don't see anything particularly large and controversial about the last three:

3. Most Mormons are white, English-speaking conservatives.

4. Mormon women are second-class citizens.

5. A Mormon president would blur the line between church and state.
Mormons have held local, state and federal offices in America for more than a century. Fifteen Mormons now serve in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — and few seemed to worry that the LDS Church was influencing his debt-ceiling proposals.


At November 30, 2011 at 11:07 AM , Blogger MW said...

You said "To the extent that Mormonism has a tendency toward works-righteousness, the picture of a 'watered-down' sacrament is apropos." So would it be fair if I said "To the extent that Evangelical Christianity has a tendency towards grace-only theology, the picture of a 'drunken' sacrament is apropos"? It might be cute to say that, but would it be accurate?

Also, I don't understand the inclination to consider the Catholic Church to be a cult.

The difference between the Mormons/Catholics and the hodge-podge of Protestant sects and one-off churches is the claim of *direct* priesthood authority and ordinance. Which the Protestants have abandoned. I'm not sure claims of authority make a church a cult.

At November 30, 2011 at 11:17 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I think your first paragraph is not only cute, but accurate and apropos. That said, my sense is that there is (far?) more variance among Evangelicals-- whether self-styled or by some attempt at an objective definition-- on this question, from works-righteousness to "cheap grace". Do you have a sense of either or both populations?

To be clear, I'm not saying that any of these are "cults" (however that's defined!), but they are often seen/described as such. My point is that if you claim to have a special revealed truth, church hierarchy, or claims of authority, then you shouldn't be surprised when that label gets trotted out. Moreover, I'm not sure one can really complain about the label very much either. It seems to me that it's part of the baggage that necessarily follows exclusive claims in the realm of religion. Do you concur with that?

At December 1, 2011 at 1:44 PM , Blogger MW said...

it seems to me that evangelical Christians make exclusive claims as well, but since they are loosely organized under a larger umbrella of "true Christianity" they can claim that it is not exclusive.

I'm a Mormon. I am actually very wary of being lumped in with evangelicals. The day that Mormonism is seen as little different than evangelical Christianity is the end of Mormonism. On the other hand, I don't think evangelicals can rightly claim exclusive ownership of the word "Christian."

It's ironic that Mormon leadership can be criticized as corporate, bland, indistinguishable from protestant leaders (see recent Hitchens screed), yet at the same time a cult. I guess this goes under the theory that Mormonism is both boring and dangerous.

At December 1, 2011 at 2:27 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

All religions make truth claims that are "exclusive" in that sense. To the extent that a self-styled Evangelical Christians makes the exclusive claim that "it's their way or the highway" (to Hell, Purgatory, or some lower level of Heaven), then they're in the same position. Outside of Catholicism and Mormonism, I can only think of "Churches of Christ" as a notable exception.

I'm leery of any religious label-- particularly if it carries baggage of legalism or libertinism. The term "Christian" is so broad as to be virtually useless; "evangelical" is not a lot better.

I haven't heard Evangelical leaders describe Mormons in those terms-- and wouldn't understood why they would go there.

At the end of the day, the larger issue is one's personal relationship with God, rather than the religious group to which one belongs. You either that you're saved fully by the grace of God-- or not.

For example, I remember Barna's research a few years back, where self-identifying Mormons were twice as likely as Episcopalians to hold the biblically orthodox position on the key doctrines of the faith. As I joke with some of my Evangelical friends: if Mormons are in a cult, what do we say about the Episcopalians?

Have you read "How Wide the Divide?" or "Claiming Christ"? I've read the former-- and studied it along with a Mormon friend of mine. Good stuff!

Grace and peace to you....eric

At December 1, 2011 at 4:46 PM , Blogger MW said...

Of course Mormons believe in folks being saved by grace. In fact, if I am not mistaken, non-Mormon Christians will inherit exactly the glory they now imagine if they stick with what they now do and believe (i.e. no eternal marriage, no eternal families in heaven). Christ rescues us from spiritual death, i.e. separation from the Father (but there we go into the Trinity debate as well, as we do not believe in the Trinity in the same way that most Christians do).

I've read neither of those books.

At December 1, 2011 at 4:56 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Many folks-- however they self-identify: Mormon, evangelical or other-- believe in some form of "grace-plus" salvation.

Check them out sometime, especially if you want to have a format for talking with an evangelical about common ground and differences.

At December 1, 2011 at 6:10 PM , Blogger MW said...

Yes, I read your post on "How wide the divide" quite some time ago, but had forgotten about it.

As Mormons, we do not run from our heterodoxy, but we resist being defined by terms that we do not agree with such as "non-Christian" or "cult."


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