Where Mormons fit on the religious spectrum
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, center, who is a sixth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Ann, left, at a campaign stop at Robies Country Store, in Hooksett, N.H., Monday.
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When the pastor of a Dallas megachurch called the Mormon faith a "cult" and a "false religion" at a recent political rally in reference to the faith of two Republican presidential candidates, he sparked a media firestorm.
But while the Rev. Robert Jeffress used inflammatory language when he endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the nomination, his words highlight real differences between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches.
"To a Mormon, the claim that they aren't Christian is baffling and hurtful. They will say that we have the name of Jesus Christ in our church. How can we be perceived as anything other than Christian?" said David Campbell, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and a leading researcher on faith in American life, who is also a Mormon.
"But when evangelicals and those in other churches say 'Christian,' they mean a specific definition of Christian. And by that definition they are right, Mormons don't fit that definition. So you have the two sides talking past each other, using the same words to mean different things."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are the two Mormons seeking the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
Sober discussion of theology has been drowned out by furor over the word "cult," once a neutral academic term that has taken on the connotation "death cult." And the uproar arose as some evangelical scholars are finding more common ground with Mormons. Mormons have always viewed themselves as Christians and believe their church restores long-lost elements of the faith.
There are 6 million Mormons in the United States, making the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the fourth-largest religious body behind the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church. Membership is concentrated in Utah, Idaho and California.
According to Lifeway Research, a Southern Baptist agency that polled 1,000 Protestant pastors, 75 percent don't believe that Mormons are Christians. A 2007 Pew Survey found that 31 percent of Americans and 48 percent of white evangelicals shared that view.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traces its roots to 1820, when Joseph Smith said he had been visited by angels and called to restore the true church. Part of that revelation was the Book of Mormon. It says that some Jews came to America around 600 B.C. and became forebears of American Indians. It teaches that, after the Resurrection, Jesus came to America and preached to their descendants.
In the Mormon vision of the afterlife, faithful Mormon families enjoy the greatest rewards, but there are realms of celestial joy for other Christians and for faithful followers of all world religions. Mormons look for similar acceptance from other churches.
"Who has the right to decide whether a man or a woman is Christian? Who has the power to gaze into another person's soul and know their deepest desires, their eternal yearnings, the source of their faith?" said Robert Millet, professor of religious education at Brigham Young University in Utah. He has led the Mormon side of a Mormon-evangelical dialogue since 2000.
"Almost without exception, evangelicals define one's Christianity by the theology, by one's orthodoxy. Latter-day Saints have a much more inclusive perspective and invite people to self-define. While doctrine does matter to us, we are far more prone to accept as evidence one's personal expression of belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ and their desire to live peaceably with others and to treat people as Jesus taught us."
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California and Mr. Millet's counterpart in the dialogue, has found Mormons closer to historic Christian doctrine than he had once thought. However, "I'm not prepared to say that the theology of Mormonism falls within the scope of acceptably orthodox Christianity," he said.
A major difference is over the nature of God. As Mr. Millet put it, "Latter-day Saints believe that God is a glorified man and that he has a body of flesh and bones. Mormons do not accept the formulations and creeds of the post-New Testament church, such as the doctrine of the Trinity."
But the 15 apostles who govern the church have authority to interpret scriptures based on new revelations. They did so notably in a 1978 revelation that admitted men of African descent to full membership. Mr. Mouw finds Mormon leaders continuing to grapple with doctrine that separates them from other churches.
Some leading Mormons have told him that, after studying the ways that various churches understand the Trinity, they could foresee the possibility of affirming that doctrine, he said. They are drawn to some Eastern Orthodox understandings that emphasize the love between the Trinity's three persons, he said.
"I find Mormons who say that the only difference between us and you on the doctrine of the Trinity is the terminology, that we could clarify that and all come to the same formula," he said.
Some Mormons are also drawn to Eastern Orthodox teaching about "theosis," a state of mystical union with God, he said. It's how some understand Smith's references to Mormons becoming gods in the afterlife.
Evangelical critics have long claimed that Mormons believe they will achieve deity, but that's not what current Mormon leaders teach, Mr. Mouw said.
"What they're saying these days is, 'Look, God is God and we're not. However you understand the other stuff we've said, we will never be God,' " he said.
But the furor over Rev. Jeffress' remarks wasn't doctrinal. It focused on using "cult" to describe a church to which two Republican presidential candidates belong.
In parts of academia, cult is a neutral word, meaning a set of devotional practices. Archaeologists write of the "cult of the Israelites" without prejudice.
But in the 1950s, evangelical watchdog groups began using "cult" for Christ-centered groups that differ from classical Christian theology, including Mormons. In 1978, when members of the Peoples Temple committed mass murder and mass suicide, the media adopted the word "cult" from evangelicals who had monitored the Peoples Temple.
"In the last generation, from the Jonestown suicide-murders to the Solar Temple suicides, the word 'cult' has taken on a sinister and even lethal connotation," said Richard Ostling, a former religion editor of Time magazine and The Associated Press and co-author of "Mormon America."
"It implies a type of control over the individual lives of believers, which simply doesn't pertain in the Mormon context."
He was surprised by Rev. Jeffress' assertion that "every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian."
In 2008, Mr. Ostling said, major evangelical leaders didn't attack Mr. Romney on religious grounds, although some secular analysts did so.
"I may be wrong, but I don't think evangelicals' religious opposition to Mormon teaching is going to largely affect the voting," Mr. Ostling said.
In a June Pew survey, 34 percent of white evangelicals said they would be "less likely" to vote for a Mormon for president, while 58 percent said it wouldn't matter. Among all voters who indicate reluctance to vote for a Mormon -- including 31 percent of Democrats -- 63 percent say they would never vote for a Mormon.
Evangelicals who know Mormons, like them, Mr. Ostling said.
"Most people, if they know anything about Mormons, would be real happy to have a Mormon move in next door. They will be the most helpful, warm-hearted neighbor you could imagine. The best advertisement for Mormonism is Mormons."
Mr. Campbell, the social scientist, says that "knowing a Mormon makes you less likely to be swayed by information about Romney's religious background."
But according to the 2007 Pew survey, only 48 percent of Americans say they know a Mormon. Mr. Campbell has polled on how warm or cold Americans feel toward those of various faiths. Mormons are in the coldest three, with Muslims and Buddhists.
Americans feel warmest toward Jews.
"I realize that may seem strange because people like Jews and Jews aren't Christians," Mr. Campbell said. "But the context is a little different. Jews aren't arguing that they are Christians and Mormons are. It's almost as though Americans are saying, 'Jews are different than us, but that's OK because they aren't claiming to be anything else.' But with Mormons, there's this big theological debate."
That will have political consequences, he said. Some of his studies show "there really is concern about the fact that many Americans perceive that Mormons aren't Christians."
Attacks such as Rev. Jeffress' hurt Mormons deeply, but may prove beneficial, he said.
"The more competitive the primaries, the more we will hear this and it will sting," he said.
"But we find that knowing a lot of factual information about Mormonism buffers the negatives. If we have this national conversation and people learn stuff about the church, the church is better off for that and Mormons are better off for that."
First Published October 16, 2011 12:00 am