In his new book, Claiming Christ, Professor Robert Millet, in dialogue with Evangelical scholar Gerald McDermott about the commonalities and differences of Mormonism and the varieties of Evangelical Christianity, makes the observation that the notion of labeling Latter-day Saints as â€œnot Christianâ€ is a fashion that became widespread only about twenty years ago. (For example, it has only been in the last few years that the Methodists and Catholics thought it necessary to address whether Mormons could be received into their membership without rebaptism.) Brother Millet makes it clear that he rejects the label, and his effort throughout the book is to explain the devotion to the Savior that Latter-day Saints share with Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants of all kinds.
We are all familiar with the effort of people in many other churches in Christendom to classify Latter-day Saints as being outside Christianity on grounds of our rejection of the bodiless, emotionless trinity of the creeds, while we get no credit for having a stronger loyalty to the text of the Bible than many modern Protestant denominations. Apparently you can reject the authority and accuracy of scripture pretty broadly and still be Christian. In First Things journal, Father Richard John Neuhaus critically recounts every month instances of departure from basic Christian doctrine by priests of his own Roman Catholic Church, but they are never considered as losing their membership cards in Christianity on that basis. We Mormons are never going to win a game using their arbitrary definitions of â€œChristianâ€ that emphasize our differences, while overlooking our many similarities and ignoring the wide divergence of many other denominations from historical and arguably Biblical Christian beliefs.
I suggest that there is a non-theological reason why those who call us â€œnon-Christianâ€ should stop doing so.
I don’t begrudge people who feel the need to find some terminology to demarcate themselves from Mormons. How about calling themselves “non-Mormons”, rather than making up a name for Mormonsâ€”â€œnon-Christianâ€–which Mormons don’t agree with and don’t want to wear?
Insisting on applying that term to Mormons is like someone coming up and slapping a sticker on my back that says “Stupid”. They are well aware that, without specific explanation, it is understood by many people to mean that Mormons do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, the resurrected Savior of the world. Knowing this, people who use the term, without caveats to specify that it does not mean what it sounds like, are creating a false understanding about Mormons, and are therefore bearing false witness against their LDS neighbors.
Since they know that Mormons don’t like the label, people who use it are intentionally giving offense. How Christian is it to do that? Didnâ€™t Jesus say something about people who call their brother â€œa foolâ€ being in danger of hell fire?
We don’t call Japanese people “Japs” any more (I am one, by the way), and some of the names for blacks are so offensive we don’t even spell them out, and we fire people who use such terms (as Don Imus learned). Certain terms for homosexuals are employed only by those intent on giving offense or even inducing fear of physical harm. We also refrain from using terms that denigrate Muslim Americans, even while we wage war against a violent group that uses Muslim rhetoric to encourage the mass murder of Americans. Such labels turn human beings into objects that can be abused at will. They are invitations for others in the audience to express their animosity toward the group being labeled.
Just as a matter of maintaining a civil society, and not gratuitously alienating our fellow citizens, shouldn’t we generally refrain from sticking labels on good people that hurt their feelings, that portray them as lesser persons (not allowed, for example, to be elected President), or that serve as invitations to the sociopaths in society to “Kick Me”?
Regardless of what one’s own particular theology causes one to conclude about the ultimate eternal destination of your neighbor, it seems to me to be a serious deficit of Christian ethics to insist on applying a label to millions of people when they see it as denying the sincerity of their worship, their prayer, their study of scripture, their sacred covenants with God and their sacrifice. It is a label that literally leads to them being called “liars” in public places when they profess their faith in Christ (as Professor Millet recounts), and that encourages the most boorish of our neighbors to loudly ridicule things that we hold sacred. It demonstrates neither the love of neighbor that Jesus called the second great commandment, nor the love of enemies that he called his disciples to strive for in his Sermon on the Mount.
There is no problem with saying factually true things such as â€œMormons are not within traditional Trinitarian Christianity,â€ or â€œMormon beliefs are very different from those of my church, including beliefs about Christ that are beyond what the Bible says.â€ But when a Protestant or Catholic person points a finger at me and says â€œYou are not Christian, and when you say you are, you are lyingâ€, it serves no purpose other than to express hatred, and encourage division and discrimination. It carries the constant subtext that Latter-day Saints, because we insist we are Christian, are untrustworthy prevaricators who are therefore fair game for discrimination and denial of full participation in society alongside â€œreal Christians.â€
That kind of pejorative labeling is looked on with horror by society when used against racial and ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and other religious minorities. Why donâ€™t Mormons deserve the same kind of civility in public discourse that other minority groups receive?