Court Finds Mormonism is Not “Protestantism”

October 16, 2008 | 19 comments
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An appellate court in Arkansas last week refused to overturn a lower court ruling which found a woman’s ex-husband in contempt of court for [violating the couple's custody agreement by] failing to raise their minor children “in the Protestant faith” after the ex-husband started promoting his Mormonism to their children. While many Mormons, and the Church itself even, would agree with the idea that Mormonism is not a Protestant faith, it seems to me that having courts making theological determinations about what denominations constitute “Protestant” is wading into some pretty murky territory. What if the custody agreement had stipulated that the kids were to be raised “in the Christian faith” and the wife similarly objected?

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19 Responses to Court Finds Mormonism is Not “Protestantism”

  1. Adam Greenwood on October 16, 2008 at 10:07 am

    This was probably an agreement of some kind, so you’d look to the intent and understanding of the parties. Here its probably pretty clear that ‘the Protestant faith’ did not include Mormonism. ‘The Christian faith’ is tougher. You might find that there was no meeting of minds.

  2. Marc Bohn on October 16, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Sorry, there was an agreement. I thought I had implied that. I’ll edit the post to make that clear.

  3. Kaimi on October 16, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Interesting case, Marc.

    One similar set of facts happened a few decades back at Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii. The school’s original charter required that teachers be Protestant.

    Some time in the 70s, a Mormon applied to teach there. He was qualified as a teacher, but there was a question of whether he met the Protestant requirement.

    The school wrote to the church, and got back an official FP letter, saying that the church was not Protestant — Protestant churches were churches that protested Catholicism by breaking off. The LDS church, by contrast, was a restored church.

    And, he didn’t get the job.

    (I had heard that there was a government followup from an agency on it, and possibly a court case, but I can’t find record of those right now.)

    So, I agree that there are all sorts of problems with courts getting involved in making theological determinations. That’s something courts avoid (see, e.g., the _Serbian Orthodox_ case.)

    But if an organization _says_ that it’s not part of some group, that’s pretty strong evidence. (And there are all sorts of statements from church leader that we are not protestant, which were mentioned in the FP letter.)

    It’s a non-issue now at KS, because the EEOC successfully challenged the Protestants-only policy, about 15 years ago.

  4. Nitsav on October 16, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Richard Abanes, author of One Nation Under Gods:A History of the Mormon Church (whose last name is not ah-baynz but pronounced with the vowels and rhythm of “bubonic”) put up a post about this in which the headline originally read “Mormonism legally declared not Christian.”

    As it now reads, it’s the equivalent of saying “All bachelors legally declared single!”

  5. Nate Oman on October 16, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Marc: If we are dealing with what in effect is the interpretation of a contract, I don’t see that there is anything particularlly suspect about what the Court is doing, unless one wants to say that contracts referencing religious concepts are unenforceable. That rule, it seems to me, would do more real damage to religious freedom than the odd case where a court is asked an awkward question of interpretation.

  6. Velska on October 16, 2008 at 10:53 am

    A couple of questions beg asking:

    What does Protestant mean?

    Is the Anglican Church (aka Church of England) Protestant or not, concerning its history? That’s petty semantics, but there you are.

    Why is this news to anybody? Church leaders have repeatedly said we are outside the Catholic – Protestant dichotomy and I agree. There are other Christian-oriented churches outside it, too, depending on whom you ask. As kooky as it is to have an American court rule on a theological question, I am inclined to worry that there will be a round of attempts to “define” us now.

    It is sad that people use their kids to gain hits on their exes when they can’t deal fairly with each other.

    But the prize goes to Abanes for suggesting that the ruling is “landmark”.

  7. Mark B. on October 16, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Interesting that you use “bubonic” as a help in pronouncing Abanes. Were you suggesting that he is a plague? Or wishing a plague on him and his house?

  8. Tony on October 16, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Re: #6- “Is the Anglican Church (aka Church of England) Protestant or not, concerning its history? That’s petty semantics, but there you are.”

    I was an Episcopalian (Anglican) prior to my conversion so I can say with authority that Anglicans do not consider themselves Protestants. And historically, they’re not.

  9. Norbert on October 16, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    ‘(whose last name is not ah-baynz but pronounced with the vowels and rhythm of “bubonic”)’

    I need to think up a better way of explaining how to pronounce my name, cause that one rocks.

  10. at U of R on October 16, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Tony, you must be from an anglo-catholic background, because I seem to recall an awful lot of pretty protestant Episcopalians (particularly among the low church types)–and I went to Sewanee where there are both lots of episcopalians and periodic funny stories about how the different kinds interact. If I recall correctly, there was a time then the Episcopal Church (USA) preferred to refer to themselves as ‘The Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA.’ Moreover, the 39 articles contains an awful lot of protestant theology.

  11. Velska on October 16, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Tony (#6), I know Anglicans (at least C of E) don’t consider themselves Protestant. But not Catholic, either. So what I’m saying is that the drift Abanes had in his story was that the ruling confirms that Mormons can’t be Christians because we’re now “officially” not Protestant (as if we hadn’t said so ourselves), and obviously not Catholic, either.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t much care about the labels here. And whether we’re considered Christians or not; I don’t feel so anxious to be considered on equal footing with Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker etc.

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 16, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    While the LDS Church is not a Protestant Church, “the Protestant faith” is something else. There are wide variations in theology among Protestant churches, and wide variations within each Protestant church as to what faith commitments consist of. Even within the smaller subgroup of Evangelical Protestants, there are disagreements over the necessity and efficacy of baptism, and even within a denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention there are tensions between Calvinist and Arminian ministers, with varying emphasis on predestination versus free will in the process of salvation.

    Within Protestantism there are theologians who are advocating for an “Open God” concept of deity, a God who, contrary to the Nicene Creed, feels emotions such as love, and some of those theologians argue that this necessarily implies that the Trinity is a social group in which separate individuals are united in love for each other, a love which models the love of God for mankind. Some even argue that having emotions requires a body, albeit not necessarily a “physical” one.

    Some of the Open God theologians are also advocates of the Post-Mortem Evangelism theory, that the people who have no opportunity to hear the gospel in their mortal life are given an opportunity between death and the resurrection to hear the gospel and accept or reject it. This theory competes with several other theories about how salvation can reach those who have not heard, especially those who dies before Christian missionaries reached a nation or a community, since the justice of God seems to demand some means of salvation for innocent people who committed no great crimes.

    The concept of deification or theosis, of becoming like God, has long been retained in Orthodox Christianity and was widely current in the first centuries of Christianity. Renewed interest in the ancient Church Fathers has revived interest in theosis among Protestant theologians. It is clearly a focus of the writings of C.S. Lewis.

    The concepts of salvation through Christ’s atonement, and our pledge of obedience to Him as our Lord, is widely held by many Protestant ministers. Salvation by simple declaration of faith, without repentance and reformnation, has been denounced by many Protestant ministers as a late, 19th Century innovation that violates the explicit teachings of Christ, as discussed in the book The Gospel According to Jesus.

    Belief in modern revelation and other spiritual gifts is of the essence of Pentecostalism. They are in tension with Protestants who denounce the concept of new revelation outside the Bible. The belief in being guided by the Holy Ghost is widespread among many Protestants.

    In other words, given the fact that most basic concepts and beliefs of the Mormons are reflected somewhere within the broad swath of Protestant beliefs and theological treatises, a father who was enjoined by a court order, enforcing a child custody decree, could assemble Protestant sources for teaching many of the same concepts Latter-day Saints believe in. He can cite each item, chapter and verse in the Bible and in the writings of theologians and C.S. Lewis, to demonstrate their Protestant pedigree. It should not be forgotten that James 1:5 is part of the Bible, and is a promise that was understood clearly by Joseph Smith before the Restoration had begun. The invitation to ask God for wisdom is entirely within the wide menu of Protestant doctrines. He could use the Sunday School manuals and Seminary manuals and the missionary manual as sources for lessons that teach the gospel and draw on the Old and New Testaments.

    Additionally, as long as he is teaching them from such sources, if they wish to voluntarily visit LDS activities or services, or read the Book of Mormon on their own initiative, well, that is something that Protestants do all the time. He would likely be restrained by the child custody agreement from baptizing his children into the LDS church, and then from ordaining his sons in the priesthood. But there could be no restraint on his attending his own church and reading the Book of Mormon himself and living the Word of Wisdom or answering questions about his LDS faith, so long as he does not mandate that they participate in these things. He can bear testimony to them that he believes in the living God and that his church and its beliefs are a restoration of ancient Christianity, even as he tells them that he has promised their mother that he will teach them faith in Christ that is within the Protestant spectrum. Like Joseph Smith Sr., even if he does not take them to a particular denomination, he can teach them from the Bible and pray with them, and instill a desire in them to want to know for themselves what is true.

    Once each child turns 18, the child is a legal adult and can choose who to live with and what to believe. The love and restraint that the father exercises until then can have a greater long term positive effect than contention in the courts over religion.

    There are many families that are divided on religion, including parents who are split between LDS and another church, who are still married and living together. The best course for the LDS parent is to exercise “love unfeigned” toward the disbelieving spouse and children, so they can be influenced by the believing parent’s integrity and testimony.

  13. Adam Greenwood on October 16, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    I wonder whether the phrase “the Protestant faith” was originally the couple’s term or if a judge or lawyer came up with as the best way to characterize what the couple wanted when they made their agreement? If the former, I suspect it means that the couple wasn’t very church-going at the time. No one really identifies themselves as a protestant anymore.

  14. TMD on October 16, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    I don’t know Adam, I certainly know a few main-line (TEC, Presby (USA), LCA) types who do.

  15. Lucy on October 17, 2008 at 9:10 am

    This takes me back to public schools in the 50\’s and highschool early 60\’s. We had to fill out some kind of paperwork at the beginning of every school year which, right now, I can\’t remember what they were. Probably emergency forms or something. EVERYTHING then had a spot on paperwork to list your religion. The choices were a) Catholic b) Protestant c) Jewish. I remember then never knowing what to pick. My church never fit into any of the three. I probably picked Protestant for want of having no other choice close as I KNEW I wasn\’t Catholic or Jewish and because teachers then made sure that you filled out every single question. I remember thinking though….UNFAIR. :)

  16. Marc Bohn on October 17, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Nate: I didn’t find the Court’s ruling suspect per se, especially since the Church doesn’t trace it origins to the Protestant tradition, but I do think it borders on some pretty murky ground and had the facts been a little different I think it could have broached questions that I’m not sure I’m comfortable having a court decide. In the end, however, I just think it’s a pretty fascinating (and sad) case.

  17. Ben H on October 17, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Great, provocative post, Marc! I actually get a kick out of some guy getting sued by his ex-wife for raising his child a Mormon. Raymond’s (#12) important distinction notwithstanding, Yes! we’re not Protestants.

  18. Dave Kitchen on October 24, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Marc,

    I had the same reaction as you when I first read about this case, but my concern has mellowed. First, the issue was before the court because the couple had decided to use the term “protestant” in their divorce agreement. Thus the court’s analysis was whether mormonism qualified as protestant AS THE COUPLE understood the term. The husband apparently stipulated that mormonism was not protestantism. Thus the court really didn’t do anything but acknowledge his confession that he was in breach.

  19. queuno on November 2, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Maybe this post is dead … but would we consider FLDS to be Mormon protestants?