Essentials in Church Categorization

October 17, 2008 | 14 comments
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Marc Bohn’s post yesterday on how Mormonism is classified became a legal issue reminded me that the issue of how Mormonism is classified is anything but clear, especially when non-Mormons are doing the classifying. We say we are Christian, and evangelicals claim we are not. We don’t want to be called Catholic or Protestant (or Eastern Orthodox for that matter, but that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue). But despite our intentions, Mormonism is classified in all sorts of different ways by many different observers and for many different purposes.

We’ve been classified all over the place.

Categorization schemes show up all over the place, and seem to have proliferated like wildfire on the Internet. Where the public came into contact with just a few different classification systems before–the Dewey Decimal system and the Library of Congress system, both used in libraries, are the principal systems the public saw before the Internet–now surfing the Web means encountering a lot of different systems.

For Internauts first it was Yahoo‘s directory (which currently placed the LDS Church in Society and Culture > Religion and Spirituality > Faiths and Practices > Christianity > Denominations and Sects), followed by a host of other human-built directories. Some (like the Open Directory Project) followed Yahoo and put the LDS Church in a general (and rather unwieldy) list of Christian denominations (For example, the Open Directory Project puts the LDS Church in Top: Society: Religion and Spirituality: Christianity: Denominations). But others have grouped Christian denominations into groups like “Protestant” and “Catholic,” and included Mormonism in the Protestant grouping, or, worse, put Mormonism in a “Cult” category.

The thing about this that we tend to ignore is that these classification systems have sprouted up in many different places you wouldn’t necessarily think of. Its not just libraries and directories that provide classification systems, its Amazon (Books ‹ Religion & Spirituality ‹ Christianity ‹ Mormonism) and a host of other stores, its Yahoogroups (Top > Religion Beliefs > Christianity > Denominations and Sects ) and Googlegroups (Society – Religion and Spirituality – Christianity — but no Mormon-specific category). Its the Yellowpages (Churches-Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints), blogcatalog (Blog Directory » Religion » Christianity) and Beliefnet (Home > Faiths & Prayer > Christianity > Latter-day Saints).

While it might not seem like these classification systems make a huge difference, they do serve two important purposes. First, classification systems make it easier to find things — if you expect Latter-day Saints to be under Christianity, then you go directly to Christianity and find what you want. If Latter-day Saints is not under Christianity, it takes longer to find it.

But classification systems also imply things about the items classified by how they are classified. If you aren’t familiar with Latter-day Saints, and you notice that it is categorized under Cult, you are likely to assume that Latter-day Saints are a Cult.

I don’t want to suggest that this is a big problem. I don’t have a particular objection to the way that any of the above websites construct their categories (other than the fact that some of them really ought to subdivide their categories further, IMO). And I’m sure there are multiple ways to categorize Mormonism — my preference isn’t the only good possibility. But there are ways of categorizing Mormonism that aren’t correct, and I’m sure that there are websites that do it wrong.

I’m not always sure what to do when I come across a classification that I find objectionable. Clearly contacting the webmaster in a calm, non-threatening manner could go far in many cases. In other cases (such as a directory run by some of the more strident evangelicals) it may be quite impossible, no matter how nice you are, to convince the webmaster not to include Latter-day Saints under Cults.

Its probably worth a little time to pay attention to how Mormonism is categorized. And who knows, perhaps we can make a difference by calling attention in cases where it has been categorized wrong.

In this vein, I’d be very interested in odd categorizations that others see.

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14 Responses to Essentials in Church Categorization

  1. Adam Greenwood on October 17, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for tracking all this down, KL. Very interesting.

  2. Gerald Smith on October 17, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Interestingly, Mormons are catalogued as Protestant in the military. Any LDS chaplain is part and parcel of the Protestant chaplaincy.

  3. ed johnson on October 17, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Really? This church site says “we are not Protestants” and “if anyone tries to list you as a Protestant, do not permit it.”

    http://www.lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,4890-1,00.html

  4. queuno on October 17, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Can we just call ourselves Mormons, and be done with it, and accept a separate class (or not being part of any of the standard classes)? Does it affect my covenants if I don’t care if I’m not considered a Christian?

  5. Jonathan Green on October 17, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Very interesting, Kent. There are far-reaching implications in any categorization, although they are often not obvious. There are real advantages to not appearing in the “predatory psycho-cult” category, for example, but “one of numerous Christian sects” is not exactly how we usually want to categorize ourselves, either.

  6. angrymormonliberal on October 17, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Doesn’t the term ‘Restorationist’ cover a small enough subset of christian denominations to be viable as a category? (sorry, my inner Taxonomist coming out)

    From what I understand that’s the LDS movements, the Seventh Day Adventist movements and the Jehovah’s Witness movements.

  7. queuno on October 17, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Obligatory movie quote:

    Indian Bartender: I’m a haIf Punjabi Sikh, one-quarter Tamil separatist. My sister’s married to a Jewish doctor from New Jersey, and our other grandmother was an Irish nun who left me this bar, which is a very long story.

    Father Brian Kilkenney Finn: You’re a Sikh, Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws?

    Indian Bartender: Yes. Yes. It gets very complicated. I’m reading Dianetics.

    Father Brian Kilkenney Finn: Don’t blame you.

  8. Assorted Chocolates on October 17, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    From the non-mormon historical perspective of Mormonism as a direct consequence of the Second Great Awakening, maybe categorization as Protestant is justified.

  9. Mark B. on October 17, 2008 at 11:33 pm

    The churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and the Christian Church, all of which can trace their lineage to or through Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone would also claim the title Restorationists.

  10. Tim on October 18, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Another possible restorationist church, started in Germany: New Apostolic.
    Of all the non-LDS religions I know of, it’s the one most like ours.

  11. Velska on October 18, 2008 at 10:31 am

    I have some conflicting thoughts on categorization. I have said I don’t much care if the world think I’m not Christian. I know in whom I have put my trust, to borrow a line.

    But when someone who appears otherwise enlightened and unpartisan come up with a “Cult” label for us, it still stings a little. It shows either laziness or outright malice.

  12. Bookslinger on October 20, 2008 at 12:34 am

    Kent, I take exception at your use of the word “evangelicals” (third paragraph from the end) as a term to apparently mean “critics of the LDS church.”

    Such casual usage tends to create polarization that is not warranted in my opinion.

    Doctrinally, we have much in common with evangelicals and pentecostals, moreso than with the mainstream protestants.

    The doctrines which separate evangelical/pentecostal type denominations from the watered-down mainstream protestants, things which the evangelicals/pentecostals are themselves proud of and use to self-identify, are things which _we_ have in common with the evangelicals/penteocostals.

    Specifically, two core beliefs that our missionaries teach up front are personal revelation and companionship of the Holy Ghost, which our evangelical/pentecostal brethren usually call “walking in the Spirit”. And they, the evangelicals, often use that to distance themselves from the colder branches of protestantism.

    Yes, the fact is that some evangelicals are strong critics of the church, and many critics of the church are evangelicals. But they are not synonymous.

    I feel it important to point this out, because those two things we have in common with evangelicals/pentecostals, are the very tools which they can and will use to discover the truthfulness of the restored Gospel. No wonder Satan has used great efforts to keep side issues, such as the nature of the Godhead, sola scriptura, etc, to blind people from seeing that the very keys that they already possess could be used to discover the truths we offer. It’s classic misdirection.

    Equating evangelicals to critics seems to foster a continuation of a Mormonevangelical opposition or contention. Because I believe that evangelicals are doctrinally the closest Christian group to Mormonism, the furtherance of the perceived opposition or contention merely delays or cuts off their eventual acceptance of additional truths.

    Please don’t let the opposition generated by the professional antis among some of their leadership taint your perception of the whole. Their members who hold poor opinions of us do so because they have been duped by people they trust.

    I realize some ‘naclers have personally been on the receiving end of religious bigotry and discrimination at the hand of members of evangelical churches. But that does not excuse bigotry in return. In fact, the scriptures teach we should consider it a badge of honor to be persecuted.

    I went through several evangelical type churches during my teens as part of my search that eventually led me to the LDS church. They’ve got their false beliefs (“doctrines of men” etc) like most religions/denominations. But there are also nuggets of truth, and many of their members would put us to shame with their levels of faith, humility, and devotion to the Savior.

  13. Bryan Earl on October 20, 2008 at 8:39 am

    With respect to categorization, Mormons should not be puzzled when they are labeled non-Christians by Protestants, Catholics or Orthodox believers. While we share some central doctrines with all of these traditions, and many central doctrines with some of them, one of the central tenets of Mormonism (which is repeated by every missionary in the field and nearly every person bearing testimony on Fast Sunday) has always been that the LDS Church is the “only true church” and that all other churches (Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox included) actually operate in apostasy from the original Church and have done so without authority from the beginning of their existence. Little wonder that such a wholesale repudiation of the legitimacy of the Christian tradition winds up provoking a counter-charge that we aren’t Christian.

    If we define the term Christian as people who believe that Christ is the Son of God and Savior of the World, of course we’re Christian. If we define the term Christian as people who believe in the authenticity of the historical Christian tradition(s), we simply are not. As a matter of doctrine. When we are accused of being non-Christians, it is important to understand what is actually meant by that.

  14. ron on November 3, 2008 at 3:05 am

    re #3
    An LDS Army chaplain, LTC Allen Boatright, explained to me that years ago a group of LDS chaplains had independently designed an LDS insignia (a mirror image pair of trumpeting Angel Moroni figures) to distinguish LDS chaplains, and asked the Church\’s Military Affairs Committee to petition the chaplaincies to adopt it.
    The Committee declined their request and restated their concurrence with the chaplaincies that LDS chaplains be categorized as Protestant Christians.

    However, a court document here: http://cases.justia.com/us-court-of-appeals/F3/454/290/489653/
    states that the Navy categorizes LDS chaplains not as Protestant, but under \”Special Worship\”.
    I don\’t know this to be true – but the Navy does do many things differently from the other services.

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