I’ve been reading Stephen Prothero’s new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010). I’m rather enjoying it, which is a bit of a surprise given that I’m not generally a religions of the world kind of guy. Anyway, Prothero devoted a generous two pages in his 34-page chapter on Christianity to Mormonism and said some refreshingly pleasant things about us.
Mormonism was the example he chose to write about in the category “new denominations that do not fit into the three classic categories of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy.” He continues with this short summary of what might be termed the Mormon identity problem:
Mormons, as LDS Church members are popularly known, share affinities with Protestant groups, but they do not see themselves as Protestants, and many Protestants return the favor by refusing to see Mormons as Christians. While Mormons assert their bona fides as Christians by affirming their love of Jesus, many born-again Christians (in keeping with the Christian preoccupation with doctrine) claim that Mormonism veers too far away from traditional Christian creeds to qualify as Christian.
Some favor. “Returning the favor” ought to work like this: If you don’t consider yourselves Protestant, then we don’t consider ourselves Mormon. That would be a perfectly acceptable response. But for a Protestant to say that if you’re not Protestant, you’re not Christian, doesn’t really hold up very well. Given the decline of denominational identification and the rise of doctrinal illiteracy among Protestants, not to mention all the New Agey beliefs they increasingly embrace, I doubt most Protestants would pass the litmus tests Evangelicals use to disqualify Mormons from the coveted “Christian” label.
Besides religious identity, there’s also the question of cultural or national identity.
Though long seen as dangerously un-American, Mormons are now widely viewed as quintessentially American. The most popular American novelist of the early twenty-first century — Stephenie Meyer of Twilight series fame — is a Mormon. The HBO show Big Love features a Mormon family. And LDS members such as David Archuleta of American Idol are so inescapable on reality shows that some critics are starting to complain that Mormons have “colonized reality television.” Yet most of the 14 million members of the LDS Church now live outside the United States, and about a third of that figure call Latin America home — an extraordinary achievement given that the Mormons’ dietary code (the Word of Wisdom) prohibits the drinking of coffee.
So how American is Mormonism? How American should Mormonism be? Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism don’t suffer from identification with a home country, so there is nothing wrong with the fact that the LDS Church is identified as made in America, as long as conversion to Americanism isn’t required when someone converts to Mormonism.
The next two sections of the book are three pages on The Evangelical Century (the 19th century) and five pages on The Pentecostal Century (the 20th century). Interesting that Mormonism seems to have entirely avoided any influence from the Pentecostal movement. Our meetings are sober and restrained, punctuated only by the pleasant babble of children and a crying baby every few minutes. There is an experiential side to Mormonism, but it is a private, inward encounter with the Spirit, not the exuberant sort of public encounter that Pentecostals enjoy. I’d even venure that it is generally the verbal or written narrative of the quiet, inward encounter with the Spirit that is highlighted in Mormonism more than the encounter itself. So a final gloss on Mormon identity might be that while we claim to be Christian, we certainly aren’t Pentecostal and don’t make any attempt to be.
Here’s a challenge to readers. Prothero gives each of his eight major religions a tagline. Islam is the way of submission, Christianity the way of salvation, Confucianism the way of propriety, Hinduism the way of devotion. Others are the way of awakening (Buddhism), the way of connection (Yoruba religion), the way of exile and return (Judaism), and the way of flourishing (Daoism). Prothero grants a special guest appearance to atheism (the way of reason) in the ninth chapter, apparently not wanting to call atheism a religion but not wanting to exclude it from discussion either. So what is the Mormon way?