Mormonism in God Is Not One

November 12, 2010 | 26 comments
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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?

26 Responses to Mormonism in God Is Not One

  1. Julie M. Smith on November 12, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Meetings. The Mormon way is meetings.

    That, or babies.

  2. Aaron R. on November 12, 2010 at 10:40 am

    The way of divinization.

  3. Craig H. on November 12, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Nice points, Dave. Your comment about the tradeoff in identifying others is right on, but it made me think: do you think Mormons consider Protestants (or Catholics) to be Christians? Isn’t there an implicit “true” or “traditional” in front of Christian when Mormons use the term? That is, Mormons are certainly willing to call someone a traditional Christian, but in general do you think they consider that to be real Christianity? Maybe we’re just as guilty of acting as the self-appointed arbitrary arbiters of who’s a Christian. (And as for self-identity, how many Mormons call themselves in the first place Christians? Does the label really matter to them, except when they’re excluded from it?)

  4. Njensen on November 12, 2010 at 10:47 am

    The way of exaltation

  5. mapinguari on November 12, 2010 at 10:56 am

    +1 for Julie

  6. Paul Bohman on November 12, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Mormonism is the way of exaltation, which is distinct from all of the others (including creedal Christianity’s salvation) in its approach and purpose.

  7. Jared L. on November 12, 2010 at 11:20 am

    So what is the Mormon way?

    Obviously as the only true and living church, we’re all of them:

    The way of submission – “The natural man is an enemy to God…unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit…willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”

    The way of salvation – “And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen. ”

    The way of propriety – Law of Consecration

    The way of devotion – Covenants

    The way of awakening – The process of conversion

    The way of connection – Sealing power and geneology

    The way of exile and return – Gathering of Israel

    The way of flourishing – Agency and “anxiously engaged in a good cause…”

    The way of reason – The teaching to study things out individually and ask God for confirmation. Atheists leave out the “ask God” part.

  8. Ms. Jack on November 12, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Craig H. beat me to it.

    I would say that Mormons consider themselves the only true Christians and Protestants return fire by arguing that Mormons aren’t really Christians in the first place.

    Please note that I am not endorsing the “Mormons aren’t Christians” argument. That’s not my position by a long shot. I’m just saying it isn’t a one-way thing. Giving lip service to my Christianity whilst insisting that my faith is corrupt and incomplete, my baptism into Jesus Christ is invalid, and I’m not indwelt by the Holy Spirit (i. e. I don’t have the gift of the Holy Ghost) isn’t exactly a flattering assessment of my faith.

  9. Jax on November 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

    How American should Mormonism be?

    Not at all. Elder Oaks gave of Conference Address entitled “Preparation for the Second Coming” where he spells out that the church doesn’t want to make anyone else (Asians, Europeans, Latinos) an American, it wants to turn Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Europeans all into Saints.

    We shouldn’t be striving to get others to adopt the U.S. model of government, we should be trying to establish God’s government. Same goes for cultural traditions, economic systems, gender roles, sexuality, and so on. LDS people in the U.S. should be striving to throw off the corruptions of American culture and adopting and developing in a celestial culture. Can anyone point out to me though were that is taking place? I’d love to know!

  10. Joel on November 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I would suggest that early Mormonism was very “Pentecostal” but that those things faded over time. See:

    http://livingtext.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/mormons-and-tongues/

    http://livingtext.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/mormons-and-tongues-2/

  11. Adam Greenwood on November 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    The way of sealing.

  12. Chris H. on November 12, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    We are American to the core. I am not saying it is good or bad. Our religion has its roots in a very American phase of religious development. It is what we are.

  13. Mike S on November 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    The Way of Hierarchy

  14. Joseph Smidt on November 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    We are taking over the Media!

  15. Mike M. on November 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Dave, I also recently finished reading this book. I thought the only hiccup wrt Mormons was referring to the Big Love people as Mormons without any qualification. It would have been easy to devote a couple sentences about how the term Mormon is also contested to a degree.

  16. SilverRain on November 12, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    If all I had was the Bloggernacle to go on, I’d say the Way of Dissension. ;)

  17. Jenne on November 12, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    the way of limitless progression

  18. Dave on November 12, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Craig H (#3) and Ms. Jack (#8), I don’t know any Mormons who deny that Catholics and Protestants are Christians. Our notion of authority precludes giving full efficacy to their sacraments, but our notion of vicarious ordinances also means we don’t see that as a bar to any member of those traditions obtaining the full measure of salvation in the life to come. I’m guessing a lot of Catholics would self-identify as Catholics first, too — that flows from having a robust institutional identity, I think.

    SilverRain (#16), perhaps those of us who participate in the Bloggernacle have elected the way of pain.

  19. Jenjen on November 12, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    The way of jello.

  20. Jamal on November 12, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Ms. Jack: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with one side claiming truth and stating they believe the other is in error. For Protestant or Pentecostal or Catholic or Muslim or Hindu or Atheist to say they think my beliefs are in error on X, Y, Z points and that my baptism is not valid (or necessary as the case may be) is just fine. I take no offense. We have a disagreement. They have their way of saying how I should settle it, and I present my way to them. The alternative is to go the “it’s all good” route. At which point any notion of truth rapidly fades to oblivion and what the heck does it matter what anyone believes? So don’t take offense at Mormons who think you’re wrong and Mormons shouldn’t take offense if you think they’re wrong. Just have a discussion about why and accept the differences if never the twain do meet. Viva la difference!

    Oh, and I like Aaron R., Njensen, and Jared L. on their answers on what Mormonism is the way of. It is also the way of the jell-o casserole.

  21. Geoff J on November 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    The Foot/Fist Way. (nah…)

    The Way of Awesomely Awesome Awesomeness. (nah…)

  22. Ric on November 13, 2010 at 7:56 am

    I propose that we follow The Way of Sanctification, which embraces covenant, exaltation, atonement, consecration, and deification.

  23. Alex T. Valencic on November 13, 2010 at 8:56 am

    My take on non-Mormon Christianity is that it is still very much Christianity. It does not have all the ordinances and all of the doctrines correct, but it is still a faith system based on Christ, and, for me, that is all that is required.

    Clearly, my take is very much different from the official stance that the church has taken over the years and, even today, with the 2009 Gospel Principles, we still officially teach that those who follow the apostate Christian churches don’t really know who or what they believe. (This chapter continues to make me very sad because I believe it is very wrong.) However, I have seen many indications from GAs, especially in General Conferences, that the rhetorical tone is changing and moving toward an approach that considers Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy as more heretical than completely lost. (The idea that Luther et al were divinely inspired supports this.) But, until all references to being completely lost are removed from all official church publications, and replaced with the language that we hear in conference, I think that Ms. Jack has a valid point.

    Getting to the question of the OP, I am going to support that Mormonism is the way of exaltation, or, more specifically, the way of theosis.

  24. Clair on November 13, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    The way of consecration.

  25. Todd Wood on November 13, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    The way of American scouting?

    The way of American capitalism, hard work, and volunteerism?

    The way of America’s traditional family?

    On Sabbath Sundays, the way of American protestant traditionalism?

    (What is it that occupies most of an LDS person’s time during the week, besides those involved in the way of American bloggernacle?)

  26. Jed on November 13, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    The way of revelation.