Two recent essays provide a new perspective on the never-ending discussion centered around the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” Mormons claim to be Christian, while at the same time denying divine authority and full legitimacy to all other Christian denominations. Consider the specific topic of rebaptism. Previously baptized Christians who join the LDS Church are required to be rebaptized by an LDS priesthood holder, which seems quite natural to Mormons. Baptized Mormons who later choose to join another Christian denomination are generally required to be rebaptized by that denomination because, in their eyes, Mormon baptism doesn’t count, which rather incongruously strikes most Mormons as wrong. We seem to think everyone else should accept our baptism as valid while we are free to reject anyone else’s baptism as invalid. Obviously, we haven’t adequately thought through this question of Christian identity and Mormon identity.
The first essay is “Romney is Mormons’ Path to the Christian Mainstream” by Noah Feldman, a Harvard law prof. Do we want to be part of the Christian mainstream? Yes, in the sense that we want to claim the title “Christian” and be part of the club. No, in the sense that we don’t want to surrender our claim to have the sole authority to perform valid Christian ordinances such as baptism and marriage. [We recognize marriages performed in other denominations as valid civil marriages in legal terms, but not as being valid in the eyes of God in the next life unless there is a later sealing performed in an LDS temple by that married couple if they convert to the LDS Church or unless, after death, such a sealing is performed by proxy in an LDS temple.] So again, we want it both ways: we want to be recognized as Christian by other Christians but, at the same time, we don’t want to grant reciprocal recognition to other denominations. We want to be Christian but also better than Christian, or at least more than Christian.
The first point that Feldman makes is that the Romney candidacy is forcing religious normalization regardless of the sectarian views of Christians:
[A]s a Mormon, Romney is a participant — indeed, he is the most important participant — in the long-term project of convincing mainstream American Protestants that Mormonism is a normal denomination like all the others. … By embracing evangelicals and being embraced by them, he is bringing Mormonism into the denominational scheme that characterizes mainstream American Christianity. … Evangelical Protestants who once believed that Mormonism was a deviant sect, not a legitimate denomination, may come to believe something very different as they prepare to cast their votes for a Romney. The practice of pluralism can come first. The beliefs can come later.
So far, so good. The second point Feldman makes is that religious normalization may bring unexpected changes to Mormons as well:
On the other hand, seen through the lens of history, entering the mainstream poses major risks. If Mormons think of themselves as another Christian denomination, the risk of defection rises. The distinctive Mormon beliefs in a new scripture and in the possibility of joining the supernal realm for eternal life will come into jeopardy precisely because they mark differences with the Protestant mainstream. If you believe you are not that different from others, there will be a tendency to downplay those practices and beliefs that suggest otherwise.
The great model for this assimilationist danger is the German political emancipation of the Jews, which directly led to Reform Judaism. Removing the perception that Jews were fundamentally outside Christian society was a tremendous sociological boon to the German Jewish community in the early 1800s. Entering the mainstream, however, encouraged Jews to adopt practices and beliefs that corresponded to the very “modern” world that was welcoming them.
Feldman is suggesting that Romney’s candidacy will produce the mainstreaming of Mormonism which will naturally, perhaps inexorably, result in the emergence of Reform Mormonism. Not so fast, I hear you say.
LDS blogger and historian Christopher Jones replied to Feldman in “The Limits of Mormon Assimilation.” Jones stresses that Mormonism is not “just another denomination” and is unlikely to become so:
Even as Mormons participate in interfaith dialogue with evangelical Protestants and seek to find theological common ground, they remain distinct, and intentionally so. Recognition of a shared commitment to Christ is not, for Mormons, the end goal. Rather, it is a starting point for Mormons to then explicate the ways in which their own teachings build on the biblical foundation of Protestantism.
Jones agrees with Feldman that Romney’s candidacy is an external force that will move Mormonism toward the mainstream, but emphasizes the internal dynamic of Mormonism that will resist assimilation or the emergence of anything like “Reform Mormonism.” Like corporate executives managing their brand, LDS leaders carefully and actively manage LDS identity to the extent they can do so, the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign being just one of many examples. While “I’m a Mormon” sounds an assimilationist note, the overall push imparted by LDS leaders over the last two generations has been in the direction of separatism, not assimilation. Right now, that means they are swimming against the current.
So will the currents unleashed by an LDS candidate at the top of the ticket force assimilation upon the Church? Or will LDS leaders dig in their heels and stay the separate course? I am confident Mormons twenty years from now will still be saying, “I’m a Mormon,” but what kind of Mormon will they be?