The relationship between the Mormon religion and Christianity is complex and in many ways fascinating. Both have strong conservative tendencies; Mormon and Christian politicians have often found it convenient to cooperate on shared issues, but even so many evangelicals didn’t support Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith. Dialog on the topic has produced some useful examples of how to have a civil, sincere, and deep conversation between differing religious viewpoints.
I recently read an article about a new documentary called Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth that focuses on the hatred many (conservative or evangelical) Christians feel towards Mormonism. The creator of the movie, Bryan Hall, is a devout Mormon who initially had a burning anger toward Christians who preached that Mormonism is not Christianity and that it is the work of the devil. Given his motivation to make these people look ridiculous, he wondered about Jesus’ saying to “love your enemies” and also why these Christians did not seem to be loving their enemies, the Mormons.
Hall initially found these people unapproachable; their passion for their message prevented any real communication. His breakthrough was to meet them one-on-one for lunch instead of approaching them in the middle of their public spiels. At lunch, they acted like normal people and he could joke and have fun with them. He even came to respect some of them and think they were good people. He came away with much less fear and anger toward anti-Mormon Christians, and an understanding of how spending time with one’s “enemies” can lead toward some understanding and civility.
An Atheist’s Approach Toward Both
New Atheist Sam Harris has written extensively about the problems of conservative and liberal Christianity. He has also spoken about Mormonism on occasion, for instance saying that it is objectively more likely for Mormonism to be false (to have a set of doctrines or beliefs that are false) than Christianity. Perhaps this language is confusing to some people. What does he mean by this?
The key here is that he’s coming at it from a purely logical, analytical framework. Say that two people each have a set of statements with important implications about life and how we should live it. The entire set is “false” if any of the individual statements are false. In this case, whichever set has fewer statements has fewer chances to be false. Therefore, as an educated guess or reasonable gamble, you could surmise that the larger set is more likely to be false. This is what Harris means, although of course he would recognize the possibility that both sets could be false or that the larger set is true.
Harris seems to (and I also see) Mormonism essentially as Christianity other beliefs and statements. Mormonism builds on the Christian religion, with added or modified beliefs, scriptures, stories, and claims that are meant to be taken factually. For instance, official Mormon doctrine states that a Hebrew prophet named Nehi settled in the Americas around 600 BC and that Native Americans were descended from an off-shoot of Nehi’s people, the Lamanites. DNA evidence has quite disproved this, and besides that, there is no plausible means for people from Israel to have reached the Americas in 600 BC. Unlike Christians, Mormons have secret rituals and certain locations in their temples that are off-limits to non-Mormons. They also have other doctrines that depart from traditional Christian views. One is that God is essentially a human being who went to heaven and was rewarded with the planet Earth and the opportunity to populate it through procreation. Mormons who lead exemplary lives of righteousness will have a similar fate with other planets in the universe (perhaps favoring males or requiring a woman to be married to a man in order to share in this, as many texts say “if a man marry a wife according to my law…”). Generally, Mormonism is more restrictive towards women than Christianity, as Mormonism usually encourages women to have many (5+) children, implicitly defining the role of women more strictly as mothers compared to modern trends.
My intention here is not to be negative but to point out some major differences. I acknowledge that I was not raised in the Mormon religion and that many finer details of what I just wrote could be debated or may even be contentious within some Mormon circles. I am an equal-opportunity critic of religions. In my book and in other blog posts I will focus on plenty of problems within Christianity. In this post I won’t continue to focus on specific details of Mormon doctrine because I imagine they are far removed from the daily life of most Mormons. Religions all have human leaders and the tendency to add and change rules as time goes on.
These differences bring up the question of whether Mormons are Christian or not, a contentious topic that stirs up a lot of frustration and anger. To me, the answer is no because Christians have a fairly well-defined set of beliefs and doctrines. Mormons share some of them, but add and revise others to a greater degree than typical Christian denominations. The Mormon view of the bible is one example: Mormon doctrine states that the bible has errors and is less trustworthy because it’s older and was written in different languages than the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is only a few hundred years old and was translated by Joseph Smith directly from an angel (or gold plates, etc.), so its original language was English. It is more reliable and a better vessel of God’s message for humanity. As Christianity tends to view the Bible as the pinnacle of God’s Word and Revelation, it’s easy to understand why many Christians feel the Book of Mormon puts Mormons squarely in the category of a different religion.
It seems that many Mormons take great offense at being told they aren’t Christian – it’s almost like a slur. Part of this might be because some Mormon groups downplay their differences to seem more mainstream or to help gain the cultural acceptance/tolerance granted to Christianity in our culture. On the other hand, offense might be taken by Mormons because they admire and love Jesus, his teachings, and example. These Mormons may therefore consider themselves Christians because they follow Jesus Christ, and all other details are secondary to them. I understand this personal view, but it differs from the definitions both religions have made. In some ways I can consider myself a Christian because I can say honestly say that I love Jesus (although I don’t usually phrase it that way, it’s quite religious sounding) and find tremendous meaning and inspiration in his teachings and example. I always have to balance this with the fact that I don’t believe in Christian doctrines which Christian rulers, councils, and Church Fathers have proclaimed with the supposed authority of God and the Holy Spirit. There are enough problems with Christianity that I feel I’m being more honest with myself by not calling myself Christian. I also believe creating some separation of identity challenges doctrinal and other issues of Christianity more effectively and clearly.
So if Mormons think of themselves as Christians because of what they see in Jesus and a commitment to be his follower, then in my mind this is a subtle statement that their church’s doctrines and differences aren’t that important – they are secondary or even lower in priority. This would represent a quiet but profound critique of religion. I applaud that, but for things to change, a little more volume is needed from people within religious communities!
Conclusion: Ask Mormon Girl
At the beginning of this (hopefully not too lengthy) post, I mentioned that the subject of Mormonism and Christianity has provided some avenues for good discussion and questioning. The documentary I cited is one, and another is a blog called Ask Mormon Girl, written by Joanna Brooks. She started the blog to field questions about Mormonism when it hit the spotlight due to Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency.
I find Joanna fascinating because she’s a liberal professor (and also a woman of course) who loves and cherishes Mormonism while at the same time being extremely upset and frustrated by some of its teachings and culture. She’s married to another professor who is Jewish, and they’re raising their children in both faiths. This is surprising and bound to be confusing to some, but this is one aspect of interspirituality: taking the best from different religions and traditions without passing on the baggage. I can only imagine that this is what they’re doing!
In her posts, Brooks reflects on Mormon beliefs, their fallacies, the positive sides of her faith, and she answers readers’ questions. Many people from different faiths leave comments and ask salient questions. Many know that their religion and its leaders do not always (or even mostly!) teach the truth and that their leaders have upheld racist, sexist, or other destructive views. Some of these readers disagree with the exclusivity of their church (i.e. believing that their church/religion is the only way to salvation or a fulfilled life). Many have left their church, but many have stayed because they still desire aspects of the community and social life, focus on prayer and internal growth, and so on.
So I wonder if her blog is not doing more good than, or certainly in addition to, atheist critiques of religion. Her blog is a place where people can be real, ask questions without fear of judgment, and get advice from others who are similarly attracted to religion and spirituality but are wary of its problems, hypocrisy, and doctrines. Thank you, Joanna, for the service to the world and the safe space you are providing.
An in-your-face atheism works for some people and can even be profoundly liberating. But a more balanced approach is needed for others who have spiritual and religious inclinations. If questioning and searching is encouraged without resorting solely to cold, hard atheist facts (which are usually at least mostly right by the way!), people may have the seeds planted inside them that will later mature into an open-minded, life-affirming spirituality. We need to be aware that questioning religious beliefs is difficult, requires support, and that for different people there are different ways of encouraging it in a compassionate way.