The Economist: Mormons Are, in Fact, Christians

An interesting rebuttal to my recent Mormons-Aren't-Christian-But-Who-Cares column at The Economist (see below). One of the reasons this issue interests me is that it resembles the endless debate among Jews about "Jews for Jesus," and other Christian evangelical groups that claim it is possible to remain Jewish and believe in Jesus as savior. Every mainstream branch of Judaism argues that the acceptance of Jesus by Jews since the moment Christianity ceased being a Jewish sect (almost 2,000 years ago) means that the Jesus-believer is Christian and cannot claim to be part of the Jewish faith. "Jews for Jesus" and other such groups are seen, then, as perpetuating a lie. The general attitude among most Jews is that if one of their fellows chooses to accept Christ as his savior, well then, have a nice day, and enjoy the egg nog. What irks Jews is when these new Christians argue that they can have their Jesus and still be Jewish.

This is similar to the reaction among many evangelicals to Mormonism. It is not the belief system that angers them, but the argument made by Mormons that a person can embrace Mormon theology and still claim to be Christian. This is why I found the Economist rebuttal so interesting: It makes the best case I've seen that a Church's adherence to the Nicene Creed is not what is most important in defining whether or not it is Christian:

It's always been my understanding the necessary and sufficient condition of being a Christian is that you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour. (Romans 10:9: "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.") Many people cite an additional criterion, that Christians must be baptised. (Mark 16:16 quotes Jesus saying the following, post-resurrection: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.") But that has been debated for centuries and most Christians will allow at least some exceptions. Beyond that, most Christians have additional beliefs and the denominations may set their own standards for membership, as indeed Mormons do. But under the standard given above, Mormons are clearly Christians.

It may be that the definitional standard given above isn't the appropriate one; that's another question we can debate over the next few centuries. At the moment, however, I don't find any of the arguments about why Mormons aren't Christians hugely convincing. The evangelical Michael Cromartie tells Mr Goldberg that one problem with Mormons is that they insist on "an extra-biblical addition to the agreed-upon canon" (that is, the Book of Mormon). But there are undisputed Christians who believe in the Gnostic gospels, which are also not part of the canon; there are also Christians who dispute the literal truth of the Bible, and so on. Richard J. Mouw of the Fuller Theological Seminary says that the key issue is Mormons say that God and man are part of the same species, apparently a reference to the Mormon belief that God has a body ("He has a body that looks like ours, but God's body is immortal, perfected, and has a glory that words can't describe," as the Mormon FAQ puts it.) That's theologically provocative, but given that mainstream Christians hold that Jesus is both human and divine, it's not hard to see how the question might arise. Similarly, some theologians object to the Mormon conception of the trinity as three distinct entities, as opposed to the mainstream view that sees the trinity as (as this LDS site puts it) "united in substance and in person in a way that is incomprehensible by man." Again: theologically provocative, not dispositive.

Also, while we're on the subject, David Weigel, writing in Slate, has an interesting piece on the particular challenge Mitt Romney would face as the Republican nominee for president, noting, for instance, that the Southern Baptist pastor who recently made Romney's Mormonism an issue did him a favor by doing so in a bigoted way:

Romney was always going to have to deal with this. Mormonism will be up for debate in a way that no mainline Christian's candidate ever will be. That's the price of trying to become a presidential first. That's why Jeffress has made Romney's job easier. Mormonism has emerged as an issue because a bigot brought it up. The pastor has taken something that liberals were comfortable worrying about--they've homed in on Mormon opposition to gay marriage and highlighted how the now-fading Glenn Beck was shaped by the religion--and pre-defined it as kooky hate speech. He's not going to stop doing that--he even used his Sunday sermon to do it. All that does is remind Mormon-skeptics that the leading critics of the faith are the sort of people who call Islam an "evil, evil religion" that inspires pedophilia and murder. Who wants to team up with that?