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Mainstreaming Mormonism

The Danger of Embracing Latter-Day Saints as Fellow Christians

Over the last few years, the Latter-Day Saints have become more and more prominent and accepted in popular culture. As I write this, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Romney is not only a former “stake president” (local “church” leader) in a Mormon congregation, but a man deeply rooted in the LDS church: his great-great grandfather was Parley Pratt, one of the original “apostles” of Joseph Smith. Glenn Beck, a conservative commentator, is quite vocal about his Mormon faith, and noted authors Stephen Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and Stephanie Meyer (of the Twilight series) are both practicing Mormons.

On television, a TLC series exploring a polygamous marriage goes out of its way, by presenting the dialogue and debate between the fundamentalist father/husband and Mormon friends from his past, to emphasize the fact that the main LDS church (the one headquartered in Salt Lake City) has disavowed polygamy. Even a rash of court cases and scandals involving polygamy in both the United States and Canada has served to polish the image of the Salt Lake church, as the media is always careful to report that the groups in question are “fundamentalist” or “breakaway” sects.

Given the spectacular growth of Mormonism over the past few decades and the aggressiveness of their temple-building and literature distribution programs, it was probably inevitable that the LDS would shed their “cult” image and become more widely accepted in the North American mainstream. What should not have been inevitable, however, is a movement within the evangelical Christian world to promote and engage Mormonism as part of the “Christian camp.” But, it’s happening.

In 2005, Eerdman’s, a Christian publisher with a long evangelical pedigree, published a book titled Another Jesus? by Robert Millet, a Mormon scholar at Brigham Young University. This book, billed as a work “intended to inform rather than to convince,” was nonetheless noted by Christian scholars familiar with Mormonism to be an apologetic for Mormon beliefs. The afterword to the book, penned by the president of a leading evangelical seminary, had this surprising statement: “I think that an open-minded Christian reader of this book will sense that Bob Millet is in fact trusting in the Jesus of the Bible for his salvation.” It’s hard to look at a Christian publisher releasing such a work, and containing such a statement by a Christian leader, and avoid the feeling that it represents a deliberate attempt to nudge the evangelical reader to embrace the Mormon as a brother in Christ.

This growing pressure to “mainstream Mormonism” within evangelical Christianity owes a great deal to that same aforementioned evangelical seminary president. Richard Mouw, of Fuller Theological Seminary, has done more than any other person to try to bring Mormonism into the evangelical camp. He infamously took the stage at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City to apologize on behalf of Christian ministries doing outreach to Mormons for misrepresenting LDS beliefs and even at times “demonizing” the Mormons—an apology that, while no doubt true for some fringe organizations and apologists, was hardly a fair characterization of the majority. And lest anyone think that his assessment of Robert Millet’s Mormon Jesus being the same Jesus found in the Bible was a misstatement, Mouw recently reiterated that idea in even plainer and more personal terms: “I do accept many of my Mormon friends as genuine followers of the Jesus whom I worship as the divine Savior.” His protestation that he is “not prepared to reclassify Mormonism as possessing undeniably Christian theology” seems bewildering in light of his idea that Mormons can worship the same Jesus as Christians.

Joseph Smith taught that Jesus and the Father are separate gods, not one being as Christians believe. Smith taught that Jesus is Jehovah and the Father is Elohim, despite the Bible using both terms interchangeably of the one God. Smith taught that Lucifer (Satan) was the “spirit-brother” of Jesus, both begotten by Elohim and one of his spirit-wives before the creation of our world. Mormonism even goes so far as to teach that the man Jesus Christ was not conceived by way of a special miracle of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, but rather as the result of a very literal and physical union between Elohim (the “Father,” who Mormons understand to possess a human body) and Mary. (This doctrine forces Mormons to find very creative ways to still call Mary a “virgin” after the fact, in spite of this teaching).

In other words, even a cursory examination of Mormon teaching makes plain that the Jesus of Mormonism bears very little resemblance to the Jesus of the Bible. Evangelicals and Mormons, therefore, worship and follow different Christs. No accommodation or compromise between the two is possible. For a Christian to assume the views of Mormonism on Jesus would amount to an abandonment of the Trinity, monotheism, and the Virgin Birth. Similarly, for a Mormon to accept an evangelical understanding of Christ would require renouncing the fundamental belief of Mormonism, the Law of Eternal Progression—the teaching that God was once a man like us and that we can become gods like him. Christianity and Mormonism are two entirely different religions, holding to completely distinct and incompatible views of God, creation, man, sin, salvation, and the church.

It is as futile to try to re-cast Mormonism as belonging in the Christian camp as it is to try to accept Hinduism as Christian. If anything, Mormonism is even more relentlessly polytheistic than Hinduism! As such, it is both absolutely bewildering and deeply disturbing that evangelicals can speak of the differences between Christianity and Mormonism as being largely a matter of “misunderstanding,” and hope that further “discussion” can bring them together.

There are only two ways that such a union could take place. Either Mormonism renounces everything that makes it distinctively “Mormon”—the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith, eternal progression, sealing, baptism for the dead, temples, the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods—as denials of the Gospel, or evangelical Christianity sets aside the Gospel as the necessary criterion of Christian identity. We would rejoice greatly if the first took place. However, the muddled confusion of Mouw and others about Christ and how Mormons and evangelicals relate to him leads me to fear that evangelicals may opt for the second as an “easier” course, that the Gospel may wind up being pushed aside as an insurmountable obstacle to someone’s mistaken and naïve vision of “Christian unity.”

The Mormons are largely a kind, hardworking people with commendable family and social values. Christians ought to look at the earnest effort of the LDS in evangelizing their own faith with a degree of conviction and shame at our own failures to do the same. But as admirable as individual Mormons may be, they have been deceived. They follow a lie. And we do them, and an unbelieving world, no favours when we fail to call a spade a spade, and pretend that Mormon theology is not the soul-destroying and futile deception that it truly is. Our call is to tell the truth in love. We would not be loving if we did not tell the truth.

UPDATE, December 27, 2011

The National Post's "Holy Post" blog has published an article arguing, in greater detail, that Mormonism has become increasingly "mainstream" in 2011. While they don't deal with the parallel attempt of some evangelicals to "mainstream" LDS theology, their article is definitely worth reading as a more in-depth look at society's changing attitude toward the LDS.

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