By Orson Scott Card
There is a sort of comfortableness that can settle in with majoritarians. A complacency that allows one to be picky and exclusive.
I remember getting this feeling when I lived in Utah. I moved to the town of Orem, where Mormons were an estimated 98 percent of the population. That should certainly have made me feel at home!
However, I was also a Democrat, and in Orem, Democrats in 1980 were about as common World Series pennants in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse.
So the local Mormon congregation had no idea what to make of me. I clearly didn’t have a job — freelance writer? Of science fiction? — and I did something so eccentric as joining the Democratic Party, so how could I possibly be a good member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
My opinion was that the two questions were really unrelated — my identity as a Mormon was, I thought, secure. I kept the commandments. I fulfilled my callings in the Church. And — here’s the clincher — I sang tenor in the choir. Good tenors in church choirs are almost as rare as Democrats. I expected to be embraced with open arms.
Unfortunately, my ward (congregation) did not have a choir at that time.
Nor did they have a single calling that they thought I could fulfill.
Now, this is one of the peculiarities of Mormonism (which is, after all, the subject of this discussion, yes?): Because we have a lay ministry, every single member is expected to serve in some ministerial role. We teach or supervise or perform other services as part of an official “calling” in the Church.
In fact, that’s much of the way that we create our identity — by our callings. No matter where we move in the Mormon Church, our congregation will have a “Relief Society president” and many “Primary teachers” and a “ward clerk” and an “executive secretary,” and so on.
Even if these people are complete strangers to us, we know who they are in the ward — the function they fulfill, and what we can expect of them, and even some information about the kind of person who is usually given such a calling.
But in my ward in Orem, they couldn’t think of a calling that a science-fiction-writing Democrat could possibly fill.
In their minds, because I was such an unfamiliar creature to them, I couldn’t really be counted as “Mormon.”
By Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
I appreciate Orson Scott Card’s response to my first entry, and his rather lengthy essay can serve to move the discussion along.
The first matter of concern is to clarify the question. When I asked, “Are Mormons ‘Christians’ as defined by traditional Christian orthodoxy?,” I was stating the question exactly as it was put to me. The words “as defined by traditional Christian orthodoxy” were part of my assignment, not my imposition.
At the same time, I was glad the question was asked in this manner, for it is the only way I can provide an answer that matters. The question could surely be asked in other ways and we could attempt to define Christianity in terms of sociology, phenomenology, the history of religions, or any number of other disciplines. In any of these cases, someone with specific training in these fields should provide the argument.
The question could simply refer to common opinion – do people on the street believe that Mormonism is Christianity? But then the matter would be in better hands among the pollsters.
In any event, the question was framed theologically, and it was framed by Beliefnet in terms of “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” With the question structured that way, the answer is clear and unassailable – Mormonism is not Christianity. When the question is framed this way, Mr. Card and I actually agree, as his essay makes clear.
In his words, “I am also happy to agree with him that when one compares our understanding of the nature of God and Christ, we categorically disagree with almost every statement in the “historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations” he refers to.”
Mr. Card would prefer that the question be put differently. I understand his concern, and if I were a Mormon I would share that concern and would try to define Christianity in some way other than traditional Christian orthodoxy. The reason is simple – traditional Christian orthodoxy and Mormon theology are utterly incompatible.
Mr. Card is gracious, even when suggesting that I misinterpret the Book of Mormon. He even suggests that I have not read it. The fact is that I have, and I have even studied Mormon theology in the course of my graduate studies. Reading the Book of Mormon was a fascinating experience. Nevertheless, if I were a Mormon arguing that Mormonism is Christianity, I would be very reluctant to suggest that those I am seeking to persuade should read the Book of Mormon. Nothing will more quickly reveal the distance between Mormon theology and historic Christianity.
Mormonism uses the language of Christian theology and makes many references to Christ. Mr. Card wants to define Christianity in a most minimal way, theologically speaking. If I were arguing the other side of this question, I would attempt the same. But Christianity has never been defined in terms of merely thinking well of Jesus. Mormonism claims to affirm the New Testament teachings about Jesus, but actually presents a very different Jesus from the onset. A reading of Mormonism’s authoritative documents makes this clear.
All these things point back to the reason the question is so important in our contemporary context. Mormons want their religion to be seen as another form of Christianity. In other words, they want to identify with what from their inception they sought to deny. There are advantages to Mormonism on this score, but this surely places them in an awkward position.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” as Mormonism is officially known, claims to be the only true church. As stated in the Doctrine and Covenants [1:30], Mormonism is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” According to Mormon teaching, the church was corrupted after the death of the apostles and became the “Church of the Devil.” Mormonism then claims that the true church was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1820s. This restored church was, Mormon theology claims, given the keys to the kingdom and the authority of the only true priesthood.
Why would Mormonism now want to be identified as a form of Christianity, when its central historical claim is that the churches commonly understood to be Christian are part of the Church of the Devil?
There is simply no way around the Mormon claim that the other churches hold to a corrupted theology and have no true priesthood – and are not true churches. Mr. Card may complain that traditional Christianity defines the faith in a way that rejects Mormonism. Fair enough. But Mormonism rejects historic Christianity as it makes it own central claim – to be the only true church, restored on earth in the latter days.
Mr. Card’s statements on baptism make this point clear enough, as does this statement from his essay: “In other words, at the level of religious practice we believe that we are the only Christians who act and speak with the authority of Christ today.” I sincerely appreciate Mr. Card’s straightforward statement of this fact.
I was genuinely troubled, but hardly surprised, when Mr. Card recalled his experience at the Templeton event. It is indeed a scandal that so many Christian churches and denominations allow priests, theologians, and bishops to deny the faith and still call themselves Christians – and even to remain in good standing in these churches. If these deny the faith and persist in their error, they are not Christians. Of course, the only way we know this is because we do have an objective standard by which to judge what is and is not Christianity, and that is the very “traditional Christian orthodoxy” that Mr. Card and Mormonism reject.
Finally, Mr. Card brings up the question of Gov. Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He states, “But let’s remember now why we are having this discussion. It’s because Mitt Romney is running for President of the United States, and Mitt Romney is a Mormon.”
By Orson Scott Card
Each time a group of Christians comes up with an unfamiliar way of understanding the scriptures and our relationship with God, there are other Christians who are quick to insist that anyone who believes like that can’t really be Christian.
Much blood has been shed over these doctrinal differences; wars have been fought, boundaries have been changed, and people have gone into exile.
Whether it was the often bloody struggle between Arians and Athanasians, between Lutherans and Catholics, between the Church of England and the Puritans, people have been willing, it seems, to die, to kill, and to deprive others of their rights as citizens over differences of Christian belief.
In America, though, we long ago decided — though not easily — to put such things behind us. Many states refused to ratify the Constitution until it included provisions forbidding one religion to be given preference over others.
Besides the first amendment, there is this statement in Article 6: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
This didn’t mean that Americans stopped caring about doctrinal differences. Quite the contrary — America became a place where, if anything, we talked incessantly about religious differences.
I mean, what would have been the point of open religious discussion in Catholic France or Church-of-England Britain or Lutheran Sweden?
But in America, we agreed that people who had very different ideas of what it meant to be Christian could — and must — get along without violence.
Well, mostly without violence. There were many places in America where Catholics were not counted as Christians. And when we Mormons came along, well, we were clearly beyond the pale — for precisely the reasons that Dr. Mohler outlines (though for other reasons as well).
While Dr. Mohler sometimes couches his summary of our beliefs in terms we would not choose, I am happy that his explanation is generally clear and fair-minded. (His characterization of the Book of Mormon’s presentation of Christ is the exact opposite of the truth — the Book of Mormon makes every single point that he says it does not. But I don’t expect him to be an expert on the book, or even to have read it.)
I am also happy to agree with him that when one compares our understanding of the nature of God and Christ, we categorically disagree with almost every statement in the “historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations” he refers to.
The only major point on which I could criticize Dr. Mohler’s essay is that he begged the question in the first and second paragraph.
“Christianity is rightly defined in terms of ‘traditional Christian orthodoxy,” he says. “Thus, we have an objective standard by which to define what is and is not Christian.”
In other words, he began the discussion by saying, “We win. Therefore we can define anyone who is not us as ‘the losers.’”
By Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Are Mormons “Christians” as defined by traditional Christian orthodoxy? The answer to that question is easy and straightforward, and it is “no.” Nevertheless, even as the question is clear, the answer requires some explanation.
The issue is clearly framed in this case. Christianity is rightly defined in terms of “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” Thus, we have an objective standard by which to define what is and is not Christianity.
We are not talking here about the postmodern conception of Christianity that minimizes truth. We are not talking about Christianity as a mood or as a sociological movement. We are not talking about liberal Christianity that minimizes doctrine nor about sectarian Christianity which defines the faith in terms of eccentric doctrines. We are talking about historic, traditional, Christian orthodoxy.
Once that is made clear, the answer is inevitable. Furthermore, the answer is made easy, not only by the structure of Christian orthodoxy (a structure Mormonism denies) but by the central argument of Mormonism itself – that the true faith was restored through Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century in America and that the entire structure of Christian orthodoxy as affirmed by the post-apostolic church is corrupt and false.
In other words, Mormonism rejects traditional Christian orthodoxy at the onset – this rejection is the very logic of Mormonism’s existence. A contemporary observer of Mormon public relations is not going to hear this logic presented directly, but it is the very logic and message of the Book of Mormon and the structure of Mormon thought. Mormonism rejects Christian orthodoxy as the very argument for its own existence, and it clearly identifies historic Christianity as a false faith.