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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.
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.’”
Because Martin Luther (and his fellow Protestant reformers) rejected many parts of the traditional beliefs and practices of the Universal Christian Church as they had been defined for a thousand years in the West, they could not be considered Christians — they were heretics, and their ideas were forbidden for any good Christian to hear, let alone believe.
When he defines “traditional Christian orthodoxy” as “the orthodox consensus of the Christian church [as] defined in terms of its historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations” he is ignoring the fact that these creeds were the result, not of revelation, but of debate and political maneuvering.
Arians and Athanasians got along about as well as Shiites and Sunnis; the Athanasians generally prevailed by the authority of the Roman state and force of arms. It is hard for us Mormons to understand why ancient force and bloodshed, rather than revelation from God, should be the basis for defining the doctrinal consensus of Christianity today.
Many evangelicals have as many doctrinal problems with calling Catholics “Christians” as they have with us Mormons. While they accept the (Catholic) creeds insofar as the various Protestant denominations accept them, they reject other Catholic beliefs that were, prior to the Protestant reformation, every bit as “orthodox.”
Which is why the Catholic (i.e., “universal”) Church branded the Protestants as heretics, using precisely the kind of arguments that Dr. Mohler is using against us Mormons.
So the Christian world has been down this road before. Thank heaven we live in more tolerant times, where our debate takes place on the internet or from the pulpit or in quiet conversations in people’s homes, instead of on the battlefield or in the courtroom.
But what if we don’t let Dr. Mohler define the question in such a way as to specifically exclude Mormons before the debate begins?
What if we define “Christians” the way most people would: “Believers in the divinity of Christ and in the necessity of the grace of Christ in order to be saved in the Kingdom of God.”
Or, “People who believe Christ is the Son of God and the only way to please God is by following Christ’s teachings as best you can all your life.”
Or how about, “People who believe that the New Testament is scripture and that its account of the life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus is true and that we should act accordingly.”
How many ordinary Christians actually know or care about the “historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations” that form Dr. Mohler’s definition-of-choice?
I remember, as a Mormon missionary in Brazil, how many times I would explain our doctrine of the nature of God, and the Catholic or Protestant family I was teaching would say, “But that’s what we believe.” And they were telling the truth.
Their theological-seminary-trained priest or minister certainly did not believe what we were teaching, but time after time we found that the ordinary church-going Christian already saw things as we did, and thought that our peculiar doctrines were what their church had always taught.
The theologian is bound to say, “Just because ordinary, ignorant Christians don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity does not mean that their ignorance should prevail over our more-sophisticated understanding.”
I agree completely. When Baptist theologians define Baptist beliefs, it is their privilege to base it on as sophisticated an understanding as they please.
That’s why I appreciate the fact that Dr. Mohler made it clear at the start that by “Christian” he means “everybody but the Mormons,” so that if we accept his peculiar definition of the word, the argument is, indeed, over.
But it still makes me sad that he would single us out for rejection, when we really ought to be working together.
I remember a few years ago attending a conference with the Templeton Foundation, which brought together scientists, theologians, and science fiction writers to discuss the future of religion in relation to science.
There was only one theologian present, a man highly trained in all those creeds that Dr. Mohler insists define Christianity. As we listened to a group of brilliant scientists — and some science fiction writers who, unlike me, were also trained scientists — explain with marvelous clarity some highly sophisticated concepts, I was impressed by how eager they were to communicate clearly — to be understood.
But when the theologian spoke, he immediately did what the scientists could have done but chose not to — he plunged into the jargon of his own intellectual community, deliberately excluding non-experts from the conversation.
However, I had read and studied enough traditional Christian theology — and enough deconstructionist and multicultural mumbo-jumbo — to know the vocabulary he was using; and the more I listened, the clearer it became that with all his sophistication, this man did not actually believe in the literal existence of the God and Christ described in the New Testament. He didn’t even believe in the literal existence of the Trinity described in the Nicene and later creeds.
In fact, as I looked around the table, I realized that I was the only person in that room who believed that Jesus is the Savior of the world, the Son of God, and that God created humankind in his image for the purpose of bringing us to a joyful reunion with him, after we had learned to control the desires of the flesh and turn our lives over to him, and after the grace of Christ has cleansed us of our guilt for the many sins we have committed.
He was an ordained minister of the Church of England who did not actually believe in the God of any official Christian creed.
But in that room, I was the only believing Christian.
Yes, Dr. Mohler. You and I disagree on exactly the points you listed in your essay. You are correct in saying that we Mormons completely reject the neoplatonic doctrines that were layered onto Christianity long after the Apostles were gone.
And just as you would put any reference to Mormons as “Christians” in quotation marks, we Mormons refer to those who believe as you do as “Christians” in exactly the same way.
Here’s the difference. While we have no patience with creeds that owe more to Plato and other Greek philosophers than to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, we do recognize and respect as fellow Christians anyone who confesses that Christ is the Savior of the world.
So I can go to “The Passion of the Christ” and be moved by it, even though Mel Gibson’s view of what the passion actually consisted of is very different from the Mormon view. I recognize and respect the sincerity of his faith, and I recognize that despite our doctrinal differences, his faith is in Jesus Christ.
It’s like the ancient Hebrew penchant for referring to God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” They did not try to subject God to the limitations of human understanding; they did not define him in ways that would say more about the limitations of their own minds than about the nature of God.
Can we not define God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in a similar way? “The God that Jesus prayed to, that is the God we pray to. The Jesus Christ of the New Testament, he is the one we believe has suffered to redeem the world from sin. He is the way, the truth, the life, as best we understand what he taught.”
That last phrase is a key to our getting along, I think. It is one of the central tenets of Mormon religion that our understanding is not perfect or complete, that we fully expect that many of our present ideas are incorrect, and we look forward to a day when we will be ready to receive a better understanding.
In the meantime, we do our best with what light and knowledge we have received. We might be in error. So might you. We all struggle to puzzle out things that are, in fact, beyond the ken of mortal minds.
The points of disagreement between us are not insignificant. In fact, they’re so important that we do not recognize the efficacy of baptism performed by any other denomination, and anyone joining our church must be baptized — for the first time, we believe — regardless of any previous Christian baptism they might have received.
On the level of theology, doctrine, practice, ritual, and even history, we Mormons stand alone, neither Protestant nor Catholic. Just as Lutherans and Baptists and Presbyterians generally don’t accept the authority of the Pope, we don’t accept the authority of anybody except those that we believe hold the keys of the Kingdom of God on earth today.
And so when we send out our missionaries to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ as we understand it, it is perfectly fair for Baptist ministers and Catholic priests and any other religious leader to point out to their congregants precisely what we point out to them — that our beliefs are very different from theirs.
They call us wrong; we call ourselves right.
But that’s a matter of private belief and conscience. Those who put our religion to the test and come to believe in it don’t do so because we fooled them into thinking we believe just like Dr. Mohler.
We openly state that we teach a version of Christianity radically different from all others. We proclaim it.
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.
Mitt Romney is not running for Pope of America, or Head Rabbi, or Minister-in-Chief. He is not running for any religious office. He is a citizen of this country, who has a distinguished record of achievement in business and government, asking people to vote for him to become the leader of our country and, perforce, the leader of the free world.
His religious beliefs are not irrelevant. Far from it. Americans should care very much about religious beliefs that will affect how a president would fulfill the duties of his office.
Here’s a man who is faithful to his wife, without a breath of scandal associated with him; he is a devoted father and grandfather; he tithes to his church; he doesn’t smoke or drink and never has. In other words, he not only claims to be a member of a particular church, he lives by the standards of that church.
So when Mitt Romney says, “I believe this is the right thing to do, and I’m going to do it,” then American voters can be reasonably confident that he really does believe it and he really will do it.
That’s something that I would look for about any candidate, from any religious tradition. Does he live by what his religion teaches? Or is he a member in name only?
His profession of membership in a Church gives us a way to find out about the standards of good and evil, of right and wrong, that his religion teaches. Where I would be worried is when we have a candidate who does not profess any religion, or does not live up to the standards of the religion he professes.
How then would we find out what he really believes? What his standards are? How well he keeps his commitments? It’s not impossible to determine that even with people whose religious commitments are, shall we say, skin deep. Certainly, for instance, it wasn’t hard to find out what Bill Clinton’s standards of truth-telling and word-keeping were before he was elected; he absolutely performed exactly as his past behavior had given us reason to expect. We got what we voted for.
But don’t look at his religion as if it were a complete guide to how he would perform as president. There are those who fear a Romney presidency because somebody’s been telling them that Mormonism is a “cult” and they think Romney would get all his instructions from Salt Lake City — or from what he imagined God might whisper to him.
May I suggest that before you leap to that conclusion, you consider carefully: Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is also a Mormon. As far as I know, he’s a Mormon in good standing. And he’s a Democrat — a liberal Democrat, on most issues.
If Salt Lake City is telling Mormon politicians what to do, they’re sure giving Harry Reid a different set of instructions from those they’ve been giving to Mitt Romney.
Like Harry Reid, I’m a Democrat. If my own party nominates somebody that I think would make a better president than Mitt Romney, I’ll vote for the Democrat. If my party doesn’t, and the Republican Party nominates Romney, I might well vote for him.
It won’t be because he’s a Mormon. It’ll be for a whole range of reasons — his political views, his announced plans, and my assessment of his character. And that assessment won’t be based on mere membership in the same Church as me. It will be based on how well I think he lives up to the commitments that Mormons make.
Now, what if you are an American citizen who absolutely hates every Mormon doctrine you’ve heard about?
My advice is: Don’t join the Mormon Church if you feel that way. But what does it have to do with choosing a president?
Dr. Mohler has gone on record elsewhere as advising evangelical Christians not to vote for Mitt Romney, even though he’s the candidate whose life practices and whose professed beliefs are the closest to fitting the political agenda of many or perhaps most evangelicals.
Why? Because he fears that the election of Mitt Romney will lend “legitimacy” to Mormonism.
Guess what, Dr. Mohler. Mormonism has legitimacy. Millions of American citizens already believe in it. And not the dumbest American citizens, either. We’re above average in our education. We’re also above average in our religious activity, our charitable donations, our marital fidelity, and the time we spend with our families. We try to be good neighbors and good friends.
We are as legitimate, as citizens and therefore as potential officeholders, as anybody else in America. Because there is no religious test for holding office in America.
I urge all evangelicals Christians who are worried about a Mormon as president to consider this:
What if somebody were saying that no evangelical Christian should be elected president, solely on the basis of his religious beliefs?
Oh — wait — they already are.
Think about it. How often has President Bush been mocked because he believes he was born again? How often have his critics ridiculed him because he believes that when he prays, God hears him and even, sometimes, answers?
How many have, in effect, claimed that evangelical Christians have no business holding the office of President — that they are unfit for such a vital public trust precisely because of their beliefs about how God and human beings interact?
We Mormons don’t agree with you on many vital points of doctrine. But I hope we all agree with each other about this: In a time when a vigorous atheist movement is trying to exclude religious people from participating in American public life unless they promise never to mention or think about their religion while in office, why are we arguing with each other?
You don’t want your kids to join the Mormon Church; well, I don’t want mine to join the Baptist Church, either. That’s because you think you’re right about your religion, and I think I’m right about mine.
But I would rather vote for a believing Baptist who lives up to his faith than for a Mormon who doesn’t take his religion seriously or keep the commandments he’s been taught.
And vice versa. Don’t you feel that way, too?