Wednesday, July 25, 2012

FAQ: Are Mormons Christian?

Short answer:

Christian? Yes. Protestant? No. Decent? We try to be. 

Unpacking the question:

Given that Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the persistence of this question is a little perplexing. We are thinking and talking about Jesus all the time: how can so many people continue to ask whether we're Christian or not?

My current theory is that the question sticks around because it's actually trying to measure three different things: 
1) Is Jesus your religion's central figure?
2) Is participation in your church effectively interchangeable with participation in other mainstream Christian faiths?
3) Are you guys good people? 

The threefold nature of the question makes it difficult to answer. Because "Christian" has been synonymous with "morally good" over most of the history of the English language (as in the phrase "that wasn't a very Christian thing for you to do"), and because Europeans and Americans have a long history of casting Mormons as depraved, the question is socially as well as religiously awkward from the start. Because Protestantism has long been suspicious of any religious deference to figures other than Jesus and the text of the Bible, the question about Jesus' centrality in our faith is far more of an uphill battle than it should be. And because most Protestant churches view themselves more as Christian organizations than distinct faiths, they can misread our assertion of a Christian identity as meaning something other than we intend it to.

Long answer:

Do Mormons believe in Jesus? 

Jesus is absolutely and unequivocally the central figure in our faith. We are blessed in his name, baptized in his name, buried with his name engraved all through our dormant synapses. We pray in his name numerous times every day of our lives. We try to think about what he taught as we choose how to speak, how to act, how to respond to others' actions.

And that alone makes us Christian, however our specific practices or beliefs may differ from those of another church or individual believer. As it happens, we do share most core beliefs about Jesus with most other Christians. We believe in Jesus as divine, as Messiah and Son of God. We believe that his atoning sacrifice is the central and decisive moment in human history. We believe literally in his Resurrection and victory over death.

We differ with many on other points. We don't feel an attachment to any of the traditional creed statements. We place more emphasis on Gethsemane while others focus more on the Crucifixion. We believe in our prophets and apostles as Christ's special messengers while others believe in their popes or their patriarchs or their interpretation of the Bible and the Bible alone. Maybe that makes us unorthodox Christians, or even bad Christians, but it's misleading to jump from the truth that Latter-day Saints have some different beliefs about Jesus to a claim that we don't really believe in him. 

One Caution: the Parable of the Two Americans

Two athletes meet at a restaurant during the Olympics in London. 
"Where are you from?" says the first.
"America," says the second.
"I'm from America, too," says the second, and he laughs. "But which country in America do you represent?"

When Latter-day Saints say we are Christian, we aren't claiming our church is interchangeable with other Christian churches. But some people will interpret it that way, the same way many U.S. Americans forget that millions of people from the Americas don't carry U.S. passports.

Many Christians, particularly from Protestant denominations, seem to see different churches as though they were different states in a single nation. It's not usually considered an international marriage for an Ohioan to marry a Pennsylvanian, and it's not usually considered an interfaith marriage for a Presbyterian to marry a Methodist. 

But it is an interfaith marriage for a Methodist to marry a Mormon. We may share a continent, as it were, with other Christians, but we are more like an independent republic with its own language, history, culture, and government than we are like another state in their union.

This can cause problems. Because Latter-day Saints have a country-continent model for understanding how different denominations relate to the body of Christianity as a whole, we aren't bothered when they don't accept our baptisms. But when we say we are Christians and others hear us with a state-union model for understanding how individual denominations relate to Christianity as a whole, they may be offended when we don't recognize baptisms they performed. If someone expects Mormon faith to feel as close to their faith as Colorado culture feels to Oregon culture, they will almost certainly get a major culture shock instead. And instead of saying, "Mormons are a unique kind of Christian," they may jump a step and say, "I thought Mormons were Christian like us, but I was wrong." (After all, much like some citizens of the United States, some Protestants have a difficult time remembering that anything exists beyond their borders.)

So I can understand why some Protestants get confused about whether we're Christian. But that doesn't mean I like it. Who are they to tell me where I live? Especially if in the process, they are suggesting that I'm a bad person.

The connotations of "Christian"

For most of the history of the English language, the adjective "Christian" could be used either to identify someone's faith. But since most English-speakers were Christians and didn't need identifying by nominal religious affiliation, it became common to use "Christian" to describe someone as possessing positive Christian virtues such as generosity, humility, piety, or a strong service ethic.

Times have changed. The importance of the word Christian as a faith-identifier has increased, and the term can carry a lot of negative overtones now as well as the positive. But it's one thing for Anne Rice to say on her own that she wants to follow Christ but not to be a Christian anymore and quite another for someone to tell a religious person that he or she isn't a real Christian.

And some of the people who say Mormons aren't Christian fully intend to imply that Mormons don't have the positive attributes traditionally associated with followers of Christ. (You can usually separate the confused from the spiteful based on whether their arguments for why Mormons aren't Christian paint us as simply different or as frightening and weird.)

Now--there are Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, and atheists who do a better job than many Christians at emulating Christ. And there are certainly Mormons who are unrepentant jerks or liars or cheats, and who therefore do a pretty shabby job of "being Christian" in the Christian virtues sense. There are moments, quite frankly, when I'm not really a Christian in the Christian virtues of love and kindness sense. But broadly speaking, do Mormons act according to the virtues Christianity prizes?


There is strong statistical evidence of Mormon selflessness. As a population, we tend to donate more of our time to service than others do--a University of Pennsylvania study of American Mormons suggests we serve as much as seven times more than the national average. We also donate money and goods at above-average levels to the church and to charities in the community.

We seem to have particularly taken to heart Jesus' teaching that children matter in the kingdom of heaven. A recent Pew survey of American Mormons reported that 80% of us said that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life, while only 50% of the general American population said so.

And we do seem particularly prepared to make sacrifices for the gospels sake, whether the sacrifice is a small as two years away from digital media and friends for young millennials who serve missions or as great as life itself for martyrs like Rafael and Jesucita Monroy.

When it comes to living according to Christianity's professed values, most Latter-day Saints join countless others of many faiths or of no faith who do their best to make goodness the center of their lives.

Do we believe in Jesus? Yes. Do we have our own unique traditions for worshiping him? Of course--and we are not ashamed of them. Do we act like he would have us act? We try.

And that's what I mean when I say we are Christian.


  1. Evangelicals have a very specific definition of Christianity that may not be shared with many others.

    1. "Evangelicals" is actually, it seems, a term we use to describe a variety of different churches which are very close to each other. My guess is that because many of them feel strong kinship with each other across specific denominational lines, they feel a need to do extra work to define which other churches are similar enough in their Christianity "not to need a passport" as it were.
      Their use of Christian is sort of like if the EU only wanted to call member states European. (I wonder if there are Europeans who would hesitate to admit Albania is in Europe....)

  2. Along the lines of the above comment, I think many people asking this question are using "christian" as a term of art (if you'll excuse some legal terminology and analogy). "Christian" has taken on a specialized meaning over the years to mean more than just someone who believes in Christ, the same way that "free speech" means more than "no constraints on speech," which is what a straightforward reading of that term might imply. The shorthand of "free speech," in an American context, refers to a long line of cases dealing with things like what "speech" means (pictures on a T-shirt? hand gestures? etc.), when the government can punish you for speaking, and other such exceptions and clarifications and things. One could plausibly say they are in favor of free speech but not think that pictures count as speech and thus can be strictly limited, for example; such people could be right as they use the term, but they aren't in favor of free speech as the term is used in its technical sense. For people asking whether we're "christian," it doesn't necessarily matter that we "believe in Jesus." After all, Muslims believe that he was a sinless prophet, so in some sense they believe in him too, but obviously no one, least of all them, would call them christians. (Obviously they don't believe in him as a Savior, but my point is that some degree of believing "in" Christ isn't necessarily dispositive of one's christianity.)

    That said, not everyone is using the term "christian" in such a specialized way, and I love the way your post explains what we mean by the term; I think it resonates well with common sense.

    1. Yeah, the free speech example is good too. The "Christian" debate is one of many where I think it will be easiest to acknowledge the ground we share by also acknowledging the ground we don't. We are Christian but not the same kind.

  3. All of your points are good ones for congregants in general. But frankly, I think the whole "Mormons aren't Christian" thing started out as an advertising campaign by rival churches to prevent leakage. They have their reasons for why we aren't technically Christian based on narrow (and I think non-biblical) definitions. But most lay members hear the "not Christian" part and assume that means we literally don't believe in Christ as the son of God. On my mission, I was amazed by how many people thought they knew more about what I really believed than I did!

    1. It may well be classic equivocation. Preacher thinks it's not very "Christian" (in a broad definition #3) sense for missionaries to draw away members of his congregation. Preacher then says Mormons aren't Christian knowing they will interpret it as definition #1 and then justifies the switch with argument that draw on definition #2.

      I think there may be evil spirits specifically charged with tempting us to abuse the English language. ;)

  4. I love your blog and found this post enlightening. I just wanted to point out one slight error. You called the study on Mormon selflessness was performed at Penn State, while it was actually researched at the University of Pennsylvania (also called UPenn or just Penn). As a Penn student, I'm used to having us mixed up with Penn State (my grandma still isn't sure where I study, I think) but I try to point out the difference when I can :).

    1. Joseph,

      Good catch! I've fixed the error and correctly identified your school.

      Kinda funny that in a post about getting names right I got one wrong...;)


  5. I've often pondered why my friends aren't sure that I'm a Christian. Sometimes I think it does boil down to "not like us" - even if that difference is not well-defined in their own minds. How am I different? The belief in modern revelation and modern scripture is huge. The time commitment and the expectation that being Christian is a community obligation instead of merely a collection of character traits is also significant. But I think the biggest differentiator is modern revelation.

    In all honesty (was it Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert who did the satire on how believable Christianity is in relation to Mormonism?) we are merely a more recent iteration of the unbelievable-religion-beginning theme. The problem, IMO, is that as societies we want our religion to be distant from us (2000 years ago something unbelievable happened, not 200 years ago when people were a lot more ... like us) because it gives us the freedom to expect little of ourselves. Face it, if we accept Joseph Smith's story, the world as a Christian is vastly different from the protestant worldview that asks nothing particularly extraordinary of plain jane members. Just acknowledging that what happened to Joseph Smith really happened *changes everything.* I always sensed a certain discomfort from my Midwestern friends when it came to big-P prophecy and I wonder if it wasn't because, in the case of Mormonism, that evolved from ordinary people.



Related Posts with Thumbnails