“by no definition of the word…”

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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77 Responses

  1. Cascadian says:

    If it makes you feel any better, my family doesn’t consider Catholics (they believe in the word of the Pope instead of the bible only) or even Lutherans (too liberal and wishy washy) to be Christians…. full immersion only, (speaking in tongues is optional). All the same, I’d go with self identity as good enough myself.Report

  2. sidereal says:

    All well and good, but it’s a big heap of argument by assertion. One man’s ‘foundational belief’ is another man’s ‘sectarian difference’.

    After all, the belief in Papal infallibility is a rather deep departure from other sects of Christianity, yeah?

    It is, at root, a semantic argument. There’s no absolute set of criteria for what distinguishes between sects vs between religions. There’s no rational reason that Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana are all considered Buddhism but Jainism isn’t (Prophylactic: I’m sure you can come up with an arbitrary reason for such a distinction, but it’s no more rational than some other reason that doesn’t create it).

    I think the resistance to your claim in the original post was that it was absurdly too strong. Of course you can choose not to include Mormonism in Christianity by whatever definition you want, but to claim that ” by no definition of the word” could Mormons be Christians is obviously silly. Here’s a definition that would gain traction: Christians believe in the divinity of Christ as the child of the God of the Israelites. Oh look, now Mormons are Christians.

    And the context which matters, to bring it around, is the one surrounding Sullivan’s label of ‘Christianist’ which broadly describes a movement to ensconce (particularly fundamentalist) Christian theology and mores into American law and conduct.

    Which is a reasonable description of LDS activity from his perspective.Report

  3. rob says:

    I think I more or less agree with you, E.D., but maybe some of the difficulty could be resolved by saying “by no reasonable definition” rather than “by no definition”, as leaving out that qualifier leaves you open to arguments like sidereal’s (A. present a simplistic definition of Christianity B. note that Mormonism fits that simplistic definition).

    Would you accept the following argument:
    A. Jews believe that there is one true God, Yahweh, and that he chose Israel to be his nation.
    B. Christians believe that there is one true God, Yahweh, and that he chose Israel to be his nation.
    C. Therefore, Christians are Jews.

    If not, can you explain why it is radically different from your explanation of why Mormons are Christians?Report

  4. Bob says:

    E.D. we’ve trod this path before, remember?

    Religious folk tend to think of their belief as objectively true, after all a god reveled it to the world in some form, Bible etc. But your defense of your nonsense, Mormons are not Christian, abound with the subjective aspects of religion, all religion.

    OK, the Mormons profess to believe in Jesus as god, they purport belief in the Gospels, but this is not enough for you. Other aspects of their religion put the lie that claim. I’m pretty sure you might find aspects of the Catholic church unchristian, in fact I detect a whiff of anti Catholicism in your words (just a feeling).

    So here is the bottom line. Andrew Sullivan has his definition of good Christianity, those that fall short he brands Christianist. E.D. Kain has his definition of good Christianity, those that fall short, no matter what, can not be Christian. All this defining and pleading for this ritual over that ritual screams subjective.

    I’m sticking to ignorant.Report

  5. E.D. Kain says:

    I’m going to address these in reverse order.

    First off, Bob. I’m not being “objective” at all, nor am I positing on the “truthiness” of any religion vs another. I’m simply pointing out that in order for one religion to be distinguished from another religion we must have some basic criteria. This is why Christians aren’t Jews. Christians have adopted other beliefs that distinguish them from Jews. Am I “ignorant” for stating this? Muslims aren’t Jews either, despite a shared Abrahamic heritage. Is stating this ignorant?

    And no, I have no anti-Catholicism. I actually come from a Catholic family. I’ve actually found that my own Christian experience was always the most profound in the Catholic fold. That doesn’t mean I much care for the notion of papal infallibility. Plenty of Catholics don’t either (back to Sullivan there).

    In any case, I’ll re-state this has nothing to do with objective truth. For all I know the Mormons have the truth of it. That still doesn’t make them Christian.

    Rob–I think I tried to explain your question in this post, and your example of the logical fallacy is spot-on.

    Sidereal–see Rob’s logical construct to see how your example falls short. Also, buddhism grew out of a hindu tradition not a jainist tradition, which is the answer to that question.

    Cascadian, yes there are many within the Christian faith that believe other Christians are not “true” Christians. I’m arguing from a purely doctrinal and very basic set of beliefs. Mormons simply add on so much to Christianity that it’s totally transformed. Catholics have organizational differences and a few minor liturgical differences from protestants, but they certainly don’t differ in any fundamental way as Mormons surely do…Report

  6. Bob says:

    “This is why Christians aren’t Jews. Christians have adopted other beliefs that distinguish them from Jews. Am I “ignorant” for stating this? Muslims aren’t Jews either, despite a shared Abrahamic heritage. Is stating this ignorant?”

    You did not say that in your original post. I agree, Christians are not Jews. But let’s go here. Fords are not Hondas. Both, however, offer a means of transport. Would you ever say? “Honda, by any definition, does not offers a means of transport.” I doubt it.

    What you wrote in your original statement was a reading out of Christianity of Mormonism. (Clearly, Mormons wish to be placed in the Christian tradition.) I imagine an Orthodox Jew might say, “Reform Judaism, by any definition, is not Judaism.” I would call that an ignorant statement also. Do I think an Orthodox Jew making that statement believed it to be true? I sure do. Do I think you believe your original statement? I sure do. You offer sufficient proof, by your lights, to maintain your belief. I’m also sure that many Christians believe as you do. But, for me, this disputing of what sects qualifies as worthy is ignorant. But hell, when you begin with ignorance, broadly belief in god, it’s pretty difficult to be rational.

    BTW, happy to read you are not anti Catholic but I bet a lot of Catholics would find your anti infallibility stance anti Catholic. You point out correctly many Catholic don’t subscribe to it either. Just another example of the subjective nature of the entire enterprise.

    BTW2, I’m also from the Catholic tradition. I just chucked the whole god thing.Report

  7. E.D. Kain says:

    Bob wrote:

    I agree, Christians are not Jews. But let’s go here. Fords are not Hondas. Both, however, offer a means of transport. Would you ever say? “Honda, by any definition, does not offers a means of transport.” I doubt it.

    That’s a terrible analogy. Replace “means of transport” with religion and we’d agree. Mormonism and Christianity are both “means of transport” but just like Fords and Hondas, they’re not the same brand…

    I imagine an Orthodox Jew might say, “Reform Judaism, by any definition, is not Judaism.”

    Actually, while the Orthodox might consider the practices of Reform Judaism as having strayed from the purer form they practice, they still consider Reform Jews to be Jews. Big difference there, too. They have different beliefs in who constitutes a convert to Judaism, however…Report

  8. Bob says:

    I get it now. Thanks E.D.Report

  9. E.D. Kain says:

    Bob, no dammit! You’re supposed to keep arguing! We’re supposed to fight to the bloody death! No capitulation, no reasonable terms of understanding! Fight, damn you! 😉Report

  10. sidereal says:

    It’s problematic for you to keep arguing specifics when the point is that specifics don’t matter. Or more accurately, the set of specifics one uses to argue one’s point is completely arbitrary.

    Buddhists ‘grew out’ of the Hindu tradition? First, the ‘grew out of’ standard has been completely fabricated by you, just now. It is not objectively intrinsic to the definition of distinct religion. Second, understanding what ‘grew out’ of what requires an understanding of the evolution of the practices and beliefs of a people, not some handy lineage chart you can look up in an appendix. Jainism is in fact very similar and comes from the same lineage as Buddhism, but Buddhism is considered separate because Siddhartha rejected the Jainist focus on self-abuse and punishment. However, as a practical matter that’s a very small distinction compared to that between Catholicism and Protestantism. And yet someone somewhere decided that Jainism and Buddhism are separate religions, and someone somewhere else decided that Catholicism and Lutheranism are both Christianity (even while someone somewhere else definitely stated the opposite, but didn’t get to write the appropriate appendix).

    Once you acknowledge that the organization of religions and sects is very arbitrary, you recognize that arguing specific doctrinal differences is meaningless.

    And to rob’s point making my argument ‘fall short’, I don’t see it. Yes, by one standard of the definition of Judaism Christians are a sect of Jews. It happens to not be the standard that we (arbitrarily) use. It is entirely possible that in some alternate timeline another arbitrary definition of would have been accepted and Christians would now be considered Jews. This is again simply argument by assertion. There is no clean standard that divides Christians from Jews that also divides Mormons from Christians, because the differences are in all cases idiosyncratic.

    You can’t say that the critical difference is belief in the divinity of historical figures (which would divide Islam from Judeo-Christianity via the belief in Muhammad) because then Shiite and Sunni would be considered separate religions and the Papal divinity, complicated as it is, would probably require that Catholicism and Protestantism be different religions. But they’re not. Why? Because everyone says so.

    I’m reminded of a previous OrdinaryGents post (I think?) about how blogging is fundamentally just a bunch of laymen arguing about stuff that’s already been decided by smarter people. There are literally millions of pages of theological work trying to organize and standardize belief systems, and I don’t think any responsible reading of any part of them could lead to the conclusion that ‘by no definition of the word’ are Mormons Christians.Report

  11. E.D. Kain says:

    Sorry sidereal, but this sort of “everything is arbitrary” standard (or lack thereof) is just completely absurd. By your definition (or lack thereof) anybody is anything, and there is no point in distinctions at all. That just diminishes the purpose of language itself into total meaninglessness.

    I mean, extend your logic further and now there’s no point in distinguishing between racial or cultural groups either. We can all call ourselves whatever color we want. I can just “self-identify” as black if I want to, even if it’s not the case. Because, after all, racial distinctions are just arbitrary. And I can just “say” that I’m from a hispanic cultural tradition whether or not that’s actually true because culture is all in the eye of the beholder.

    Come on. There doesn’t need to be a “clean standard” that defines these distinctions. It only takes a handful of minutes of critical thinking and it becomes pretty obvious that the theological divide between Mormonism and every single denomination of Christianity is so wide that they couldn’t possibly inhabit the same religious identity.Report

  12. sidereal says:

    By your definition (or lack thereof) anybody is anything

    This conversation isn’t going anywhere. I apologize for starting it.Report

  13. E.D. Kain says:

    You’re trying to boil down a theological debate to semantics and then write it all of as arbitrary in the first place. I disagree with your fundamental notion that this is possible. I also disagree that this conversation is going nowhere, so please don’t apologize for starting it. And in fact, I should have mentioned this before, but your Shiite/Sunni example is actually a pretty tricky one to fully understand since Shiite belief in the 12th Imam is so completely far out compared to mainline Sunni beliefs…

    In any case, I think it’s a debate worth having. I disagree with you but I value and respect your opinion, and if I come across as harsh it’s just a style thing. No worries.Report

  14. Adam Gomaa says:

    @sidereal Don’t be too sorry. It’s pretty obvious to myself and other reasonably informed third parties that Kain’s argument is wrong.

    Here’s a good guideline: exclusive self-identification. Certainly Sikhism is influenced by Islam and Hinduism, but Sikhs don’t self-identify as Muslim or Hindu, thus establishing Sikhism as a separate religion. Christianity has Jewish roots, but Christians don’t self-identify as Jewish, hence why it’s considered a religion and not a sect. Baha’i followers identify as Baha’i, and may self-identify as both Muslim and Christian – which gives us the crucial distinction. Mormons claim to be Christian – but not Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, or anything else, which is why they can reasonably be considered Christian.

    Sectarian squabbling over who is the true Scotsman doesn’t quality for excluding Mormonism from the label of Christianity.

    And there’s no ambiguity in sidereal’s argument. A “handful of minutes of critical thinking” does indeed settle this, but not in Kain’s favor.Report

  15. E.D. Kain says:

    So self-identification is all it takes, Adam? So Mormons can tack on as many of their own beliefs in other heavens, in personal godhood, in The Book of Mormon, and all that matters is their self-identification?

    Following that line of self-serving logic simply leads to moral chaos. Fine. Next on the list are those who don’t actually believe in the Trinity at all. They can call themselves Christian and that’s all that matters. Words aren’t important. Differences aren’t important. Sameness and tolerance rule the day, trump all, and wash away everything human about the world we live in. Relativism consumes us.Report

  16. E.D. Kain says:

    Oh, and the larger point regardin Sikh’s and Baha’i is that in the early days of those religions many people did in fact self-identify as Muslims or Hindus etc. The only reason that they diverged so far by this point is that self-identification simply isn’t good enough. Thus emerge new religions. Early Christians were almost universally Jewish and considered themselves to be Jews – after all, the Jewish belief in the Messiah was what they had adopted in Jesus. But again, self-identification wasn’t strong enough. And it isn’t for Mormons either.Report

  17. rob says:

    As a standard for the definition of membership in a religious group, “exclusive self-identification” reeks of the worst kind of individualism; it leaves no room for the group to police its own membership, which would seem very odd to all but the most strident proponent of the individual (but given that the strident advancement of the individual is one of the defining characteristics of the modern American, it is not surprising that a standard based upon that advancement is being proposed here). I think it would be much better, as a rule, to permit the group (and even interested onlookers) to talk about who is a member and who is not.

    This, after all, is what we quite happily do with political alignments. Members of a given group, whether neo-this or paleo-that, discuss within themselves what kinds of beliefs are compatible with the alignment they have identified themselves as possessing. This seems entirely legitimate as a general process, to me, though you can argue about whether specific cases — for instance, Freddie vs. Daniel Larison over Kaus — are helpful or unhelpful. But I wouldn’t want to rule out the entire kind of discussion — discussion by members of a group about whether other persons are also legitimately members of a group, based on the evidence of both the stated beliefs and the actions of those persons. Which is what the standard Adam and sidereal are setting up does — rules out the possibility of discussing whether x set of beliefs and actions are consistent with membership in y religious group.

    I would have a lot more sympathy for Adam and sidereal’s argument if it were “I don’t think the beliefs of Mormons are significantly different enough from the beliefs of Christians in order to differentiate the groups” (in response to E.D.’s “the beliefs of Mormons are so different from the beliefs of Christians that we cannot consider them to be members of the same religious group”). But that’s not your argument — yours is “The only kind of belief that counts in determining whether Mormons are Christians is whether Mormons consider themselves Christian”. Which I doubt you would accept, for instance, in the case of a political philosophy — say, “liberalism” (“the only kind of belief that counts in determining whether a person is a liberal is whether that person considers themselves to be a liberal”).

    The most helpful thing about “exclusive self-identification” as a standard is that it is easy — objective, even. But I doubt many people would find it an acceptable standard in other realms of subjectivity (political belief, say, or, personal relationship — note that it would be easy for someone to self-identify as loving his partner and yet hold a multitude of other beliefs or engage in other actions that give us reason to doubt that exclusive self-identification). Which suggests to me that it has been selected in this case by Adam and sidereal because they have already determined that religous belief is not something worth engaging in rational discussion (note: I assume and will happily defend the possibility of engaging in rational and productive discussion about the subjective) about (that’s certainly where Bob seems to be coming from — I appreciate his candor: “But, for me, this disputing of what sects qualifies as worthy is ignorant. But hell, when you begin with ignorance, broadly belief in god, it’s pretty difficult to be rational.”).Report

  18. Bob says:

    “…’exclusive self-identification’ reeks of the worst kind of individualism; it leaves no room for the group to police its own membership, which would seem very odd to all but the most strident proponent of the individual….”

    So Rob a question, who or what group would you propose to be qualified to judge membership in a group?

    Oh, let’s just use the example E.D used, Christians. I guess Christians may accurately be called a group.

    Mormons self identify as Christian. E.D. must demure. So who settles this dispute?Report

  19. Mike says:

    Are Arians Christians? How about Gnostics? Monophysites? Nestorians? All of them share the same tiny patch of doctrine with orthodox trinitarian doctrine that Mormons do — the divinity of Christ.Report

  20. E.D. Kain says:

    Mormons self-identify first as Mormons. The vast bulk of Christians do not accept them as anything else. But this becomes an exercise in futility. The point is, terms have meaning in order to be best used. Words are tools, weapons, paintbrushes, etc. If we stop using them with accuracy, specificity, etc. than we risk undermining them altogether. I can call myself a teapot if I want to, but it doesn’t make it so. Who is to determine that this is not the case? Why, the rest of humankind! They can look at the facts and draw from them what conclusion they will.

    In any case, it’s interesting to me that so many non-Mormons have leaped to their…er…defense? Is it a “defense” to help apply a bad, mistaken label to a group of people?Report

  21. E.D. Kain says:

    Oh, and Mike, Christians and Mormons have a drastically different understanding of “divinity” so when it’s applied to Christ it simply falls short.Report

  22. RJG says:

    Certainly Mormons don’t qualify as “Christian” as you define the term (stemming from a direct line of traditional Christian sects without too much deviation), but your standards are by no means universally recognized and other people (who are not Mormons themselves) might apply a different standard and come to a different conclusion. Also, you vastly minimize the doctrine that Mormons share with traditional Christians when you characterize it as a “tiny patch,” and your explanations of certain Mormon beliefs are incomplete (men are just as reliant on their spouse for salvation as women are) or overstated (to call Mormons polytheistic is a bit of a leap, since the existence of other “Gods” is immaterial to the way in which Mormons worship their one God, and as a doctrinal matter is almost never explicitly stated but rather is mostly inferred. Moreover, the Mormon conception of theoretical multiple deity is clearly found in early Christian theology and was only resolved in the modern age by the institution of the doctrine of the Trinity during the Council of Nicaea.).Report

  23. Mike says:

    A conversation I had with the woman who cleans my house:

    She: I’m engaged to this terrific guy. He’s a Christian, though I’m not.

    Me: Really? Aren’t you a Catholic? (She’s Latina.)

    She: Yes.

    Me: I thought Catholics were Christians too.

    She. Oh, yes, I guess I am.

    At any rate, I think many of us jumped at what seemed to be yet another example of someone reserving “Christian” to mean “people who believe exactly as I do”. I have no dog in this fight, myself: I think you all have goyisher kopfs.Report

  24. koan0215 says:

    “Mormons self-identify first as Mormons.”
    This is untrue in my experience. I’m an atheist but a former Mormon, and my vast extended family who remain ardent Mormons would ALWAYS identify as Christians first, if for no other reason than the fact that other Christian sects don’t want to let them into the club bothers them. Having grown up in the faith, I can say that the life of a devout Mormon is very Christ-centered, even if the idea of Christ that they signify when they use the word Christ is different in almost every way from the idea of Christ that traditional Christians signify when they use the term Christ 🙂Report

  25. anthony says:

    Mr. Kain, i do believe that you’ve forgotten the First Council of Nicaea, which–though likely not the first “internal debate”–predates the Eastern-Western schism by seven centuries.

    But your argument against self-identification being a shibboleth is, i believe, beside the point. Parent religions always disavow their children as apostasies, though those parents are least-well situated to judge the likeness between themselves and their children (true ecumenism is a very rare bird). The doctrinal differences between Catholicism and the Southern Baptists mean as little to a Hindu as the differences between Native American religions did to the Catholics and Protestants who tried their damnedest to eliminate them.

    Christianism is no struggle within the various faiths that profess Jesus’ divinity. Rather, it is a movement of various faiths that rely–quite ironically–much on Levitical law and rarely on New Testament (or Moronic) pronouncements to force moral laws on those insufficiently Christian. After purging the obviously “other” elements of society, then the next group of not-quite-Christian-enoughs will be targeted.

    The dynamic of Nietzsche’s slave morality is what determines Christianism: those who walk like ducks and talk like ducks, regardless of what species of duck or whether they call themselves ducks at all, are those who oppress us, we who are not Christianists.

    Shortly: it’s not the doctrinal specifics that determine Christianism but the goal–determined by certain shared elements–of eliminating its enemies, hence the suffixal analogy to Islamists, whether Wahhabist, Salafist, Sevener, or even Twelver Shi’ite.Report

  26. Ella the Ebenist says:

    E.D., the root problem is that your “by no definition” wording was hyperbole and, taken literally, plainly wrong. It’s just a pointless overreach that causes everybody to snipe you instead of addressing your underlying argument. Why don’t you just concede that your wording was poorly chosen and retrench to a slightly different argument (“by no reasonable definition” is an improvement), instead of sticking to your guns and refusing to admit your obvious, minor mistake?Report

  27. Bob says:

    “Mormons self-identify first as Mormons. ” Maybe so E.D. but isn’t that true of most sects. When I was still Catholic I called myself Catholic, never Christian. I find that statement, quoted here, also ignorant and empty.Report

  28. Cascadian says:

    In any case, it’s interesting to me that so many non-Mormons have leaped to their…er…defense? Is it a “defense” to help apply a bad, mistaken label to a group of people?

    The giving just never stops.Report

  29. TLH says:

    It would be trivial for E.D. to revise to “by no definition of the word are Mormons Nicean Christians” or “The Mormons accept neither the Caesarian Creed, Apostles’ Creed, Nicean Creed, nor Athanasian Creed.” These are facts, and would end the debate. That E.D. does not so revise is compelling evidence that he wishes to make some privileged claim on the term “Christian” in order to defend his prior over-strong claim that there is no definition whatsoever under which it would be correct to included Mormons as Christians.Report

  30. John C. says:

    The problem, I think, has to do with what group or person you believe has sufficient authority to define a group. Certainly, there are differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity, some of them very significant. So, according to the traditional definition of a Christian as someone who believes in the dictates of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, Mormons fail, as you have noted in your piece. If you argue that Christians are groups that build their beliefs exclusively on the Bible, we all fail. If you argue that Christians are people who believe in Christ as the Atoning Son of God and Savior of humanity, then we’re all Christian. However, who has a right to establish which of these definitions is ultimately accurate? Perhaps the current practice of majority (and traditional) rule is the best outcome, but that seems prone to abuse (as some folks who were against Proposition 8 in California are only too happy to point out).

    Mormons certainly self-identify as Christian. If you wish to give them the benefit of doubt, I suppose “Christianish” is acceptable. They tend to describe themselves as “Restorationist Christians” and they tend to describe the other most prominent Christian sects as “Creedal Christians.” So that’s another option, if it interests you.Report

  31. Geoff J says:

    Yep, John C. is right E.D. Next time go with “Mormons are not creedal Christians” and we Christians who happen to belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints will say Amen!.Report

  32. E.D. Kain says:

    Alright, look, Mormons have every right to call themselves whatever they wish. And as such, I suppose Sullivan has every right to call them Christianists. But by pretty much any standard other than the Mormon one, Mormons aren’t Christian. I suppose that’s neither here nor there, nor my original point….Report

  33. Geoff J says:

    Oops. Make that “Latter-day”Report

  34. Geoff J says:

    E.D.:But by pretty much any standard other than the Mormon one, Mormons aren’t Christian.

    Hehe. There you go again with the silly-talk. Since we are talking about definitions here let’s fire up a cheap online dictionary definitions of the word “Christian”.

    From dictionary.com we get the following relevant definitions:

    ? ?/?kr?st??n/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [kris-chuhn]

    1. of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings: a Christian faith.
    2. of, pertaining to, believing in, or belonging to the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ: Spain is a Christian country.
    4. exhibiting a spirit proper to a follower of Jesus Christ; Christlike: She displayed true Christian charity.
    6. human; not brutal; humane: Such behavior isn’t Christian.
    7. a person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity.
    8. a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ: He died like a true Christian.
    9. a member of any of certain Protestant churches, as the Disciples of Christ and the Plymouth Brethren.

    So by my count, practicing Mormons are Christians in word and deed on 6 out of 7 of those definitions (with definition #9 not working). But of course good Catholics could not claim definition #9 either.

    So your “by no definition of the the word” comment is simply incorrect. The truth is, by most definitions of the word in the English language Mormons are Christians.

    Maybe next time you could say “by my painfully narrow and exclusive and sheltered personal definition of the word, Mormons are not Christians”. (I kid, I kid! With any luck I can disagree without being too disagreeable.)Report

  35. Todd says:

    E.D., you’re still making the kind of sweeping generalizations that anyone studying for the S.A.T. quickly learns to identify as likely wrong answers. “By pretty much any standard other than the Mormon one, Mormons aren’t Christian” is barely less dogmatic than your original “by no definition” assertion. Well, let me tell you, from a Jewish perspective, Mormons are clearly Christian. I suspect most Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc. would agree.

    “Mormons share only a tiny patch of doctrine with Christians,” you claim. Well, Mormons believe in the divinity of Christ, and that he was born of a virgin, died for the sins of humanity, and was resurrected on the third day, and that salvation comes only through his atonement. The Mormons I know do not consider that a “tiny patch” of their beliefs. Do you consider it just a tiny patch of yours?

    You express surprise at your readers leaping to the Mormons’ defense, but I suspect that most commenters are motivated less by a desire to defend Mormons than by a desire to correct your glaring lack of objectivity.Report

  36. Bob says:

    “You express surprise at your readers leaping to the Mormons’ defense, but I suspect that most commenters are motivated less by a desire to defend Mormons than by a desire to correct your glaring lack of objectivity.”

    Just so Todd. Another example of Mr. Kain’s willingness to engage in cant on this topic.Report

  37. Daniel says:

    The “border cases” (if that’s an OK term to use) are always the most difficult. To complicate the analogy with Christianity and Judaism: Jesus was Jewish; all of his earliest followers were Jewish; James, the Jewish leader of the first Christian assembly in Jerusalem, seems to have believed that Gentile converts must follow Jewish dietary laws; there was a significant Christian missionary movement that even said that Gentile converts must be circumcised (see Paul’s letter to the Galatians). Of course, Jews who accepted Jesus (like Jesus’ first followers) did not remain a significant proportion of the total Christian population, or maintain themselves as a distinct group within Christianity, for more than a few centuries. Judaism in any case was and is an ethnic construct as well as as a religious one. And as a minority religion, Judaism came to be defined in opposition to Christianity. This does not change the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and Peter was a Jew, and Paul was a Jew, and all of them would have continued to call themselves Jews after they became Christian. The vast majority of Christians do not claim to be Jewish. I agree that we can’t go entirely by self-identification, but I think it makes a difference when you’re trying to argue that Mormons aren’t Christian in the same way that Christians aren’t Jewish.
    What about the modern Messianic Jewish movement? Do people who follow the Law of Moses and who self-identify as Jewish but who believe that Christ is the Son of God have the right to call themselves Jews? I can certainly understand why the majority of Jews wouldn’t consider them to be Jewish, and might even regard them with hostility, and when I use the term “Jew” I don’t think of myself as including Messianic Jews, but I don’t think I would say that someone who is Jewish by birth and who keeps the Commandments as a Jew but who believes that Jesus was the Son of God is “not Jewish by any definition of the word.” You could make “doesn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God” definitional for Judaism, but I would respond that that would exclude Peter, James, and Paul–who were all clearly Jewish, to my mind, but who believed just that. Likewise, as a Lutheran Christian, I think that Mormon doctrines put them outside the boundaries of what I would consider Christian. But I don’t think it’s totally crazy for them to call themselves Christian either. Of course, you’ll object that words have to have meanings, and Christianity either includes Mormonism, or doesn’t. But I think in most instances “Christian” can be used without being particularly concerned with whether we mean to include Mormons (or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whoever), there being relatively so few of them. I don’t want to minimize the differences between Mormons and Christians (Nicene Christians? Traiditional Christians?), but I think it’s pointless and impossible to attempt to police our language so that we know which side of the boundary every case should fall on.
    I’d also like to respond to Bob’s point. It’s true that many (most?) American Christians identify themselves by their denomination (I try to call myself Christian rather than Lutheran when people ask, but it takes an effort to remember to do so), but I think that’s because Christians are in the majority in this country. When looking for a way to distinguish your “tribe” from someone else’s, the only way to do so is by referring to denomination. I don’t think that most Jews, for example, when they identify themselves to non-Jews, identify as Orthodox or Conservative or Reform rather than Jewish. If we Christians were the minority, I bet we’d all be much more likely to identify as Christians rather than by our denominations.Report

  38. E.D. Kain says:

    Okay, my final word on the matter for now.Report

  39. virginia cynic says:

    I’m with E.D. on this one.
    My understanding is that the Book of Mormon has Jesus coming to North America after the resurrection. I guess that I never saw the gospel verse that talked about that despite having read and heard a lot of bible verses first as a Baptist and now as an Episcopalian. When Jesus is resurrected there is no notion in any Christian religion that has Jesus flitting around the earth for other appearances.
    And plus as I recall there are plenty of arguments as to exactly what Jesus means in the gospels but I do not recall that any such arguments are settled by the magic spectacles that that joseph Smith came up with.
    Oh and tell me where in the christian religion men get to have celestial wives—an idea that was revealed to Joseph Smith just as surely as the golden tablets that only he could interpret.
    and the angel Moroni? sorry, E. D. is right, who knows whether the Mormons are correct or not but what they believe is not the Christian religion by any definition, except perhaps that of the Mormons who as one poster said , they call themselves christians so other people do not realize just how far their core beliefs differ from the basic tenets of christianity.Report

  40. Geoff J says:

    virginia cynic,

    You can argue that Mormons are wrong for believing that Jesus might actually have cared enough about people on other continents enough to visit and teach them after his resurrection, or that they are wrong to believe God might still be able to speak to prophets now, or that they are wrong to believe angels might be real even in modern times. Maybe that all sounds crazy to you and I have no issue with that. But none of those gripes are related to the issue debated here. The issue at hand is the definition of an English word. By the definition of the word “Christian” in the English language, Mormons are a sect of Christianity and therefore Mormons are Christians by all but the narrowest of sectarian-inspired definitions. (See my comment above)Report

  41. Dave F., Arlington, VA says:

    Clearly your sources are groups that try to spoon feed the idea that “Mormons aren’t Christians” since you butcher the substantive differences that DO exist between the LDS and other Christian faiths. If you are going to put yourself forward as an expert, be sure to correctly state Mormon doctrines from the canonical source.

    I would respond in detail to each error above, but it would take too long. This one sums up the whole:

    “Mormons share only a tiny patch of doctrine with Christians – at least as little as Christians share with Jews.”

    Christians and Jews share the Torah (small in comparison to the Bible), which the New Testament rendered quasi-obsolete and is only seldomly referenced in Christian worship. Even more, Jews and Christians completely disagree on the core belief that constitutes a Christian – the divinity of Christ as the Son of God, the Messiah, and sole source of salvation.

    Christians and Mormons share the entire Old and New Testaments and Mormon rely very heavily on the Bible. Christians and Mormons agree on the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, and the sole source of salvation as described in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and foretold in the Old Testament.

    You may disagree with uniquely Mormon doctrines not found in the Bible, but you’ll have a very hard time finding a Mormon who disagrees with the Bible. This may give you a valid argument…but…

    Keep studying so that you can kick the ball through the uprights next time.

    I am a Mormon and I will go tit for tat with any Christian on proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, and my personal Savior and Redeemer. I have yet to read a verse in the New Testament that gives me more trouble than any other Christian. If that does not qualify me to be a Christian by your definition so be it. God will judge.Report

  42. E.D. Kain says:

    Actually Christians and Jews share the Tanakh, the entire Old Testament (with a few small differences). The Torah is only the first five books of the Tanakh. More on this later, but I do still think that Mormonism has added a fundamentally distinguishing extension to the Bible in the Book of Mormon. This can’t just be written off. And again, I think there’s nothing wrong with this. I think the idea of new religions growing out of older ones is normal and healthy and human….see my most recent post, though at the top of the blog. We’re none of us perfect…Report

  43. J says:

    “The Book of Mormon, which introduces an entirely new and entirely distinct set of beliefs into the fold.” “Mormonism has added a fundamentally distinguishing extension to the Bible in the Book of Mormon.”

    What is the distinct set of beliefs in the Book of Mormon that isn’t in the Bible? The writing styles and authors may be different, but the doctrines are almost entirely similar (at least comparing the BoM to the New Testament).Report

  44. J says:

    “Mormons believe we all existed as “spirits” before coming to Earth – and that our actions in Heaven determine our race here on Earth.”

    Although mostly correct, your statements regarding Mormon doctrine are sloppy and misleading, especially since you fail to even mention all the Mormon doctrines that are closely aligned with creedal Christianity. The one I quoted above is the absolute worst. Some people believed this in the past (and a few still do) but it is not based in any doctrine, the vast majority of Mormons don’t believe this, and most Mormons work hard to stamp out such heresy within the church.Report

  45. Seth R. says:

    Aside from a prohibition on infant baptism, the Book of Mormon does not introduce any new doctrine that you cannot already find in the Bible. That was never the point of the book to begin with.

    The point of the Book of Mormon is to stand as an additional testimony of Jesus Christ and to demonstrate the global nature of God’s concern for humanity (rather than simply a small Palestinian enclave). The book demonstrates how God intends to use a small group of chosen people (Israel) to bless the lives of all nations. That’s the point of the book, not new doctrine.

    If you want new doctrine, you would need to look at the “Doctrine and Covenants” – a compilation of modern revelations.

    You also wrote:

    “Mormons believe in more than one God, for instance.”

    As do Christians friend. Ask any Muslim or Jewish theologian. He’d be happy to explain it to you.

    You make it sound like the Mormons believe in a universe of isolated and independent gods off doing their own thing without reference to anyone else. This is not true. The CONSTANT refrain of Mormon doctrine is UNITY with God the Father. Thus Mormons picture deification as becoming one in heart, mind, will, and love with God the Father – just as Jesus Christ has. So regardless of whether I become a “god” or not, there is only ever one Will governing the universe.

    I find the traditional Christian critiques of Mormonism as “polytheist” to be frankly ridiculous. Didn’t it ever occur to them that if you can unite THREE beings into “One God,” you can unite more than three?

    Seriously, what’s stopping Mormons from doing exactly that, and still remaining in harmony with Christianity’s own logic? We are no more polytheist than Southern Baptists are.

    You also wrote:

    “Mormons believe in three “levels” of Heaven, the Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial. Basically the Telestial is for non-Mormons; the Terrestrial is for “good but not exemplary” Mormons; and the Celestial is for those Mormons who led the best lives and who had the strongest faith. In this third “kingdom” there are also three levels, and Mormons who attain the highest level of this kingdom reach a state of godhood, essentially becoming gods of their own universes.”

    Oi, oi… what a hash of explaining the doctrine we have here.

    The Telestial Kingdom is not for “non-Mormons.” There will be both Mormons AND non-Mormons there. This kingdom is for the unrepentant liars, adulterers, murderers, etc. People who lived lives of evil and rejected the repentance and grace offered by Christ. It has nothing to do with being Mormon or not.

    The Terrestrial Kingdom will also have Mormons and non-Mormons in it. This kingdom is reserved for all people who were good and upright, but ultimately refused to accept Christ. It has nothing to do with being Mormon or not.

    The Celestial Kingdom is the one place where being a Mormon matters. But only in the limited sense of Mormon ordinances being required to fully accept Christ and His Gospel. The people who live here are the ones who accepted Christ, His message, and His ordinances. Repentant sinners will be here. People who never were Mormon in life, but later accepted the Gospel after death. And faithful Mormons yes.

    Hope that clears up the Mormon afterlife somewhat, because man – you completely butchered it.

    Next quote from you:

    “Beyond this, women in the Mormon faith are spiritually bound to their husbands. For instance, for a woman to attain the higher levels of heaven she must be lifted up by her husband. She can’t make it on her own.”

    Neither can the men make it on their own. You only attain the highest order of the Celestial Kingdom (yes, there are sub-levels of the Celestial Kingdom as well) as a married couple. So don’t think this is just a one-way thing.


    “If a man and his wife divorce, and then he remarries, his first wife will be the one who is “lifted up” to the same level, not his second. This is probably one reason that in the early days of the LDS church, Mormons practiced polygamy, and why in FLDS communities they still do.”

    Seriously, where are you getting this stuff? Are you just making things up as you go along?

    Current Mormon temple practice allows both men and women to be sealed to more than one spouse (as long as all concerned are dead). So no, the first wife is not “lifted up” “instead” of the second. He will be sealed to both.

    You also confuse mortal marital status with eternal marital status here. A Mormon may get a mortal divorce and yet STILL be sealed to his ex-spouse. In fact, it’s harder to get a sealing annulled than to get a divorce as a Mormon (because it is assumed that the same pettiness, selfishness, or problems that caused the divorce will not apply in heaven). Kind of a “sort it out in the hereafter” approach.

    I also find it ironic that a traditional Christian is getting his digs in about sexist and racist doctrines in the LDS faith.

    You ever looked at your own church history? Most Mormon racial doctrines were actually beggared from racist Southern Baptist and Protestant thinkers. And you guys have had your own share of kooky sexist ideas about women too that haven’t been entirely stamped out.

    But a good first step would be for you to actually get Mormon doctrines right in the first place rather than making things up on the spot.

    As for your stuff about Mormonism being very different from the rest of Christianity, I agree. I liked that part of your article. But you completely butchered the doctrines.Report

  46. Sean says:

    Mormons aren’t Christians – by any definition of the word?

    I can’t be the only person here raised Catholic who recognizes that kind of garbage argument, can I?Report

  47. E.D. Kain says:

    Seth – fair enough. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Mormon theology. Then again, your righting of my doctrinal faux pas doesn’t really change the fact that all of it is very different than what is widely accepted as Christian.Report

  48. TGAS says:

    In my experience, Mormons do not self-identify as “Mormon” but as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS to avoid tongue-tying). They don’t seem to mind a great deal when agnostics like me id them as “Mormon” because it seems rather beside the point to them to argue. They regard this as a semantic distraction from more core beliefs.

    My wife is in the Church of JC of LDS, which has introduced me to any number of odd beliefs, including but not limited to belief that JC rose from the dead as an atonement for this agnostic’s sins. In your original post, ED, you seemed to be providing a definition of “Christian” when you said, “But again, all these little schisms and denominational disputes basically shared the core beliefs in Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible. ” Had you asked me after 5 years of attending church with her, I would have said these are the core beliefs of my wife and her friends, although I would have added “and the Book of Mormon.” There are of course little add-ons and even significant additions to the belief set I had heard while visiting Catholic, Episcopal, and Protestant churches–all of which also have pointed differences with one another.

    From where I sit, in a pew of an LDS church that espouses many beliefs I do not hold, still the most challenging belief and the leap of faith I do not wish to make is the one that tells me Jesus is the son of God, died for my sins, rose from the dead and has a rooting interest in me believing all of that. If I could believe it, the jazz about making appearances to native americans and eternal marriage and Joseph Smith translating the BoM would be a comparatively easy leap.

    I realize this isn’t entirely on topic, but I appreciate the chance to comment nonetheless.Report

  49. QueenTiye says:

    Thank you for such a lucid discussion. I happen to agree with you. It is a political issue with Mormons to deny that Mormonism is separate from Christianity – but from a theological standpoint – it could not be more clear.

    I’d like to say one thing – Baha’is do not believe or identify themselves as “Muslim” in any sense other than our belief in the Oneness of religion. From that standpoint, a Baha’i who believes she or he is Muslim, also believes she or his is Christian, and Jewish, and Zoroastrian, and Buddhist… Baha’is have fought long to make sure that our faith was not considered a schism of Islam, but an independent faith.


  50. MikeT says:

    It’s worth noting that the early Christians often self-identified as Jews because it was politically safer than claiming to be from a “new” religion which was not legally recognized by the Roman Empire. Personally, I agree with E.D., but am increasingly atheistic as I age, so it’s all intramural to me.

    The fundamentalist Lutheran sect that I grew up in covered this fairly well in my confirmation class, going through all the various “religions”, by which they meant the various sects of Christianity, and explaining why they were all wrong. And then, at the very end, came the Mormons, who were described as good, virtuous people who were all going to hell because they weren’t Christians.Report

  51. SC says:

    In the end it all comes down to the fact that a group can self-identify in any way that it wants as long as it has enough power to influence enough people outside the group that they are correct in doing so. This is how the conventional wisdom on the matter is established.

    It’s relatively easy to do this as long as the group doesn’t meet any serious opposition. If other Christian groups had opposed Mormons as identifying as Christiam this might have been the case. But because there really isn’t a movement opposed to Mormons calling themselves Christians, it’s not really in dispute.

    A good example of this is the Jews for Jesus movement. These folks claim to be Jewish yet believe in Christ. They are not accepted as Jewish, because Judaism opposes them. They don’t have enough power to overcome the opposition and convince those outside their group that they are right.

    Logical arguments, no matter how coherent, don’t determine what a group can identify as. It all comes down to the groups power to convince others, which established what the conventional wisdom on the matter will beReport

  52. E.D. Kain says:

    SC – That’s a damn well-reasoned and compelling argument. Thanks.Report

  53. Scott de B. says:

    I’m simply pointing out that in order for one religion to be distinguished from another religion we must have some basic criteria. This is why Christians aren’t Jews.

    Well, Christians aren’t Jews because they don’t call themselves Jews. If they had called themselves Jews over the last 2000 years, with no differences in theology, I think you would have a somewhat different perspective.

    Are Arians Christians? Most scholars refer to them as such.Report

  54. bakum says:

    The real argument here is that ~you don’t want~ to call them Christian and have invented a bunch of criteria that justifies this. Otherwise, why even waste the air on a subject whose only end will ever be to inflame people? What possible good could come from making this argument except making yourself feel better about some entirely personal issue? What possible harm comes to anyone else in the entire universe that Mormons call themselves Christian?Report

  55. Dude, somebody doesn’t understand Christianity a whole lot. Mormons are as much Christian as any denomination of Protestants. 19th century Protestant historiography might like to suggest that Luther et al. were simply rebelling against a “corrupt Church” but there’s a reason Luther, upon discussing the Eucharist with some other “reformers” became so agitated by their denial of the real presence that he carved hoc est enim corpus meum into the table. Theology is there. It matters, even if it’s only part of the whole story.Report

  56. E.D. Kain says:

    I’m going to link this again, because yesterday I stopped fighting this battle. Here is my update on this from yesterday. Thanks!Report

  57. Scott says:

    I have always defined “mere” Christianity (as described by C.S. Lewis) as a kind of Christianity that embraced a core set of beliefs including the Apostles and Nicene creeds, Chalcedon, and a couple of others. In my opinion, this is a very big tent that would include pretty much all Eastern, Roman Catholic and many protestant traditions, but would leave out Jehovah’s Witneses and Mormons. Of course, I think SC has a very valid point regarding how groups self-identify and whether or not they succeed. That doesn’t change the fact that I agree with you that Mormons are not (by most definitions of the word) “Christian”.Report

  58. rob says:

    1. SC–

    I think you’re setting up too rigid a distinction between “logical arguments” and a “group’s power to convince others”; argumentation (whether logical or illogical) is typically part of a group’s power to convince others (though the emotional resonance, for instance, of the argument is frequently as important as the rationality of the argument in determining whether it is persuasive to those outside the group).

    I’m not sure that its entirely accurate to say that other Christian groups haven’t opposed the definition of Mormons as Christian, either (see MikeT’s comment; I think it is fairly uncommon for orthodox and/or fundamentalist Christians to be accused of being unclear about who does and who doesn’t fit their definition of Christian). Can you name an orthodox Christian demonination which teaches that Mormons are Christian?

    I’ll note, though, that even if I’m right and you can’t name such a denomination, that hardly proves that your overall argument is wrong — as even if orthodox Christians were united (as I am fairly sure they are) in excluding Mormons from the Christian group, that still fits within the power-based definitional framework you have suggested if you allow that they (Christians) haven’t done a very good job of asserting their “power to convince others”.

    2. A random comment on the larger question (are Mormons Christian?) (and, yes, I realize E.D. has moved on and probably I should too): personally, I would find it much easier to define Mormons as Christians if they didn’t define the rest of Christianity as “apostate”. I find it rather odd to insist (a) “we should be called by the same label you are” but (b) “you do not deserve that label, because you have strayed from the proper definition of the term” and then be surprised (defensive?) when the ones you call apostate don’t want to let you share the label.Report

  59. hannah says:

    E.D., you are obviously correct – by any actual reasonable standard of Christianity, Mormons are not Christians. The only way Mormons can claim to be Christian is by distorting the entire definition of Christianity, and arguing that you don’t actually have to believe anything in particular to be Christian. As you point out, about the only thing Mormons believe that Christians believe is that the bible is to some degree divine, and that Jesus was to some degree divine, and even there there are such large differences as to render the “agreement” irrelevant – e.g., the Mormons aren’t even monotheistic!

    Frankly, I’m not even sure why Mormons are trying to claim to be Christian – it’s not fooling anyone, and what’s the point? Maybe to try to fit in or something, I guess?

    I’m neither Christian nor Mormon, BTW, but I am impatient with disingenuous argument on this subject.Report

  60. SC says:


    I’m not saying logical arguments don’t play a role. It’s just that in the end it comes down to politics and power. The argument plays a fundamental role in the politics.

    And while Christian groups may teach internally that Mormon’s are not Christian, that’s not the same thing as their taking a political stance on the issue, the way Jews have taken a stance against Jews-for- Jesus or Messianic Jews as they now call themselves. Christian groups are not fighting against Mormons calling themselves Christians, the way some are fighting against Gay marriage. If they were, the argument would be the key weapon in that fight and the conventional wisdom on the matter could be thrown into question.Report

  61. RobLauer says:

    You are RIGHT ON! Mormons are NOT Christians–and I speak as a Mormon myself. (I was raised Protestant, and converted to Mormonism 32 years ago.) Since the mid-1970’s the LDS Church (Mormonism’s largest denominaton) has embraced what Mormon scholars call “Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy”–an attempt to being “Classical Mormon Theology’ (the theology of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) more in line with the Calvinism of the Religious Right. LDS Mormons now speak about salvation by grace; they often refer to the Mormon doctrine of multiple Gods as mere speculation–and in 1999 LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinkley told Larry King , when asked if the LDS believed that God had once been a human being on another planet–“Oh, I don’t know that we believe that.”
    Here’s my view: The LDS are not Christian–but, increasingly so, they are no longer MORMON either. They are, as Andrew Sullivan wrote, CHRISTIANIST–that is religious conservative fundamentalists who reject science and social progress, who cling to the values of rural 19th century America, and who reject the seperation of church and state.Report

  62. rob says:

    SC — Ok. I can, to some degree, agree with that (as I said, I think my quibbles can be fit into the overall framework of what you were saying). It is certainly true that Christian groups have not exerted political pressure to exclude Mormons in the same fashion that Jewish groups have JfJ/MJ.

    I probably, though, would still want to put a bit more emphasis on letting the group regulate its own membership (in this case, Christians) than you seem to want to. I read you as saying more that the “conventional wisdom” is the authority to which we should turn to settle a definitional dispute, whereas I would put more emphasis on what the group says about itself and less on what parties outside the debate — the general public who forms the conventional wisdom — say. That orthodox Christians exclude Mormons from full membership in their group (or definition of Christian) and that Mormons exclude orthodox Christians from full membership in their group (or definition of Christian) is fairly strong evidence that what the two groups mean when they say “Christian” is significantly different; and when I weigh that versus the “conventional wisdom”, I tend to weight the definitions used by the interested parties more heavily than the conventional wisdom. I probably, though, should revise what I said a while back (#17) from “by no reasonable standard” to “not by the best standard”, because following conventional wisdom is certainly reasonable, even if I think we could do better (and that leaves room, which I think I should, for people to disagree about what the best standard is).

    Bob — Sorry I never answered your question (#18) — but I think this comment gets at something similar (so, I’d say — the group attempting to regulate its own membership’s opinion has the most important opinion (though it is by no means necessarily correct), the group attempting to include itself within the definition has the second most important opinion (though again, not necessarily correct), and outside parties have the least important opinion (though “least important” does not imply “unimportant”)). But, in general, if all other orthodox Christian groups agree that Mormons are not Christians, I’d say that’s fairly strong — though not completely conclusive — evidence that Mormons are not Christians. I would definitely say that it is stronger evidence than “Most people who are neither Mormons nor orthodox Christians think Mormons are not Christians”.

    The viewpoint that I really wanted to argue against, though, was the notion that “exclusive self-identification” is a good guide for membership, and I think the thread has moved away from that, so I’m satisfied.Report

  63. rob says:

    Oops — “Most people who are neither Mormons nor orthodox Christians think Mormons are not Christians” should read “Most people who are neither Mormons nor orthodox Christians think Mormons are Christians”.Report

  64. Bob says:

    Here are the words that sparked this discussion, “Mormons are not, by any definition of the word, Christian, so can they truly be labeled Christianists?”

    Well after all this I think that Mr. Kain might, I said might, agree that there are some definitions, offered by seemingly reasonable folk, that allow for defining Mormonism within a Christian tradition.Report

  65. D says:

    My view is that distinctions between religions are more matters of degree than bright lines, similar to distinctions between languages. At what point should we view different speech patterns as separate languages or separate dialects within the same language? We can refer to Chinese as a language, while Spanish and Portuguese are always viewed as distinct languages, and this is true even though speakers of different dialects of Chinese may no more intelligible to each other than Spaniards and Portuguese. This is probably due to historical and political circumstances (China being a single country, but Spain and Portugal separate countries), and this is similar to the situation with religions.

    That being said, I think some distinctions can be made based on belief as opposed to history and tradition. Again, utilizing the linguistic analogy, mutual intelligibility is a key factor in distinguishing languages versus dialects: speakers of different languages cannot generally understand each other whereas speakers of different dialects can–with varying degrees of difficulty–and so it immediately becomes apparent that there are no bright lines here either. With regard to religions, I would propose an analogous test: members of the same religion should be able to “understand” each other, meaning they hold substantially similar beliefs, but where beliefs differ substantially on any material article of faith, we have separate religions. (Another more subjective–but I think related–test might be whether a person’s movement from one group to the other would be viewed by either group as a conversion.) Applied to Christianity, this view would, for example, separate Catholicism from Orthodoxy and from Protestantism and, indeed, most of the major Protestant denominations from each other.

    (As a side note, I think the author minimizes the doctrinal differences that exist between Catholics and Protestants in comparison to those between Mormons and other Christians. For example, he states that Mormons “believe our actions on earth play as important a role in salvation as acceptance of Jesus Christ, a completely un-Christian belief.” Catholics also believe that actions play an important role in salvation.)

    The upshot is that I would view Christianity as a family of religions rather than a single religion (in the same way in which the Romance languages constitute a family of related–but distinct–languages). As for who constitutes a Christian and who does not, I think the starting point in the analysis should be how the term is generally used. After reading a few dictionary definitions, I think the American Heritage Dictionary (with a minor tweak) comes closest: “One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows [a] religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.” Under this definition, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Messianic Jews, and (possibly) Unitarians would be considered Christians, but Muslims would not, since they believe that Jesus was one of many prophets, not the Christ, and follow a religion based on the life and teachings of Muhammad, not Jesus. (I think most Gnostics would also fall outside this definition too, although I am less sure on this point.) I think this comes very close to how most objective observers would use the term.

    Some have put forth a more restrictive definition under which Christians are those who adhere to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This has the virtue of grouping Catholics, Orthodox, and most “mainline” Protestants together, but it excludes Evangelicals, which I think is a critical flaw, as almost everyone (Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals) would consider them to be Christians. (And there is also the issue that the Orthodox creed differs from the Catholic creed by one word (in the Latin version).)Report

  66. JC says:

    So, outside of self-identification, group identification, and the ways that these relate – you do have to look at the metaphysical universe of the faiths, and also the experience as practice of a worshiper in that faith, in the real world.

    E.D. is the only one who has talked about the metaphysics of the belief systems, to his credit.

    If you look at the metaphysics of the situation, the metaphysics of Mormonism is very different than the metaphysics of our various Christian sects.

    However – and I think this is important – the ACTUAL PRACTICE of the religion – both the practice of turning in faith towards Christ, and the practice of attempting to walk in the ways of the Lord – faith and action – I would say that mormonism DOES fit nicely within the american experience of Christian faith.

    The practice – which most Mormons can say “hey! I turn towards Christ in thought, faith and action, all the time! That’s what all other American Christians I know do!” is, you know, TRUE.

    But the metaphysics – well, the metaphysics is much more on par with other only in American New Age Cults, with the varying descriptions of different heavens, the complicated agencies of Divinity, etc. The metaphysics have more in common with that great Spiritualist metaphysics that arose in the 19th century, I must say…Report

  67. E.D. Kain says:


    Catholics also believe that actions play an important role in salvation

    Actually all Christians believe actions are important, but regardless, at the end of a long life of sin one can still repent and ask forgiveness and be saved. This is true of Catholics as well. However Mormons believe to attain higher levels of heaven one must also perform good works. This is a crude summation, I realize, but it is a major distinction.Report

  68. Julian says:

    Catholics and Presbyterians count one’s works to be as important as faith in salvation. Calvinists say neither is important and that god chose the Elect out of a hat at the beginning of time. You are ignoring the significant doctrinal differences which weaken your argument, and focusing on those present in Mormonism which strengthen it.

    There’s also plenty wrong with your analysis of religious history. You seem to forget about all those Greek and Roman Christian converts who didn’t consider themselves Jews, and the effect that becoming a state religion had on that sect’s practices. You forget the suppression of the Gnostics centered around Egypt and Lebanon which was clearly the first schism. You ignore the long history of oppression and discrimination that forced the Baha’i and Sikhs and Druze into identities apart from the parent faiths which create them. These oversights alter your original argument to something like “Self-identification is not enough. Other sects must accept you as such as well” which, given the history of racism which denied their doctrinal fellowship to the baptist movement, raises the question of how long you think the Black Baptist Churches have been Christians. Are Unitarians Christians? How about modern day Gnostic Christians? How about the Basques who still hold to parts of the Cathar faith? Were the Cathars not Christians because their neighbors didn’t agree that they were, and how does the fact that the crusade against them had as much to do with expanding the power of the French Monarch as with enforcing doctrinal purity effect your conclusion? Heck, you can find significant doctrinal differences between a Methodist Church on one side of town and one on the other.Report

  69. Adam says:

    I am a former Mormon and while I have no love for the LDS church, I often annoyed by the efforts of mainline Christians to paint them as non-Christians.

    This has been addressed amply above, but I have yet to see you recant your statement that Mormons are “by no definition of the word,” Christian. This offends me more on a linguistic level than anything else, because that statement is patently and demonstrably false.

    If that’s not immediately obvious to you, then just consider that there are definitions under which Barack Obama is a republican and John McCain is a democrat. In fact, all Americans are republicans, because America is a republic. And I believe that most Americans are democrats as well, since America is widely considered to be a democracy.

    Often in the press we see people distinguishing between the various definitions for words like these using capitalization. For example, we are all small-“r” republicans. But capital-“R” republicans would refer to those who identify with the GOP. I think a similar usage would be useful here. Mormons are clearly small-“c” christians, because they believe in the divinity of Jesus. If you define capital-“C” Christianity as a group of mainstream denominations with certain requirements of doctrinal purity, then no, the Mormons probably wouldn’t qualify.

    Now, Mormons, you need to understand why mainstream Christians don’t want Mormons associated with them, and why self-identification is “not good enough” for them to allow Mormons to use the Christian label. And it should be easy for them to see why. Just think about how you feel anytime you hear a polygamist sect described as “Mormon” in the press. Think of the lengths your general authorities go to in order to assure the media that, no, these fundamentalist splinter groups are not Mormons and have nothing to do with Mormonism.

    These groups believe in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. By most definitions, they qualify as Mormons. Furthermore (and perhaps most importantly) they self-identify as Mormons. In their minds, in fact, they are the only true Mormons. For all the reasons that you want to be called Christian, they want to be called Mormon, and yet it is vitally important to you that they be prohibited from doing so. Think about that for a minute, and you’ll begin to understand where your Christian brethren are coming from.Report

  70. Todd says:

    E.D., I must confess that your distinction (in #67) between “actions” and “good works” eludes me. But as far as “all Christians believe actions are important” goes, I agree with Julian that you seem to be either ignoring, or perhaps unaware of, the basics of Calvinist theology. Many Calvinist churches have denounced even the slightest emphasis on works or faith as complete heresy.

    I was most recently reminded of this while reading “Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America,” by Gary Wills, published in 2007, which detailed several bitter schisms in the early New England colonies over the issue of whether actions had any role in salvation. One thing they all agreed on: Catholics were clearly not Christian, and the Pope was literally the Antichrist.

    Wills’ book covered many different disputes among American Christian groups over fundamental doctrinal issues, including the Trinitarian or Unitarian nature of God. I was reading the book during Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidential nomination, when many of his critics on the religious right, trying to explain why he was not Christian (and was therefore obviously unfit to be president), emphasized the unorthodox Mormon doctrine of the Godhead: that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all divine, but distinct individuals.

    This was amusing to me since that seems much closer to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity than the Unitarian or Deistic beliefs of many of the founding fathers, who not only believed that God and Christ were separate, but that Christ was not divine. So the charges of Trinitarian unorthodoxy aimed at Mitt Romney would have applied even more to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and even George Washington.Report

  71. Seth R. says:

    I have heard Evangelicals and other Protestants talking about grace and works when they are just talking amongst themselves and don’t think any Mormons are around.

    Frankly, it’s utterly indistinguishable from what Mormons say on the subject amongst themselves.

    There are crucial differences between Mormons and other Christians (the largest being the Mormon collapse of the ontological divide between God and man, and the Mormon rejection of creation ex nihilo). But “grace vs. works” isn’t one of them. The divide between us on this issue is paper-thin at best.Report

  72. Chad says:

    Adam (#69)

    I am a practicing Mormon, and agree with your comments. First, I agree with your distinction between “christian” and “Christian.” Clearly Mormons believe in Christ, yet clearly we do not accept the common Creeds that has come to define one as a mainstream Christian. While some Mormons want to be considered mainstream Christians, I think for the most part we get frustrated by the issue the spurred this discussion…wanting Christians to acknowledge that at least in some sense of the word we are Christian.

    Second, your point that Mormons trying to distinguish themselves from splinter groups is comparable to creedal Christians distinguishing themselves from Mormons is well said. It is a point I had not considered and is well worth thinking about.Report

  73. Todd says:

    Adam (#69),

    The Mormon church’s official website suggests that they do not actually want to be referred to as Mormons, but, since they know they will be called Mormons anyway, they don’t want various splinter groups referred to by that same term. In other words, it’s less a case of “we are the only true Mormons,” and more a case of “don’t refer to those other groups by the name that most people associate exclusively with us.” When someone says “the Mormon church,” they are understood to be referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, just as when someone says “the Catholic church” they are generally understood to be referring to the one headquartered in the Vatican, and not one of those splinter churches like the one in Mel Gibson’s back yard.

    Anyhow, this is how the Mormon church phrases it, in their online style guide for people writing about the church. I think it’s wishful thinking, but apparently they have the Associated Press style guide on their side.

    (the remainder of this post is a direct copy and past from the style guide on their website, http://www.lds.org):

    While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use.

    When writing about the Church, please follow these guidelines:

    In the first reference, the full name of the Church is preferred: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Please avoid the use of “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church” or “the Church of the Latter-day Saints.”

    When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or “the Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged.

    When referring to Church members, the term “Latter-day Saints” is preferred, though “Mormons” is acceptable.

    “Mormon” is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon, Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Mormon Trail, or when used as an adjective in such expressions as “Mormon pioneers.”

    The term “Mormonism” is acceptable in describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, the terms “Mormons,” “Mormon fundamentalist,” “Mormon dissidents,” etc. are incorrect. The Associated Press Stylebook notes: “The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other … churches that resulted from the split after [Joseph] Smith’s death.”Report

  74. Seth R. says:

    Well, I can’t speak for others, but personally, as a Mormon, I have no problem with allowing the polygamist offshoots and others the “Mormon” label.

    It’s kind of like the drunk uncle who shows up at family reunions. You may not approve of him or even like him much. But he is still “family” for all that.Report