Self-Identification, pluralism, and all that…

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.

Related Post Roulette

31 Responses

  1. Geoff J says:

    Nice post. Sorry your experience with various Mormons hasn’t been better.Report

  2. E.D. Kain says:

    Geoff – but that’s just it. It’s only with some Mormons, but also with some Catholics, some Protestants, some atheists…just with humans in general. I don’t mean to pick on Mormons, and I think it’s that which I’m grappling with here…

    Thanks for your input. Much appreciated…Report

  3. Andrew S says:

    Cool, my blog got linked.

    I’m not necessarily saying I disagree or agree, because I can kind of see it both ways.

    I think that Mormons recognize that we have some different doctrines. After all, I think the simplest proof is that to become Mormon, you have to get baptized in the church — baptisms from other denominations do not carry over.

    However, when Mormons say this, they don’t believe that this puts them out of the Christian tradition, because the idea is that you need not be creedal to be Christian (e.g., restoration, apostasy, etc.,). So, it seems that much of your pointing out of doctrinal difference points at creedally-decided issues — which is a framework that Mormons wouldn’t even accept in the first place, I don’t think.

    So, this isn’t necessarily about self-identification. Instead, the church is trying to make the claim (I think), that the “true” definition should be inclusive of the church.

    They are also worried, I think, that when people say, “Mormons aren’t Christians,” they will ignore the fact that Mormons do have Jesus Christ as the centerpiece of their religion. It’s like saying Mormons are polytheistic — everyone has in their minds an idea of what polytheism is so equating that with Mormonism poisons the well. Less popular or less known terms like “henotheism” or “monolatry” fit much better.

    But…here’s where I kinda see your point: in fact, Christianity as a whole *has* defined itself as being a creedal organization. So, to reject the creedal framework and say, “Well, we are a “restoration” of the church pre-creeds,” isn’t really playing by the rules. The fact is that, when the Nicene creed and other creeds went into effect, very large proportions of people who *thought* they were Christian were determined to *not* be Christian.

    Now, to expose my hand — my real kind of disagreement with the post was much more petty. I think your P.S. really catches this — I mean, if Mormons aren’t christianist, I want it because Mormons are found to not be politically active, socially conservative, etc., I don’t want it to be because they don’t fit a particular brand of Christianity. “Christianism” is not a criticism against Christianity, but is a brand against the *political activities* that a group might commit to because of “christianist” thinking — Mormonism should apply.

    sorry for the long comment :3Report

  4. Nick says:

    The chief problem, E.D, is that and acceptance of the divinity of Christ and a belief in salvation through his sacrifice is the foundational premise of Christianity. In a modern context, it’s also the real sole qualification of Christianity. To take a corollary of your position, someone could believe in the divinity of Christ and take him as a personal savior and possibly still not be, “under any reasonable definition,” a Christian.

    Now, where does that leave us?

    The determining factor here ought to be: do you accept the divinity of Jesus Christ? If someone does, the weighty presumption should be that the person is Christian, and the burden placed on those arguing otherwise should be pretty strong.Report

  5. artdekko says:

    E.D., I’m glad your wife pointed out, more or less, that “Christianist” isn’t a religious label but a political one, which is Sullivan’s exact use of the word. And “Mormonists” definitely fit my definition of “Christianist.”

    About “self-identification”: Every follower of an “offshoot” believes that he has the “true faith” missing from the parent religion or movement, just as every member of that parent believes that he has the “true faith” missing from the nonbelievers or other-believers. Whether any of these people can share identities mainly depends on the tolerance of the “original” or “mainstream.”
    The offshoot says, “We’re part of you, only we got some things right where you got them wrong.” The mainstream says, “No, you’re not, and no, you don’t.” Don’t you see, it’s ALL self-identification, depending on which side of the struggle you’re on: Are you with the “winners” or the “losers”? (And the “losers” self-identify as “eventual winners, just not yet, but our day will come.” In fact, that phrase is as good a definition of “faith” as any.)Report

  6. Cascadian says:

    I’m with Geoff, really good post.Report

  7. Bob says:

    Yep, Good stuff.Report

  8. E.D. Kain says:

    Andrew, Nick, Artdekko – thanks, and all of you make very good points. Andrew, long comments are fine as long as they’re smart, which yours was, so no need to apologize…

    Cascadian, Bob – much appreciated, as per usual!!!Report

  9. Todd says:

    Here’s an interesting group that defines Mormons as Christians: the United States military. Mormon chaplains are classified by the military as protestant ministers, and are assigned to minister to all service members coming under the protestant umbrella (and to help Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc arrange or find worship services for their respective faiths).

    All protestant chaplains, whether LDS, Pentacostal, Presbyterian, etc, preach non-denominational protestant sermons. Their entire ministries exist within that “tiny patch” of shared doctrine. Which, as I think this example clearly demonstrates, is not so tiny after all–in fact, it’s pretty substantial.Report

  10. E.D. Kain says:

    That’s interesting, Todd, but I hardly think the military has any say over theological matters. I certainly hope they don’t.Report

  11. Todd says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “any say over theological matters.” The military chaplaincies (there is one for each service branch) certainly set regulations regarding what doctrines can be taught in non-denominational services, and chaplains have been court-martialed before for refusing to follow them, and insisting on conducting services exclusively according to the doctrines of their own denomination. So, for instance, the brand of Calvinism that insists that God created most people expressly for the purpose of predestining them to an eternity in hell, or the Mormon belief in multiple levels of heaven in the next life, would both be off limits in chaplains’ preaching, regardless of their personal beliefs. So I’d say that the military has as much 0r more say over theological matters in the chaplaincies as, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention has over theological matters in its member congregations.
    My point with the military example was simply that their are perspectives other than the Mormons’ own from which they are defined as Christian.Report

  12. bc says:

    Self-identification is only part of the issue. The central part of the Gospel (as defined by Paul) is that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose on the third day. Mormons believe this as strongly as any other Christian and it is the fundamental belief. In terms of importance, there is nothing more important. This “small patch” is THE patch. Mormons look to Christ’s teachings and try to follow his example, before all else. THE central part of every Sunday service is the sacrament (communion) where Mormons pledge to take upon themselves the name of Christ and to remember him.

    The problem is that some Christian faiths have co-opted the term “Christian” for their own exclusive use. The analogy between Judiasm and Christianity is not on all fours primarily because the two religions writ large do not share as a fundamental tenet the worship of Jesus Christ. As a result, there is no name commonality issues. However, in terms of the Mormon view of apostasy and restoration, the analogy is fairly apt.

    In short, Mormons believe that they have already agreed to take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ as their Savior and Redeemer. The church itself is named after Jesus Christ. Other Christians try to tell them they “can’t” do that simply because other beliefs differ. That, to me, doesn’t make sense. Saying Mormons are not “creedal” Christians or are not followers of the Council of Nicene is appropriate, IMHO, as Andrew S. says, but saying they are not Christian is simply wrong.

    BTW, your recitation of various beliefs by Mormons warrants a response, but suffice it to say you take many things out of context or are simply wrong. In no way do any of those beliefs you state contradict the centrality of Jesus Christ in Mormon beliefs.Report

  13. Hal Tritz says:

    Some good distinctions here, but I think you mischaracterize the split between Christianity and Judaism when you call it gradual. As described by scholars like Maccoby, Tabor and others, this split occurred very quickly when Paul hijacked the Jesus movement and created his 0wn version of Jesus’ messiah program. That turned Christianity very quickly into a hate-the-Jews movement, as the text of the gospels show.Report

  14. Pender says:

    Nick said:

    The chief problem, E.D, is that and acceptance of the divinity of Christ and a belief in salvation through his sacrifice is the foundational premise of Christianity. In a modern context, it’s also the real sole qualification of Christianity.

    I think Muslims technically believe this about Christ; but, like Mormons, they have another prophet after Jesus in whom belief is also necessary for salvation. In a genealogical sense, Islam and Mormonism are sister faiths with Christianity as the common parent; both take the requirements for salvation as set out by Christianity as necessary but not sufficient. If Muslims aren’t Christians, then neither are Mormons — and the only reason there’s a difference in self-identification is for the same dishonest purpose of institutional advancement as behind all of the LDS Church’s lies regarding their actions and opinions around Proposition 8. Being a sect of Christianity confers considerable political advantage in America, and the Mormons want a piece of that pie; but we are no more obligated to accede to their self-aggrandizing and false self-identification than we are to call Mormons “saints” — which is yet another of their charming practices.Report

  15. Andrew S says:

    Re 14:

    Pender, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Muslims do not believe Jesus is the son of God, but instead just a mortal man who was one of his Prophets. They reject that Jesus was God in any way, so they can’t really believe that Jesus was the savior.

    So, the comparison fails. Muslims aren’t Christian because they fail a fundamental identity test…whereas you have to find different identity tests to see if Mormons fail them. Mormons do *not* fail on the basic, creedless test of “accepting and recognizing the divinity of Christ and believing in salvation through his sacrifice as a foundational premise” because, in fact, just as with all Christian denominations (and NOT with Islam), this is a foundational belief of Mormonism.

    I mean, maybe you have a misunderstanding of Islam or Mormonism or both, but really, Mormonism isn’t very comparable once you get over the idea that both claim to have additional prophecy and began later.Report

  16. Adam says:

    A question for the Mormon commenters:

    Should the term “Mormon” be used to refer to polygamist groups and other fundamentalist offshoots of the LDS church? I understand that the position of the LDS Church is that the term “Mormon” should not be applied to these groups.

    Why is that? They believe in Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the Book of Mormon. They self-identify as Mormons. Isn’t that enough? Why does the LDS church in Salt Lake go to such great lengths to deny these people the label they claim for themselves?

    It seems to me that they only want to be called Mormons for all the same reasons that mainline Mormons want to be called Christians.Report

  17. E.D. Kain says:

    Good question, Adam. I’m curious as well….Report

  18. Andrew S says:

    Re: 17:

    Oh Adam, thanks for bringing that up.

    I didn’t address it in my first post (and I’m probably *not* the best person to ask about what believing members think…since I’m not a believing member, haha), but that was another point I wanted to concede to E.D.

    Because the main church (e.g., Brighamite) has strongly fought that Mormon be only used to describe it and not the breakaway groups, to the point that the AP Style Guide follows guidelines that suggest they only use Mormon to refer to the CoJCoL-dS, I do recognize that there may some case for restrictive definitions of Christianity — after all, the Church is guilty of the same thing. Now, I could probably find some blog entries from faithful members who probably have much more apologetics under their belts who could try to explain why this is different or not, but I’d say this is one of the stronger arguments.

    Interestingly enough, the different groups have voluntarily decided to call themselves different things. For example, it’s taken for granted that *all* of the groups in the movement are Latter Day Saints. The main church reserves use of Latter-day Saints (note small d and hyphen) and “Mormon,” and other splinter groups either go informally by the name of who splintered them (Hendrickite, Strangite) or in other ways try to distance themselves from “Mormon” (I mean, the Reorganized CoJSoLDS has dropped all mention of LDS from the name and now are the “Community of Christ.”)

    Well, that was boring history, and I’ve made another lengthy superpost, but like I said, that, IMO, is another reasonable argument.Report

  19. Todd says:

    Bob (#16),

    We do indeed seem to have remarkably diverging ideas about the non-denominational nature of the chaplaincy. I will explain where mine come from.

    I was an officer in the USAF from 1995-2007, on active duty from 2002 through 2005. I am not a person of faith, but I’ve had a life-long interest in comparative theology (which I consider to be essential to understanding western civilization), and have taken university courses in Old Testament, New Testament, world religions, Islamic humanities, the apocrypha, and the history of the early Christian church. Which is a long-winded way of explaining why I have had many extensive conversations with military chaplains of several different denominations–religion is simply a major interest of mine, although I don’t consider myself religious.

    My two tours in Iraq brought me into frequent contact with a number of chaplains, partly because we were all confined to one square mile in the middle of the desert, and because the chaplain’s office was about fifty yards from my tent and included a large patio with coffee etc that was a social center, but also because the chaplains’ duties frequently brought them into the medical facilities where I worked as a physician. I also attended numerous memorial services in the chapel.

    Given my interest in comparative religion, a frequent topic in my conversations with various chaplains was the shifting religious demographics on the base (the arrival of a national guard unit from Alabama, for instance, brought a marked increase in the number of charismatic/evangelical/pentecostal Christians), and how that affected their ministry. Most of them remarked on their duty to provide strictly non-denominational services, which were announced on the church schedule as “Non-denominational Protestant Worship Service.” Some of them also organized “Song and Praise” services that had an overtly charismatic flavor. They also scheduled chapel time for Mormon services, which Mormon service members would run themselves (since they are all used to serving as lay clergy). The one Mormon chaplain I met (we overlapped for about two weeks in Baghdad) said that he helped organize separate Mormon services, but that his regular protestant sermons were strictly non-denominational — and that it was his official duty to make them so.

    Which is surely as it should be. A Presbyterian soldier showing up for a Protestant worship service should not get a sermon from the Book of Mormon. I got the impression that this was a military policy, but if not, then it’s very considerate of the Mormons to come up with it on their own.

    My statement about chaplains being disciplined was based on the rather notorious case of Navy chaplain Lt. Gordon J. Klingenschmitt, who was disciplined in a court-martial in 2006, after several years of sparring with his commanding officers over, among other things, a policy instituted by Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter, requiring the use of non-sectarian prayers at public events. Klingenschmitt actually staged an 18 day hunger strike, and then attended, in uniform, a protest held in front of the White House, where he gave a public, sectarian prayer. He had also disobeyed orders to modify the prayers he gave over his ship’s PA system, to make them less sectarian and more inclusive. Clearly, the guy was gunning for martyrdom.

    However, reading about the case again now, I don’t see any reference to regulations or orders regarding his sermons, and in light of your insistence that you have never heard of any such regulations, I will assume the Navy has regulations regarding chaplain prayers, but not their sermons.

    Again, my point in bringing up military chaplains, in the context of this thread, was that the military is an institution that classifies Mormons as Christians, to the extent that they are assigned to minister to other Protestant service members.Report

  20. Mike says:

    Very interesting conversation. I’m impressed, E.D., on your willingness to somewhat self-correct. That’s rare to find in the blogosphere.

    I should state that I am Mormon (or, to be more specific, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Of course I can’t speak for all Mormons, but here’s my view.

    If a label is just a label, it doesn’t really matter too much to me what consider me Christian or not. I don’t think most Mormons here I go speaking for them) want to be called Christian just because they want to be included in the group. In fact, historically Mormons have prided themselves in being different, although that has changed somewhat in recent years. But, based on some recent statements from church leaders, I think the preoccupation with Mormons wanting to be called Christians is because of the misinformation that is spread by the simple statement “Mormons are not Christian”. Christian theologians may have their own definitions of what constitutes Christianity, but I don’t think anyone can dispute that most lay people would consider Christian to simply mean “believing the Christ is the Son of God, and our Savior, and the only way to get to Heaven”. Mormons clearly believe this, and so to say Mormons aren’t Christian, even if technically true using a certain definition of the word, is misleading to the general public. That is I think the main objections Mormons have to not being called Christian. However, from a theological standpoint, I have no problem admitting that some of our doctrines are very different from mainstream Christian doctrines, however there are also many similarities. I could go on for a long time responding to the specific doctrinal concerns you mentioned in your original post, but I don’t have the time to get into that now.

    Someone asked about how the LDS church doesn’t like it when splinter groups are calling “Mormons”, so isn’t that the same thing? Pretty much yeah, I admit. My only defense (and a somewhat weak one) is that there is a lot more confusion over the term “Mormon” than the term “Christian”. People understand that there are more than one Christian church, and that there are a variety of different beliefs under that umbrella. No one is going to thing, after learning about Mormons, that that is how all Christians think. However, most people think there is only one “Mormon” church, so a news story about Mormon polygamists, for example, can be misleading. Personally, I’m fine with calling them Mormon as long as it is qualified in some way that they are not talking about the mainstream Mormon church, to avoid that confusion.Report

  21. E.D. Kain says:

    Thanks, Mike. Makes sense to me….certainly I can understand why mainstream LDS wouldn’t want to be confused with the likes of Warren Jeffs and his Colorado City FLDS church etc. etc.Report

  22. Cindy says:

    I agree with Sullivan’s original point because he defines Christianist as a political label and understand your reasons for your final comments on this subject.

    That said E.D., the pedant in me wishes you hadn’t conceded quite as fully to the self-identification ideology, even though I generally think that is the polite and reasonable way to handle these conversations.

    Words matter, or should. Labels are only useful to us when we agree on their meanings. Should you have said, “by no definition”? No. But, if this had, perhaps been a different discussion (that is prompted by something other than Sullivan’s blog entry) a strong case could be made for the idea that Mormons are not Christians, regardless of their self-identification.

    Otherwise, it would be okay (and by that, I mean correct, useful, meaningful — I’m not talking about civil rights) for me to move to Utah, start a church that is — let’s say Greek Orthodox — in all but name, and call it Mormon church. Additonally, we will make a point to reject the following:

    *The entire contents of the Book of Mormon
    *All pronouncements of Joseph Smith and subsequent prophets
    *The doctrine behind and practice of baptism of the dead
    *Temple endowments
    *Celestial marriage
    *The teaching that Christ was the bridegroom at the Biblical wedding at Cana
    *The teaching that “Elohim” and “Jehovah” are two separate beings

    Can I do that? Sure. Is my claiming of the word “Mormon” going to do one bit of good in helping people understand the teachings of my church?Report

  23. E.D. Kain says:

    Cindy, I very much agree with you on all your points. I make a point of mentioning in the post that I still can’t accept Mormonism as Christianity, but that there really is some value in self-identification. It’s tricky, and certainly your example holds a great deal of water. Words and labels do matter a great deal, but then again, I don’t want to get into the exclusivity game. As some commenters have rightly pointed out, within what I might consider the Christian flock, many a denomination will call-out another as not truly being Christian. I would mostly say this comes down to a certain pettiness, rather than a real theological understanding, but who can say?

    So I’ll say again, under my definition of the word, the LDS church certainly does fall outside the bounds of Christianity, but I’m uncertain that this would be universally accepted, and to some degree we do all have the right to self-identify. Where to draw that line is, for lack of a better phrase, “above my pay grade.”Report

  24. Cindy says:

    E.D., I re-read your entry after my comment posted, and I do realize that. I need to own that this particular example of self-idenfication is a sticking point for me because of my own theological beliefs, and I don’t know how else you could have reasonably handled this conversation. Because if I confess what’s in my gut here, it’s something along the lines of, “Everyone should let me define all the words, and use them only as I intend. Darn it.”

    Thanks for an interesting conversation.Report

  25. E.D. Kain says:

    And at what point does the laxity in defining things render the power of words meaningless altogether? I’m torn, I really am. Self-identification vs. meaning. It’s almost just another version of the “individual vs the group”…Report

  26. Mike says:


    I’m just searching for some clarification on your example. €

    If you mean to say that there are limits to the validity of self-identification, then of I agree of course. You can take anything to an extreme to make it look absurd. But clearly self-identification is something we rely on in our society. So much so that we usually just take it for granted. The only alternative would be complete non-self identification which I don’t think anyone would like. There needs to be a balance of course, and if that’s your point then I agree.

    However, if your intent is to compare a Mormon calling himself Christian to someone who rejects all beliefs unique to Mormonism calling herself Mormon, then I object. Clearly there is a big difference in degree, and if you don’t agree with that, then I’d say it’s misconceptions like that which are exactly why some Mormons are so defensive over the issue of the label of Christianity.Report

  27. Todd says:

    Cindy, your example (#25) is instructive, but I think the real parallel of your hypothetical “Mormon” church that rejects the entire Book of Mormon and all teachings of Joseph Smith, and would therefore not, as you say, be usefully or accurately labeled “Mormon,” is this: a hypothetical “Christian” church that rejected the entire Bible (or even just the New Testament), along with the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, and resurrection.

    Such a church would not be usefully or accurately labeled “Christian.” However, I hope you will agree that this hypothetical church, again paralleling your own example, does not in the least resemble the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    At any rate, kudos to you for recognizing the not-completely-objective influence that your own theological beliefs and gut instincts can have!Report

  28. Todd says:

    E.D. – regarding the “self-identification” vs. “meaning” axis you’ve mentioned, I would be interested to hear more specifically what aspects of the meaning of the term “Christian” you feel are threatened or undermined by Mormons’ self-identification as Christian. It seems to me (and the various dictionaries I consult) that definitions of “Christian” are centered on or derived from some aspect of Jesus Christ, e.g. “one who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ,” “a person who has received a Christian baptism,” “one who worships Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God,” etc. Check several dictionaries, and you’ll find an assortment of variations on those themes. And it seems to me that Mormons fit quite comfortably within most of those definitions–not because of “self-identification,” but because of their meaning.

    I don’t see why a belief in Joseph Smith should exclude someone from these definitions of Christian any more than a belief in UFOs, or a belief in the many Catholic Saints.

    People who wish to exclude Mormons from Christianity often reach for other meanings which, IMHO, do not really belong to the term Christian. For example, some say that Christians must adhere to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as defined in the Nicene Creed (and various other creeds). Of course, such a definition would exclude most of the Christians that lived in the first 300 years after Christ. Furthermore, there is already a good adjective for those who believe in the doctine of the Trinity: Trinitarian. Its opposite is not “non-Christian,” but Unitarian (also, Arian).

    Another tactic often used is to limit Christianity to those who adhere to a closed canon consisting of the Old and New Testaments. This again raises the question of the early Christians, since the first list of books identical to the contents of the New Testament was made by Athanasius in 367 A.D. (although the Catholic church did not officially define the canon until the Council of Trent in 1546). Furthermore, the vast majority of Christians prior to the invention of the printing press had no access to scripture, and were mostly illiterate. Surely scriptural canon had little to do with the essence of their Christianity; why should it now invalidate the Christianity of Mormons? The term “open-canon Christians” can be used to distinguish Mormons from closed-canon Christians.

    Anyhow, back to self-identification vs. meaning. From my non-believer’s perspective, it seems that Mormons identify themselves as Christian based on a meaning of the term that is simple, straightforward, and consistent with the etymology and definitions of the word as found in reputable dictionaries. Christians seeking to exclude Mormons from Christianity, on the other hand, seem to refer to a vague and somewhat incoherent meaning of the word, ignoring the dictionary definitions altogether, and glossing over Mormon beliefs about Jesus Christ to focus instead on the more bizarre aspects of Mormonism. Occasionally I get the impression that they feel that demonstrating that Mormons are weird and freakish is quite sufficient to prove that they are not Christian, since Christians are, by definition, normal.

    I would be interested to hear more specifically what you feel the meaning of Christian is. Would you define the concept differently if you were not thinking about Mormons, than if you were?Report

  29. Andrew S says:

    I’m pretty much on a similar wavelength as Todd.

    If anyone concedes that Mormons are Christian, it shouldn’t be because they “self-identify” as so. It should be because the true definition of a Christianity includes Mormons (or does not exclude them). Most common and most readily apparent definitions do not exclude Mormons, whereas more restrictive definitions exclude many other groups.Report

  30. Bob says:

    All this talk of labels and religion has me thinking about the possibility of the FDA, or whoever, imposing a label for consumer protection. What would your label list? Here’s mine for the cheap, $.69, generic All Religions.

    99.99% PURE OOGEDY-BOOGEDY. May contain trace amounts of any or all of the following: human sacrifice, slavery, subjection of minorities, child abuse, genital mutilation, war, suppression of education and science, slavery, hatred, repression of women, discrimination against gays. Consumption NOT recommended. Consult your Witch Doctor regarding other hazards.Report