Are Mormons Christian? To contemporary Latter-day Saint (LDS) Mormons (the largest Mormon denomination)
this question might seem silly. After all, their church bears the name of Jesus Christ. But there’s a historical context behind this question that has to do with the history of Christianity and of Mormonism. Once this context is understood, then the question is not silly. And when seen in this light, the LDS stance on this question involves inconsistency.
We start with the development of “creedal” Christianity. In early Christianity, self-proclaimed Christians were very ideological diverse. One attempt to solve this problem was to make official pronouncements concerning the nature of Christian belief. In addition to precisely worded creeds, the Christian Church declared certain views heretical. An example of this is the Nicene Creed. This official pronouncement contradicts the Arian heresy: that the Son (Jesus) was ontologically dependent on the Father. It’s important to emphasize that orthodox Christians of all sorts (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) understand this process of creedal formation as providential and hence as setting up a standard for what counts as Christianity and what doesn’t.
Now, typically, Latter-day Saints are largely unaware of this history and context. There’s a reason for this. In the past, Latter-day Saints have claimed that the process of forming the creeds was not providential and resulted in false doctrine. This is one aspect of what Latter-day Saints call the “the apostacy”. In essence, it’s the claim that the Christians are not really Christians since they believe false doctrine. In fact, they often claim that the concept of God in traditional Christianity was of pagan (i.e., Greek) origin. Since creedal Christianity is apostate, it is unnecessary (even dangerous) to study it.
So, it seems that we have a situation in which creedal Christians say that Mormonism is not Christian and Mormons claim that creedal Christianity is not really Christian. This is a dispute over what true Christianity is. To help see this point, let’s consider the philosophical distinction between descriptive and normative statements. Descriptive statements tell us what there is. An example of a descriptive statement is ‘This article contains big words.’ Normative statements don’t just tell us what there is, they tell us what we should do about it. An example of a normative statement is ‘This article is worth reading.’ Given this, we can say that both creedal Christians and Mormons use the term ‘Christian’ normatively.
Since the Mormon doctrine of the apostacy involves the claim that creedal Christians are not true Christians, it would not make sense for Latter-day Saints to claim that Mormons are indeed creedal Christians, unless they want to be indentified with what is not truly Christian. So, the Latter-day Saint insistence on being included in the creedal Christian tradition is inconsistent with LDS theology.
Now you might say that Latter-day Saints only mean to assert that they are Christian in the true (non-creedal) sense of the world when they assert, ‘we are Christians too.’ If so, they shouldn’t include the word ‘too’ in the former assertion since creedal Christians aren’t (according to Mormons) truly Christians. And if this is the case, then when creedal Christians claim that Mormons are not Christian and Latter-day Saints respond that Mormons are indeed Christian, Latter-day Saints are missing the point. It’s a pseudo-disagreement (a disagreement in words, but not in meaning). Either Latter-day Saints are inconsistent or they misunderstand the discussion.
There’s another inconsistency involved in the LDS wish to be included in the creedal Christian “click.” Not only does the LDS Church want to be recognized by creedal Christians as Christians, they don’t want the FLDS church to be referred to as ‘Mormon’. This results in a case that is analogous to the previous one, but now it’s the LDS Church that is the gatekeeper of the content of the term ‘Mormon’ rather than the creedal church. The implication is that, to be consistent, the LDS Church should allow the FLDS Church to be called ‘Mormon’ without protest. However, that’s not what they do. Instead, the LDS Church wants to be the sole arbiter of the content of the term ‘Mormon’ while no one is allowed to be the sole arbiter of the term ‘Christian’. Since the terms play the same role, it follows that Latter-day Saints apply inconsistent principles of nomenclature.
Religious disagreements are not always what they seem. Sometimes it appears that believers disagree about the facts of the matter when, as a matter of fact, they disagree about the language. Semantic confusions between creedal Christians and LDS Mormons are fairly commonplace. This is no doubt due in part to the LDS ignorance of the history of the terms that they so freely use. However, it is important to note that this ignorance goes both ways, as many creedal Christians have distorted views of Mormonism. To be sure, some in the LDS community have recognized the need for Latter-day Saints to be more educated about the Christian tradition.
Similarly, some Evangelicals have recognized the need to dialogue with Mormons. The result has been a Mormon/Evangelical dialogue. It’s not clear to me that Evangelicals are the Christians that Mormons should be talking to, given the nature of Mormon theology. But perhaps that choice is political rather than theological.
Dennis Potter is the former Mormon Studies Coordinator for the Religious Studies
program at Utah Valley University where he is also Associate Professor of Philosophy.