April 20102 newsletter
Long Island Council of Churches
Recently several churches have asked if the LICC could recommend local representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who might be able to discuss Mormon beliefs and practices. Mormons have never joined the Long Island Mutli-Faith Forum or been very active in local interreligious dialogue. The LDS, of course, considers itself a Christian denomination, so they would want to call this an interdenominational dialogue, but that’s one of the things we need to talk about.
Now, in case you are wondering if this column is going to end up being either an endorsement or denunciation of Mitt Romney’s candidacy for President, rest assured that neither is the case. As the LICC reminds congregations every election year, it is both a violation of IRS rules and a really dumb idea for any house of worship to take sides in partisan politics. This column is about people of faith seeking to understand one another better and to speak honestly and compassionately about our differences.
We should be slow to judge what is in the heart and mind of our neighbor. Too often, Christians have slaughtered those we labeled heretics, only to realize later that we were wrong about their beliefs and wrong to kill them, regardless of what they believed. It seems weird to me that Mormons think Native Americans spoke ancient Egyptian and believe Christ will return to Salt Lake City, but we Methodists cling to some fantasies of our own, like the notion that our founder John Wesley was a great Bible scholar. And parts of our Scripture, such as the Book of Revelation, seem peculiar to me and nearly everyone else.
Drawing distinctions and hard lines between faith communities is distasteful to many people. And some folks think that it is polite to call people whatever they wish to be called. This is excellent etiquette advice when it comes to nicknames but does not work so well with other matters. You could decide to call yourself Thomas W. Goodhue, though I am not sure why you want to, but my entering into your fantasy will only confuse people. You may think you are the Emperor Napoleon, the heir to the Russia throne, or Jesus Christ re-incarnate, but I am not obliged to enter into your delusions.
I’ve always admired those who have the “love and wit,” as Edwin Markham put it, to draw a circle that draws others in, but even the nearly-all-encompassing Bahais distinguish themselves from the group that calls itself the “Orthodox Bahais,” who apparently are pretty unorthodox. Most theologians see the LDS as a new religious movement that grew out of Christianity, much as Christianity grew out of Judaism into something distinct. Pointing this out does not mean you are prejudiced, though calling them heretics might. What begins as schism or heresy in one faith community often evolves into a full-fledged religion that spawns its own heretics, and the Mormons have been around long enough now to do just that. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggested several years ago that Christians call Mormonism not a heresy but an Abrahamic religion alongside Judaism, Christianity,! and Islam (and, I would add, Bahais, Unitarian Universalists, and others).
Mormons hate being labeled non-Christian, but their founders said all other denominations were apostate, and if you claim yours is the one true church, people suspect you belong to another faith. The LDS rejects the divinity of Christ, claims God has a wife called the Heavenly Mother, considers the Pearl of Great Price to be Scripture, calls Joseph Smith “the Prophet of the Restoration,” teaches that obedient Mormons can become gods, and baptize the dead by proxy. Any single one of these teachings puts them beyond the pale as far as Christianity is concerned.
We should remember, though, that religious movements often mellow as they age and leave behind their weirdest traditions. The LDS rejected polygamy long ago, so enough with the “Big Love” jokes already. Yes, there are some such families out west but the LDS considers them heretics, not heroes. When Jews were outraged that the LDS had “baptized” thousands of victims of the Holocaust by proxy, ex-post-Auschwitz, they agreed in 2010 to stop doing this—at least for Jews who died in the Shoah. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has matured into something close to mainstream Christianity (and now calls itself the Community of Christ) and perhaps the LDS will evolve in similar ways.
We also should remember that not everyone in any given church upholds its wisest teachings or buys into its oddest beliefs. When asked at an ecumenical gathering if Mormons were Christians, a Catholic colleague replied, “Some are.” One could say the same, I added, about United Methodists.
Does being non-Christian mean somebody loves Jesus less? No. Many Jews, Muslims, Bahais, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, revere Jesus, if not the way that I do. Some Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists are also Christians, though they tend to be more broadminded than the rest of us. The LDS does not teach the same things as orthodox Christianity about Jesus, and Muslims have different beliefs about him than most Methodists, but they could be right and I could be wrong. Just because they departed from mainstream Christianity does not mean that they are not striving to follow Jesus or that I have nothing to learn from them. Other faiths could learn a lot from the Latter-Day Saints about empowering laity to lead the church and about caring for one another and the surrounding community in hard times.
Nor does bad theology necessarily make you a bad person, just as having orthodox dogma does not guarantee that you practice rightly what you preach. The Mormons tend to be really good people. Sure their church has been marred by racism, sexism, and homophobia, but whose church hasn’t? And which church isn’t still? A little humility could do us all good.