Wednesday, November 22, 2006

a complaint

Andrew Sullivan wrote today:

Mitt Romney will surely provide a fascinating glimpse into the Christianist mindset in the coming two years. He will be the candidate for the Christianist right, but he's not a Christian. And many Christianists may well recoil at the man's Mormon faith. In fact, the latest Rasmussen poll shows that 53 percent of evangelical Christians would not even consider voting for a Mormon president. That's more than the 43 percent in the general population. So this emerges as a delicious irony: a candidacy made possible by sectarian politics could subsequently be made impossible by the same forces. I'm sorry if I have little sympathy for Romney's plight. Live by fundamentalism; die by fundamentalism.

While I mostly agree with the substantive point, Sullivan’s casual comment that Romney is "not a Christian” bothered me. So I wrote him this:
I'm sure I won't be the only one to correct you on this, but Romney is a Christian by any meaningful definition of the word. All Mormons are Christians. Christ is unquestionably the central figure of the faith; in fact, the official name of the church is "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints." Some other Christians have decided that because Mormons have a different view of the Trinity, spend a lot of time talking about church founder Joseph Smith, and believe that each person has the potential for godhood, they are not Christians. Ask any Mormon if he or she is a Christian and they will say yes. Who gets to decide this important question: Mormons themselves who profess a profound belief in Christ or exclusionary Christianists who want to denigrate the faith of others?

I say this as an atheist ex-Mormon who really doesn't give two cents about the underlying theology, but it still bothers me every time I see this trope coming from some quarters that Mormons aren't Christians which apparently gets picked up and passed on without a second thought. And it's something people need to get right as I'm sure it will be discussed ad nauseam once Romney's campaign gathers steam.

And he responded:
I take the reader's point. But Muslims also revere Jesus. And the inspiration for Mormonism's radically innovative understanding of the message and life of Jesus - Joseph Smith's "discovery" - is so alien to mainstream Christianity (and so transparently loopy) that I don't consider Mormons Christians. This is not to say I don't support their religious freedom or their right to play a full part of American politics and society. But they're not Christians as I understand Christianity.

Which didn’t exactly resolve my concerns, so I wrote back:
In response to your post, I have a few nits to pick. Muslims may revere Christ, but do they worship him? Is he the central figure of their faith? No, that is Mohammed. More importantly, Muslims do not self-identify as Christians, whereas Mormons do.

It seems to me that people of faith should take care when describing the beliefs of others as "transparently loopy." To a non-religious person, belief in supernatural phenomena like turning water into wine, raising the dead, or walking on water might seem "transparently loopy." As far as a "radically innovative" message that is "alien to mainstream Christianity," that could easily have described the beliefs of Martin Luther during his life. Few now would dispute that he is a Christian. In fact, Luther and the Mormons share the unpleasant characterization of the Roman Catholic church as the Whore of Babylon described in the Book of Revelation.
I don't see the need for all the name-calling, on all sides. It seems to me that religious belief is highly subjective and, on definitional questions such as who is a Christian, the benefit of the doubt should go to the believer, not the outside observer.

C.S. Lewis, who is highly regarded within the Mormon church, espoused this view:

It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men's hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense . . . When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.

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