There is an amusing scene in the 1990 film Back to the Future III in which time-traveler Marty McFly, exploring his home town in the year 2015, encounters a holographic projection of a shark as part of the marquee at a theater showing Jaws 19. At first taken by surprise, Marty recovers and comments, “The shark still looks fake.”
I must confess that I have a similar reaction to the latest “sequel” in the long-running debate over whether Mormons are or can be Christians, prompted this time around by the conservative TV talk-show host Glenn Beck. Do we really need to discuss this question again? Apparently we do, given the lack of clarity that continues to characterize much of what is said on the subject.
The Christian blogosphere recently lit up following the comments of World Magazine online columnist Andrée Seu in which she spoke of Beck not just as a Christian, but as “a new creation in Christ” who is “red hot” toward God. “I can say without hesitation that I have not heard the essentials of the gospel more clearly and boldly in any church than on his program.” Seu acknowledged that Beck is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and admitted that Mormon doctrine is problematic, but described Beck as a latter-day Apollos who needs a Priscilla and Aquila to help him with his theology.
Evangelical bloggers were quick to contradict Seu. Justin Taylor, one of the most insightful Christians blogging today, commented on “Andrée Seu’s Tragic Mistake on the Gospel of Glenn Beck.” Taylor warned: “It is easy to be moved by talk of having faith in Jesus, without asking who the person understands Jesus to be…. Despite what mainline evangelicalism has taught for years, the gospel is not ‘I trusted in Jesus and he changed my life.’” Russell Moore, an astute Southern Baptist theologian, argued that evangelical enthusiasm for Beck’s religious rhetoric is a sign that American evangelicals have largely traded the gospel for American civil religion:
“It’s taken us a long time to get here, in this plummet from Francis Schaeffer to Glenn Beck. In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined ‘revival’ and ‘turning America back to God’ that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.”
World Magazine acknowledged Taylor’s blog and offered a retraction, stating, “Our website editing system failed in regard to Andrée’s post about Glenn Beck.” In a separate article, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, echoed Moore’s assessment: “Beck is syncretizing Mormon and Christian understanding in the service of a civil religion, but that’s a radically unequal yoking for reasons WORLD has pointed out before.”
One thing that seems to have been overlooked up to now is that Taylor and Moore offer two fundamentally different—and possibly incompatible—diagnoses of the problem. Both argue that evangelical enthusiasm for Beck reveals a lack of discernment and a shallow understanding of the gospel among American evangelicals. Taylor worries that Beck’s evangelical supporters are under the mistaken impression that anyone who claims that Jesus changed his life has accepted the gospel. Moore contends that those same evangelicals have mistaken American civil religion for the gospel. So which is it? Does Beck represent a personal-transformation gospel focused on Jesus as life-changer or a civil-religion gospel focused on a generic theism as the foundation for a stable society? I suppose it is possible to mix the two messages, and perhaps there are elements of both in Beck, but they don’t mesh naturally.
Mormon doctrine in two minutes
The main objection to viewing Beck as an advocate for the gospel is that the theology of the LDS Church, of which Beck is a member, is radically incompatible with the biblical gospel. The divide between biblical teaching and Mormon doctrine is so wide that from an evangelical perspective Mormonism falls outside the circle of acceptable, authentic expressions of the Christian faith. The crucial problems with LDS doctrine that impinge directly on one’s view of Jesus Christ and the gospel include the following unbiblical claims:
- All human beings preexisted in heaven, where they were the offspring of heavenly parents (God the Father and a “heavenly mother”), before their natural conception here on earth.
- Our Heavenly Father was a man who became a God—proving that we, too, can become gods.
- Jesus Christ is the “firstborn” of God’s billions of spirit children and the first of those children to become a God.
- As such, Christ is one of three Gods in the “Godhead,” as is the Holy Spirit, another of God’s spirit sons.
- Christ is the “Only Begotten,” which means that he is the only human being whom God the Father literally begat in the flesh. God is Jesus’ literal father in the flesh (allowing Jesus to “inherit” some divine powers other humans do not have) and Mary is his literal mother.
- Christ’s atonement guarantees immortal life in some heavenly kingdom to virtually all human beings, including those who willfully reject Christ.
- Christ (and God the Father) appeared to Joseph Smith to tell him to join none of the churches because all of them were wrong and their creeds were an abomination.
- Through Joseph Smith, God restored lost scriptures (e.g., the Book of Mormon) and inspired new ones (Doctrine & Covenants), from which Mormons learn the doctrines that set them apart from the rest of Christianity.
- Christ organized the only true Church in these latter days with a hierarchical system of “priesthood authority” required to teach or baptize others.
- Full forgiveness of sins and entrance into the highest heavenly kingdom, where God and Christ live, come to those who become members of the LDS Church, follow its teachings, and participate in its temple rituals, notably baptisms and other rites performed on behalf of the dead.
- The ultimate goal of the gospel and of LDS religion is to become gods, with the same powers and potential as the Heavenly Father.
You can find full documentation and discussion of these doctrinal problems in the LDS faith on the website of the Institute for Religious Research (IRR), where I am the director of research. In particular, we provide a thorough analysis of the doctrine taught in the LDS Church’s basic manual on doctrine, called Gospel Principles. Frankly, the evidence is overwhelming that the LDS understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ is radically different from that of the Bible.
“Mormons are not Christians”: Do they hear what we hear?
As I have already observed, these differences deal with such basic elements of Christianity that from an evangelical perspective we must conclude that Mormonism falls outside the boundaries of doctrinally authentic, theologically viable Christian faith. The usual shorthand way of making this point is to say that Mormons are not Christians. Unfortunately, what such a statement achieves in simplicity and rhetorical punch it loses in clarity and comprehension. What people hear when they are told that Mormons are not Christians may be any of the following:
1. “Mormons are not nice people.”
2. “Mormons are really part of another religion altogether, such as Hinduism.”
3. “Mormons are another entirely different religion by themselves.”
4. “Mormons are not saved from eternal condemnation.”
All four of these meanings are problematic.
(1) Many Mormons are very nice people indeed, so this statement is also objectively false, even assuming that it is ever appropriate to use the term Christian to mean a nice person.
(2) It is objectively false to classify Mormonism as part of another world religion, such as Hinduism. Regrettably, some Christians have actually tried to make the case that Mormonism is Hindu. Dave Hunt and Ed Decker, in their notorious book The God Makers (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1984), argued as much:
“Although it uses Christian language to disguise its paganism, Mormonism is less Christian than it is Hindu. The basic dilemma faced by every Mormon is a direct result of its Hindu roots” (60).
The claim that Mormonism has “Hindu roots” is historically false. Mormonism historically arose as a Christian heresy—a religious offshoot of Christianity that still retains a focus on Christ as its central religious figure, albeit reinterpreted in a thoroughly unbiblical way. The LDS religion has no historical or religious connection to Hinduism and rejects basic Hindu concepts (e.g., Mormonism rejects the worship of idols, pantheism, reincarnation, and karma). There are similarities between Hinduism and Mormonism (as there are between any two religions), such as a belief in a plurality of gods, but such comparisons are superficial because the similar-sounding affirmations have completely different meanings in the contexts of the two religious traditions.
(3) Others have argued that Mormonism is sui generis, that is, in a class by itself, sufficiently distinct from Christianity to be classified as a new world religion. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggests that instead of viewing Mormonism as a “Christian faith” we should classify it charitably as “the fourth Abrahamic faith.” That is, Land proposes that we view Mormonism as a religion stemming from the Abrahamic tradition alongside Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This way of classifying Mormonism simply will not hold up. There is no more reason to classify Mormonism as a new Abrahamic faith than there is to so classify the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian heresy as large or larger and as diffused throughout the world as Mormonism. Indeed, there are numerous sects of Christianity that distance themselves theologically and religiously from orthodox Christianity while insisting that theirs is the true Christian church; Mormonism is simply one among many such sects. Historical, religious, and theological comparisons demonstrate that the Mormon tradition (including both the LDS Church and its hundred-plus splinter sects) belong in the broader category of “restorationist” Christian movements that view themselves as the instrument of true Christianity today. These include Adventism and its offshoots, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphianism and other forms of so-called Biblical Unitarianism, Oneness Pentecostalism, the Sacred Name groups, The Way International and its offshoots, and the LDS Church and its offshoots, among others.
(4) It may well be argued that LDS doctrine and religion are so far removed from the biblical gospel that most Mormons will not believe the true gospel as long as they remain committed to LDS doctrine. However, this leaves plenty of room for a small fraction of LDS Church members to believe the biblical gospel in defiance or ignorance of their religion’s teachings. In any religion, there are always people who still consider themselves members but who are rethinking their beliefs or who are transitioning out of the religion. Many evangelicals who have come out of the LDS Church found saving faith in Christ before they removed themselves from the LDS membership rolls. Indeed, some retain their LDS membership, hoping eventually to bring their families and friends out with them. One could argue that such individuals are Mormons in name only, but again, there are people along a spectrum of situations from true-blue Mormons through pick-and-choose Mormons to Mormons in name only. The point is that unqualified generalizations about all Mormons are difficult to justify. And of course, we are not competent to judge the souls of other people, although we can make educated guesses as to their faith based on what we can observe.
A more nuanced statement of point (4) would be to say that we should presume that Mormons who accept and follow the LDS understanding of the gospel will be lost unless they repent and accept the biblical gospel (Eph. 2:1-10; Titus 3:4-7). Putting the matter this way recognizes the spiritually destructive effects of the false teachings of the LDS Church, while allowing for the fact that sometimes it is difficult to tell whether or to what extent a particular Mormon actually accepts (or understands) LDS doctrine. If this is the position that evangelicals should take—and I think it is—it becomes problematic to make the generalized, unqualified statement that Mormons are not Christians. That is, it is unlikely that anyone hearing “Mormons are not Christians” will understand this to carry the nuanced meaning “Mormons who follow the LDS understanding of the gospel are presumed lost.” If we want people to hear what we really mean, we must try to articulate our view more accurately, even if it loses some punch.
One might suppose that the problem can be avoided by saying that Mormonism is not Christian—that is, by punting on the question of whether Mormons are Christians and instead asserting only that the religion of Mormonism is itself not Christian. This may be something of an improvement, but the same sorts of problems remain. If Mormonism is not Christian, what is it? It is not part of another religion, nor is it a completely different religion.
Of course, from an evangelical theological perspective it can be even more misleading to say, without qualification, that Mormons are Christians, or that Mormonism is Christian. Such statements would seem erroneously to concede that the LDS Church is a legitimate denomination of Christianity, standing alongside those denominations and independent church bodies that affirm the essentials of the biblical gospel. I’m all for stating matters as generously as we can, but not at the expense of the truth of the gospel.
Considerations such as those just discussed are the reason why, for several years now, I have argued that we should view the question “Are Mormons Christians?” as unproductive at best and misleading at worst. The question assumes that we should give it an unqualified “Yes” or “No” answer, neither of which is fully satisfactory. About three years ago on this very blog I addressed this question at some length, arguing that the answer depends on how one defines the term Christian. (That blog post was lost due to technical issues, so I re-posted it about two years ago with some revisions at IRR’s blog, The Religious Researcher.) If by “Christians” one means all members of all of the religious groups that belong to the world-religions classification of Christianity, then of course in that generic sense Mormons are Christians, along with everyone else who claims to be. If one uses the term to denote persons who have been saved from eternal condemnation through their faith in Jesus Christ, then the best answer we can give is that most Mormons evidently are not Christians in that sense although some may be. Evangelicals would also have to hedge their answer if they were asked “Are Southern Baptists Christians?” or even “Are evangelicals Christians?” since not all Southern Baptists or evangelicals have genuinely come to saving faith in Christ. After all, basic to evangelical doctrine is the conviction that merely accepting evangelical doctrine, or associating oneself with an evangelical denomination, will not save anyone, since it is through personal faith or trust in Christ, not merely doctrinal correctness or the right religious affiliation, that God saves us.
To avoid overreaching, I have proposed that we make qualified statements that are defensible as objective statements of fact concerning the LDS faith. For example, we can state that Mormons are not orthodox Christians, or that LDS theology is heretical. Mormons will, of course, dispute our understanding of what is orthodox and what is heretical, but we can define these terms to convey an objective meaning. For example, we can stipulate that orthodox means in agreement with the major Christian doctrines articulated in the creeds from the first through the fifth centuries, while heretical means deviating from those doctrinal standards. We should, in short, make clear that while we acknowledge that Mormons sincerely regard themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ, we are convinced that the LDS religious tradition is at odds with the essentials of the Christian faith as taught in the Bible.
Back to Beck
The need for a more flexible and nuanced approach to the subject of whether Mormons are Christians is well illustrated with the example of Glenn Beck. Let me state categorically that I have absolutely no inkling or opinion as to the state of Beck’s soul or the genuineness of his faith in Christ. I have never met him, do not follow his program, and do not have enough information on which to base a conclusion. The fact that Beck is LDS is, of course, of great concern and creates a general presumption that he is in need of the biblical gospel of salvation. On the other hand, there does seem to be some evidence that Beck’s personal understanding of the gospel is at least far closer to the evangelical message than one would expect of a typical Mormon. Consider, for example, the assessment of Beck’s soteriology (doctrine of salvation) offered just a few weeks ago by Bill McKeever. McKeever is the director of Mormonism Research Ministry, an evangelical parachurch organization based in the Salt Lake City area, right in the heart of the Mormon culture. McKeever and his associates at MRM are far from “soft” on Mormonism. They regard it as a heretical distortion of Christianity, and they actively seek to help Christians share the true gospel with Mormons. McKeever recently wrote an article for his website on “The Not-So Mormon Soteriology of Glenn Beck” in which he quoted the following remarks made by Beck on his television program on July 13, 2010:
“You cannot earn your way into heaven. You can’t! There is no deed, no random act of kindness, no amount of money to spread around to others that earns you a trip to heaven. It can’t happen. It’s earned by God’s grace alone, by believing that Jesus died on the cross for you. This is what Christians believe…. I also am wise enough to know that people will say, yeah, but Glenn Beck is a Mormon, he’s not even a real Christian. You can believe what you want. I will tell you that I am a man who needed the atonement more than most people do. I appreciate the atonement. I accept Jesus as my Savior. I know that I am alive today because I did give all of it to Him because I couldn’t carry it anymore.”
McKeever, who wonders aloud if Beck’s “close relationships with several evangelical Christians are not having a positive effect,” concludes that “it seems apparent that Beck does not agree with traditional Mormon soteriology…. Whether or not he knows he is out of harmony with his church, I cannot say, but if I understand the above correctly, he most certainly is.” McKeever admits that Beck might mean something different from what his words mean to evangelicals, but he finds no reason to suspect that Beck is anything but sincere and straightforward.
The point, again, is not to argue that Beck is or is not a Christian in the sense of someone genuinely redeemed from sin through authentic faith in Jesus Christ. He may be, we may and should hope that he is or will be, and those of us who have opportunity to engage him or other Mormons like him should caringly present the biblical gospel without compromise. The point, rather, is that in the real world people’s beliefs and affiliations are not always consistent or cut-and-dried. Most people’s thinking reflects a mix of religious, philosophical, and cultural beliefs, values, and assumptions. Making blanket statements about whether the members of a particular group are or are not Christians mistakenly assumes a uniformity of belief within the group that in most cases is simply not there. Avoiding such statements will enhance our credibility with those whom we are seeking to reach with biblical truth. It will help to foster mutual respect and constructive dialogue with those who need to know what true Christianity really means.