March 13, 2015

Who Gets to Be Christian?

Latter-day Saints believe in the resurrected J...
Latter-day Saints believe in the resurrected Jesus Christ, as depicted in the Christus Statue in the North Visitors' Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As an atheist, I find myself perfectly content to leave the decision of who is a Christian to the Christians. They can decide what it means to be a Christian and who gets to call themselves one. They can then inform the rest of us of their decision so we will know how to apply the label most appropriately. Of course, this is far from a simple task.

A few years ago, I asked my readers whether they consider Mormons to be Christians, members of a cult, or both. To my surprise, many of those who commented indicated that they did not think of Mormons as Christians. A couple went so far as to say that they regarded Mormons as being as distinct from Christians as Muslims.

For this post, I am curious about your experiences with whether Christians consider Mormons to be Christian. I suspect that this is a question on which not all Christians will agree. What I am trying to understand are the reasons for this disagreement among Christians. Does it have more to do with the many different forms of Christianity and how they may define themselves in different ways (especially mainstream vs. fundamentalist views), where one lives, or something else?

Growing up in a reasonably progressive area surrounded by moderate Protestants and Catholics with relatively few evangelical fundamentalist Christians around, I do not recall hearing Mormons described as anything other than Christians. I certainly regarded them as Christians back when I was a Christian. Some of their specific beliefs, practices, and ceremonies were ridiculed by the more mainstream Christians, but I do recall hearing anybody argue that they were not Christian. They generally seemed to be regarded as another denomination, outside the mainstream to be sure but still recognized as Christian.

This perspective changed dramatically when I moved to more conservative regions where evangelical fundamentalist Christians were the majority. Here, Mormons were not recognized as Christians. In fact, they were routinely derided as belonging to a cult. Not only were they not considered Christian; theirs was not even considered a proper religion!

I have long suspected that this reflects a difference between evangelical fundamentalist Christians and more mainstream Christians, but I am not sure about that. I suspect it, at least in part, because I have encountered quite a bit of anti-Catholic sentiment (not to mention anti-Semitism) from conservative evangelical fundamentalists that I do not remember hearing from the more mainstream Protestants of my youth. In general, it seems like the evangelical fundamentalists are far more hostile to anyone who does not share their particular version of Christianity than most other Christians.

It is certainly possible that viewing Mormons as something other than Christians reflects regional differences as well. I have experienced far more hatred of persons of non-Christian religions in the South than anywhere else I have lived. But I have also encountered this from evangelical fundamentalists outside the South at a much higher rate than from non-fundamentalists, leading me to suspect that it has at least as much to do with fundamentalism as geography. And while the evangelical fundamentalists around here often try to convert Jews and Catholics, most seem to recognize Catholics as being Christians. The "cult" label largely seems to be reserved for the Mormons. At least that is where I can usually count on hearing it.

All the Mormons I have ever known have considered themselves to be Christians. This has been true across various regions of the U.S. and across various levels of Mormon belief, from those one might describe as nominal Mormons through those who probably deserve to be described as fundamentalist in their religious orientation. It seems quite clear that most Mormons regard themselves as Christians and as having far more in common with other Christians than they do with atheists or persons of non-Christian religions.

What do you think? Is the perspective that Mormons are not Christians about fundamentalism, regional differences, some combination of both, or something else entirely? 

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