Are Mormons Christian? Here's the Simple Answer

65th Annual Tony Awards - Show

This weekend I was sitting in the living room with my daughter, listening to music on my iSomething-or-Other, when a song from the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon came on. The song was "Hello," the musical's perfectly executed opening number (and the one featured at the 2012 Tony Awards, below.)

Maxine was fascinated by the song. She loved all the doorbell-ringing, and the goofy voices, and the part when Elder Grant asks, "Are these your kids?" She must have replayed the song four or five times before moving on to something else. But, all the while, I knew she didn't really "get" any of it.  She'd never seen a Mormon missionary. She'd never even heard of Mormons.

So I gave her a quick run-down. I told her Mormons were part of a religious group, and that Mormons are known for going door-to-door to talk about their religion.

"Oh!" Maxine said. "I thought everyone was coming to their house."

Nope, I said, the other way around. Mormons ring other people's doors to tell them about the Book of Mormon, which is kind of like their Bible. Sometimes, I told her, you'll see them in our neighborhood. You can tell they're Mormon because they usually wear white shirts with black ties.

"And bicycle helmets," my husband added, because he's helpful like that.

We left it there; I've learned not to over-do it when it comes to religious literacy. But ever since then I've been thinking about how, if asked, I would frame the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would I categorize it as Christian or non-Christian?

mormon_christian_pinback_buttons-r8d2c999466724c59a514028d6bab01bd_x7j3i_8byvr_324That question has been the source of great debate since shortly after the church was founded in the 1820s. Mitt Romney would tell you that LDS is most definitely Christian. My Presbyterian uncle would tell you the opposite. images

Romney, who ran for president in 2012 and had a vested interest in being perceived as part of the majority, would surely emphasize that Mormons believe Jesus is the son of God and their savior, and that the only way to heaven is by following his example. (Pretty Christian-sounding, right?)

Yet LDS has adopted a whole manner of other beliefs that go far beyond what lies in Christian doctrine. The main one, of course, is that a guy from Vermont named Joseph Smith became a prophet of God who, with help from an angel, unearthed the ancient writings of other prophets, which all but instructed him to establish a new church. (Decidedly non-Christian.)

It doesn't matter to me personally whether Mormons are Christian or not. In the eyes of non-believers, most religions operate on the same planes of being anyway. Hindus could call themselves Zoroastrian, and I wouldn't have much of an opinion about it.

But I do want to be able to answer my kid's questions as accurately as I can, so... Are Mormons Christian? After some consideration, here's a simple answer:

Most religions evolve from other religions: Someone longs for something different, or learns something new, and starts spreading a different message than the one that came before. When enough people pay attention to that message, a religion is born. One could argue that Western religions — including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism — all grew out of the same basic principal: There is one God. When you remove all the special customs and "side-beliefs," one might say that Judaism is basically Christianity without the Jesus; Christianity is Islam without the Muhammad; and Mormonism is Christianity with the Joseph Smith.

Is Mormonism its own distinct religion? Definitely. Is it based in Christianity? Definitely. Done and done. Next house— er, question.

There’s a Word for That, and the Word is Bigot

I don't much care when extremists attack other extremists. Fundamentalists can duke it out with other fundamentalists all they want. I'm barely paying attention, much less joining in. But when people with extreme religious viewpoints manage to break through to the rest of us and pelt us with their fear-mongering messages, my hackles go up. All of a sudden it’s not just fundamentalists saying stupid shit. It’s normal people, too. And, oh, the shit people say.

Take Mitt Romney and his Mormonism.

By a show of hands, who doesn’t think a Mormon should run the country? Anyone?

No?

Good. Because there’s a word for that kind of thinking, and the word is bigot.

It’s the same word we use when someone doesn’t want a person of another color, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or age running the country. It’s a pretty sucky word, actually. And it would be good if we’d all stay the f away from it.

I’m not suggesting anyone vote for Mitt Romney. Good Lord Jesus, no. But should we not vote for him because he belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Because he believes things we don’t? Because fundamentalist LDS sects (to which Romney does not even belong) do and say some ridiculous things? Of course not.

There are legitimate reasons to vote for a politician, or against a politician, and rarely is religion one of them. To be honest, I can’t figure out why religion plays a part in our elections at all. Scratch that: I TOTALLY understand why. Because fundamentalists insist on it; because, to fundamentalists, religion is the only thing that matters. But they are such a small percentage of our country, these fundamentalists. Why are the rest of us so quick to draw conclusions, either positive or negative, based on a one-word label? It’s not as though religion and political ideology are automatically correlated. Members of a single church or synagogue or mosque may hold completely different political views, and often do.

It’s true that religion may inform a person’s politics. I won’t deny that. But it’s equally true that a person’s politics may be informed by ethnicity, geography, class, experience, upbringing and dozens of other factors. To connect religious beliefs and political opinions as though they are interlaced strands of DNA is misguided at best. And yet religion is used to garner political support all the time. And often, as in Romney’s case, it’s used to garner opposition, too.

A 2011 Survey of American Values by the Public Religion Research Institute found that two-thirds of voters thought it very important or somewhat important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. Fifty percent (half!) of Democratic voters reported feeling at least somewhat uncomfortable with a Mormon serving as president — compared to 36 pecent of Republican voters and 38 percent of Independent voters.)

Why is that?

Is it because we voters assume politicians are more likely to make decisions we like if they are similar to us religiously?

Is it because we fear politicians will use their positions to push their religion onto the American public?

Or is it because religion is an easy target? Hey, I oppose Romney anyway; I might as well play the Mormon card.

It just doesn't add up. Look at a candidate's voting record. Study the candidate's ideas and goals. See how the candidate reacts under pressure. Look for evidence of bad moral character: cheating, lying, secrecy. Make sure the candidate doesn't pander to special interest groups you oppose. All of these things are relevant. How and whether a person prays, and to whom? Not so much.

One of the most conservative people I’ve ever met is an atheist. One of the most liberal is a Catholic. And one of the nicest? A Mormon.

The fact is that when you distrust people from other religions simply because they identify as such, you are proving that either you don’t understand much about that religion, or you don’t understand that religious people can be religious in different ways. As an atheist myself, I can tell you that I identify more often with open-minded Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hinduus — not to mention Buddhists — than I do with militant atheists intent on eradicating religion.

I don’t claim to be the poster child for tolerance. I have struggled with my biases in the past, and still do sometimes. (Don’t even get me started on Scientology.) But the more I write about religion, and lack of religion, the more I realize that tolerance is an umbrella we need to be carrying at all times.

You never know when you're going to need it.