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Fundamentalists, Mormons and the "Christian" Question

Posted: 10/11/11 12:18 PM ET

I must have seen the expression a hundred times, a look of utter, bewildered incomprehension when someone even raises the question of whether or not Mormons are really Christians. Why of course we're Christians, is the standard response. We are, after all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The wounded and befuddled Mormon might even add that the prophet Joseph Smith Jr. was visited by God the Father and Jesus the Son back in Palmyra, New York, in 1820. So, yes, we're Christians. How could you even suggest otherwise?

I've witnessed some variation of this exchange so many times that I'm convinced the wounded reaction on the part of Mormons is sincere. A Mormon honestly cannot understand how anyone could question whether he or she was a Christian.

But the question has surfaced once again, this time publicly and with a vengeance, because of the candidacies of Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. Most recently, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, told a reporter that Romney "is not a Christian" and characterized Mormonism as a "cult."

I have no brief for Jeffress, whose politics I despise as inimical to the Christian and, in particular, evangelical values that I honor. And the fact that he can dispense such zingers wearing his trademark treacly smile disposes me to like him even less. But it's important also to understand the context of the fundamentalism he represents.

For Jeffress and for millions of other fundamentalists, the word "Christian" is a specialized term reserved only to those who hold certain beliefs. Having grown up fundamentalist, I spent the first two-plus decades of my life convinced that Roman Catholics were not Christians - because they were not fundamentalists.

The preface to my book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory recounts the rainy day in my childhood when I finally mustered the courage to "witness" to Stanley, my next-door neighbor and playmate. "Stanley," I began, my voice quavering, "are you a Christian?" When he replied in the affirmative, I was sure he was lying. Stanley was Roman Catholic.

Although they tend to be less vocal about the matter, at least publicly, fundamentalists also begrudge the label "Christian" to anyone who is not an evangelical, including mainline Protestants. So it should come as no surprise that Jeffress would consider Mormons non-Christians. (The label "cult," however, is another matter. Although fundamentalists like to sling the word about rather freely, I generally think it's inadvisable because the word is invariably pejorative. I've yet to meet anyone who said, "Yes, I'm a member of a cult!")

All of this begs the larger, normative question about whether Mormonism is indeed "Christian." My friend Jan Shipps, for example, a devout Methodist who knows more about Mormons than any "gentile" (non-Mormon, in Mormon parlance) on the planet, insists that, yes, Mormons are Christians.

Although I know many Mormons and admire their faith, I think the answer to that question might be a bit more complicated. Here's why.

Although Mormons themselves don't go much for creeds, one of the formative creeds in Christian orthodoxy is the Nicene Creed, which includes the following affirmation: "We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins." Christian groups, then, generally regard baptism as universal. If I wanted to become, say, Roman Catholic, I would not be required to repeat my baptism; I would simply be "received" into the Roman Catholic Church.

Not so with Mormonism. If I converted to Mormonism, I would have to be baptized a second time as a Mormon by Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the Nicene Creed's reference to "one baptism," does not recognize as legitimate my baptism in the Evangelical Free Church of Bay City, Michigan.

I'm not enough of a theologian to rule on whether or not Mormonism's teaching on baptism disqualifies it from using the term "Christian." At the very least, however, that teaching renders the wounded look in the eye just a tad disingenuous. If Mormons want to be considered Christians, why don't they in turn acknowledge without prejudice the Christianity of, say, Methodists or Presbyterians or Episcopalians or Roman Catholics?

As for Jeffress, he's entitled to his views, of course. But one of the changes I've noticed in fundamentalism over the past three or four decades is that it's no longer acceptable publicly to criticize Roman Catholics as "non-Christians," even though most fundamentalists, in their heart of hearts, continue to believe it. We can only hope that the same reticence will, in the not-too-distant future, apply to Mormons.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University. He is the author of a dozen books, including "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush."