In recent months, the controversy over Mormonism’s Christian character (or lack thereof) has shouldered its way to the foreground of presidential politics.
One Mormon — Mitt Romney — has claimed the lead in the race to secure the Republican nomination. Another Mormon in the race — Jon Huntsman — has impressed everyone by not being ridiculous.
Last fall, as Rick Perry saw his popularity ebb dramatically, some of his supporters — including Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress — played the “Christian card” as a way of reminding Christian voters that Romney, in their view, is not.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe Mormons aren’t Christians. As a Mormon myself, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), it’s possible I’m not qualified to judge.
But let me suggest that the stone-throwing of the Christian far right might be aimed at the wrong window. There is no single, comprehensive Mormon religion to which all Mormons subscribe.
In fact, there are hundreds of separate Mormon institutions, each sharing a history, but each promoting different beliefs and practices. Outsiders don’t seem to appreciate this, and Mormons themselves often try very hard to deny it.
Yes, the LDS church abandoned polygamy over a century ago. But Warren Jeffs is currently in prison because the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still promotes polygamy as an essential Mormon practice. As despicable as Jeffs’ crimes may be, he has a legitimate claim to his Mormon heritage. But Jeffs does not make Mitt Romney nor your Mormon neighbor a polygamist.
The LDS church ordains only men, and has, in recent years, committed resources to supporting California’s Proposition 8 and other measures opposing the legalization of gay marriage. But the Community of Christ, a Mormon church based in Missouri, ordains women and has made comparatively liberal moves to legitimize the participation of gay members.
Even within discrete Mormon institutions, one finds great variations of belief and practice. For instance, conservative Republican Romney and liberal Democrat Harry Reid are both LDS-Mormons.
Just as there are different Christianities (Lutherans, for instance, are not Catholics), different Judaisms, different Islams, and so forth, there are different Mormonisms. Failing to acknowledge and to distinguish between the various Mormonisms, as Mormons themselves often fail to do, sustains the preposterous, Jeffress-style fear of all Mormons as wild-eyed, ratty-bearded sociopaths.
Our country’s healthy religious pluralism is undermined by petty exclusivity. The smug assertion that Mormons aren’t real Christians forms the foundation of a frightfully imperious ideology.
Surely, in the 21st century, with all of the hyphenations we have accommodated, we have learned ways to distinguish between people without denying them the identities they feel are their own.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College, and teaches Mormonism in America at the Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: A Primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, Alike.” He also writes the “My Mormonism” blog at whosemormonism.blogspot.com.