An Arkansas court has sort of declared that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not qualify as a “protestant” faith. The case in particular comes down to an agreement in the divorce that the children should be raised within the protestant faith. When the father started advocating the LDS Church, the mother took him to court. The court found that the contract was valid and enforceable and it was applicable to this case.

The latter part of the ruling isn’t hugely controversial since the LDS Church itself does not consider itself protestant. It does complicate the notion that Christianity primarily divides into two camps, Catholic and Protestant. Some would argue that the distinction still exists because Mormons (and any other groups) that don’t fall into one of those two categories aren’t actually Christian. Many of these people would use the LDS as an example of this. Others might use the Unity Church, which is vaguely Christian but becomes less so the more you scratch beneath the surface, or the Unitarian-Universalist Church, which used to be Christian but has become less so as time has rolled on. What makes the LDS different from the Uniteers and Unitarians, though, is that while the latter have beliefs that are somewhat vague, new-agey, and open-ended, the LDS is none of these things. Another example of a church of what some would call dubius Christianity but that nonetheless sees itself as Christian are Pentacostals, who are denied the right to call themselves Christians by some because they reject the concept of the Trinity but who are generally (moreso than LDS) considered Christian. Also along these lines are Christian Scientists.

The court case itself needn’t have been decided on theological grounds. The question in the divorce settlement was not whether in the spiritual sense the LDS Church is theologically protestant but more whether the parents, when they signed the agreement, both believed that it was. Only if there was no consensus on the issue do you start asking questions of theology and church history. Since generally neither Mormons nor Protestants consider Mormons to be Protestants that’s an easier question to answer than it would be whether the agreement had said Christian rather than Protestant.

Whether Mormons are in fact Christians is a subject of debate at least within the Christian community. By and large the answer is that they are not and Mormonism is a separate Abrahamic religion that shares much in common with Christianity (as Christianity does with Judaism) without actually being a part of it. On the other hand, Mormons project themselves as being Christian and publicly emphasize the similarities with the general Christian community rather than the differences. On the other hand, when I was in Deseret, the general view seemed to be that these were two different groups rather than being a part of a single community. On the other hand, you get the same sort of things in Catholic areas even though there isn’t much (some, but not much) debate that both fall under the Christian label.

The question does naturally arise as to whether or not self-identification is (a) valid and (b) determinative. Can Mormons be Christians just by saying they are? I would say that they cannot. But they have more than just self-identification to go on. Jesus is a substantial figure in their teachings and the stuff that was added on in the end is positioned as a continuation Christ’s teachings and legacy. One may think that the uniquely Mormon beliefs of what came after Jesus and the Bible are false, but believing something that is incorrect does not get you kicked out of the Christian community in any helpful use of the term. Sure, a lot of denominations think that they are the only ones to get it right (comes with the territory!) and some that they are the only True Christianity and that the others preach False Christianity, but we’re still debating True and False Christianity and brands of Christianity rather than Christianity vs Something Else.

Even using more than self-identification, though, a lot of dubious groups could get themselves under the Christian Tent by the methodology that the Mormons would use. Members of the Unification Church believe that their guy is merely a continuation of the Christian story (and the Muslim Story, and the Buddhist Story, and on and on). Even the Branch Davidians fall into this category.

I don’t see any easy answers to these questions. The easiest answer may be that the courts should never be put in the position of having to decipher theology. I think that this is generally true. I’m not sure that I agree with the court’s ruling that the agreement was valid. It could be on the basis that one parent explaining his or her religion necessarily involves the other spending an eternity in Hell and that could cause trouble or maybe on the basis that it could simply be jarring to a child to hear alternating explanations of our existence and of the supernatural depending on what parent the kid is with.

Maybe it’s because I was raised in the staid Episcopal Church and I was not raised to believe with absolute conviction everything that the Bible or our church leaders say, but I’m not entirely convinced that the children couldn’t process multiple explanations of our existence and whatnot. I’m inherently skeptical of religious systems that are fearful of people being taught alternative religious systems. Children alternating between churches until they can decide which one is right for them is not a thought that particularly troubles me. Naturally, I would be a little concerned that they might make the wrong choice, but I’m inherently uncomfortable with blocking them from coming to that conclusion by depriving them access to contradictory information. I guess this is why I am not a particularly good Believer even if I do believe in believing in God and I do not think that all religions are created equal in thought or in action.

Category: Church

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8 Responses to Court Finds Mormons Are Not Protestants

  1. Peter says:

    It may be time for the very term “Christian” to be replaced or supplemented by something else. Over the last couple of decades the more fundamentalist/evangelical Protestant denominations have more or less co-opted the term, to the point that it doesn’t sound right to call a Catholic or an Episcopalian or a Methodist a “Christian” any longer.

  2. Willard Lake says:

    Aye. “Christian”, in the media, nearly exclusively means that born-again, American-minimalist religion that states uttering a single paragraph is all that is necessary for salvation.

    As for me and my house (yes, I’m quoting Joshua), we consider ourselves Christian, definitely, but not protestant. Protestants are reformers, members of other religions before breaking off and creating one of their own, based, largely, on the belief system of the previous, but with enough tweaks to make it its own beast.

    As ole’ Joe Smith wasn’t a member of a church before his visitations, translations, and ordinations, the LDS Church should not be considered in the Protestant vein.

    They have more in common with Catholicism, in that they believe that the power and authority required to act in the name of God rests solely in them (Cathloics through Peter, and the LDS through Peter, James, and John returning to ordain Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery).

    So I would agree with Will Truman is stating “Mormons” are not Protestants, but are Christians, and are as distinct from “main-stream” Christianity as are Cathloics.

  3. Webmaster says:

    “Protestant” generally includes only those denominations that are descended from certain “protest” schisms in the middle ages.

    Lutheran denominations qualify. Anglican/Episcopalian is somewhat debatable; Episcopalian churches in the US behave a lot more like “Protestant” churches than the Anglican church in England does (I’d be more likely to lump the English Anglicans in with the “Orthodox” label along with the Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, etc).

    The Mormons are particularly weird in that you can’t really call them “Orthodox” (what with the extra books and all and some other weird behavior) but they definitely do not fit the definition of “Protestant” that most people would use for the term.


    Regarding the use of the term “Christian”, that’s precisely what some particularly hateful flavors of Protestantism (Baptists in particular) have tried over the years to do; redefine “Christian” to justify poor behavior towards others such as Catholics because “well they’re not really Christian because (they have extra books, they “worship Mary and the saints”, they “allow graven images”, they allow drinking/dancing, etc etc.)”

    If anything, it’s time to give these particular denominations a metaphorical slap upside the head and tell them to behave themselves.

  4. Gannon says:

    This comment was moderated because it was off topic. Gannon, please limit your discussion of Age of Consent laws to those where it is relevant. — Webmaster

  5. Abel says:

    It does complicate the notion that Christianity primarily divides into two camps, Catholic and Protestant.

    What about the (Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, etc.) Orthadox Church? Not quite Catholic, not quite Protestants.

    I also echo Willard’s comments.

  6. trumwill says:

    Web and Abel,
    I could have sworn that I specifically addressed Orthodox, but I must have deleted what I wrote. I agree with the sentiment that they complicate the Catholic/Protestant dichotomy.

    I think that the media does a fair job of sorting it out, with the more… enthusiastic of the Christians simply being called Evangelical and differentiating them from Mainline Protestants.

    I was raised to believe that the Episcopal Church was Protestant. It was only later when I was looking at different churches trying to find my spiritual home that I noticed how dissimilar it was from other Protestant churches compared to the Catholic Church.

  7. Webmaster says:

    As far as I am concerned, “Catholic/Protestant” is a false dichotomy inasmuch as it raises false assumptions on the behavior of a church and what the feel of its worship are likely to be.

    I generally feel things fall into a few categories (admittedly this is starting from a Christian perspective and you could probably quite easily rewrite the list from another perspective):

    #1 – Orthodox. Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Polish Orthodox, Anglican-Episcopalian (and some but not all US-Episcopalian). General tenor of separation: usually based on some warring conflict between “New Pope” and “Pope Classic” and whether they should be seated in Rome or Constantinople or Buckingham Palace or somewhere else…

    #2 – Protestant. A lot more dogmatic difference and generally a generic sense of “us vs the Catholics” mentality. Runs the gamut from extreme rejection of all “ritual” worship (Quakers) to minor rejection (Lutherans, who are very similar but differ on more key points such as how the priesthood is ordained, what the status on saints is, what the sacraments are, or to the US-Episcopalians who are a lot more freeform than Anglicans, etc).

    #3 – Mormons. I put Mormons in their own listing because they share the cult-of-personality quirks with the “Fringe” groups, along with some very strange behavior (secrecy/insularity about certain practices, adding-on of extra books of scripture), but their worship mentality and setup generally falls more in line with an Orthodox-style church than Protestantism or the vast majority of Fringe groups.

    #4 – Fringe. In this area you’ll find Unitarians, Racist Churches (e.g. Obama’s now-former church), “Christian Dominionism”/Assembly of God, “International Church of Christ” and their associated cultish “Campus Crusade for Christ”, and other “Non-Denominational” mega-televangelist type churches that exist largely on a Cult of Personality surrounding their pastor.

    #5 – Nonchristians who claim “ties” to Christianity. Messianic Judaism, Islam, etc. Islam is uniquely weird in that they try to co-opt Jesus, Abraham, etc. while at the same time keeping none of the words of same as any part of their collective scripture.

    #6 – Nonchristians who *don’t* claim “ties” to Christianity. Pagans, Wiccans, Naturalists, Atheists, Agnostics, $cientologists (though the cult of $cientology certainly tries to make itself look, visually, as if it were Christian), Buddhists, Shinto, Marxists/Stalinists/Trotskyists, and anything else I missed.

  8. Barry says:

    I live in a particularly religious (i.e. Protestant, i.e. Baptist) part of the country, so I read with surprise Peter’s view that we have come to “the point that it doesn’t sound right to call a Catholic or an Episcopalian or a Methodist a “Christian” any longer.”

    I was born into the Baptist Church, but transferred to the Methodist Church (in thought if not officially) while in college. While I read and hear many different flavors of Christian Protestant congregations, most differ in only slight ways – usually related to the Big Two Sacraments, how we share communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper and how we perform baptism (dunking, immersion, sprinkling, etc). Other than differing views on such subjects as homosexuality, women’s role in the church, alcohol, politics, dancing and others, most Protestant denominations are more or less the same. In my area that basically includes Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Church of Christ and several NonDenoms. There are also a few large Catholic churches in town though their cultural influence is limited.

    I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it floated about that calling any of these groups “Christian” would feel wrong or inaccurate anymore. However, I can kind of see any other parts of the country (i.e. outside the Bible Belt) where that might be the popular cultural view. It’s sad though, and it means we’re not doing our job of spreading the Gospel. Or at least not spreading it correctly, out of love and fellowship – not superiority and exclusivity.

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