Today is the Feast of Transfiguration in Orthodox Christianity. In Roman Catholicism and much other historically-rooted Christianity, too. But I venture a guess that there’s no Holy Transfiguration Southern Baptist Church anywhere in the world.
I increasingly fear the Religious Right. Generalizations about Evangelicalism, which makes up the bulk of the Religious Right, are dangerous, because Evangelicals are all over the map. But here’s one that I think sticks: Evangelicalism is largely American frontier revivalism, with a fairly tenuous connection even to the great Protestant reformers. Zealous but historically untethered, a meaningful portion of the Religious Right would zestfully persecute historic Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox, if given the chance to do so. Catholic and Orthodox who go along with them are playing with fire.
I have ceased attending local “Day of Prayer” type events, however, less because they were Religious Right events than because I had difficulty at many of them recognizing the prayer as prayer rather than as preaching/posturing/politics. The earliest ones I recall, in the range of 20 years ago, embarrassed me for their un-selfconscious Evangelical Protestantism, even though they were supposed to be broadly Christian. And I was still generally Evangelical, though I was out of the mainstream in distinctively Calvinistic ways.
Although I don’t entirely agree with Paul Horwitz’s column at the New York Times, and although I think the Southern Poverty Law Center’s idea of a “hate group” is preposterous, Rick Perry’s promotion of The Response in Houston today makes me significantly less likely to support him — and memories of my bitter disappointment with Dubya already had move him down my list fairly far.
I already generalized about Evangelicals, so what the heck. Let me take on Mormons, too.
The Washington Post has one of its “Five Myths” series today, this one Five Myths About Mormonism. Written by a Mormon, it takes today’s Mormon party line by labeling as “myth” that “Mormons aren’t Christians.”
We Mormons view ourselves as Christians. Many Christian pastors and scholars, however, point to theological technicalities that disqualify us from the mainline tradition. Some evangelicals do not see us as Christians for reasons rooted in antiquated anti-Mormon prejudice. And Mormons distance ourselves from other Christians by claiming that our faith offers a “restoration” of doctrines lost to mainstream Christendom.
It’s the bland and gauzy first part of that last sentence — “Mormons distance ourselves from other Christians” — that leaves me puzzled by Mormonism’s eagerness to be accepted as unequivocally as Christian. And take note: those “theological technicalities” are the stuff of the earliest Christian Ecumenical Councils — Councils populated by Bishops who still bore in their bodies the marks of having been tortured for Christ in the persecutions so recently then ended. They had not lost any doctrines, and Mormons reject vehemently the doctrines those Holy Men defined in opposition to the heresies that had required them to assemble.
My blood boils and my gorge rises when people dismiss them as lackeys of the Emperor or suppressors of vital spiritual secrets. (Do not call today, Dan Brown. I have nothing nice to say to you.)
I respond to Mormon rejection of normative Christianity by vehemently rejecting the Book of Mormon, which even when I was Protestant struck me as absurd, within a few pages as a I tried to read it, because of its anachronistic imitation of King James English. But instead of saying unequivocally that Mormons are in no sense Christians, let me quote extensively from the late Richard John Neuhaus’ thoughts on the matter 11 years ago:
Beyond these doctrinal matters, as inestimably important as they are, one must ask what it means to be Christian if one rejects the two thousand year history of what in fact is Christianity. Christianity is inescapably doctrinal but it is more than doctrines. Were it only a set of doctrines, Christianity would have become another school of philosophy, much like other philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity is the past and present reality of the society composed of the Christian people. As is said in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” That reality encompasses doctrine, ministry, liturgy, and a rule of life. Christians disagree about precisely where that Church is to be located historically and at present, but almost all agree that it is to be identified with the Great Tradition defined by the apostolic era through at least the first four ecumenical councils, and continuing in diverse forms to the present day. That is the Christianity that LDS teaching rejects and condemns as an abomination and fraud.
Yet Mormonism is inexplicable apart from Christianity and the peculiar permutations of Protestant Christianity in nineteenth-century America. It may in this sense be viewed as a Christian derivative. It might be called a Christian heresy, except heresy is typically a deviation within the story of the Great Tradition that Mormonism rejects tout court. Or Mormonism may be viewed as a Christian apostasy. Before his death in 1844, Joseph Smith was faced with many apostasies within the Mormon ranks, and since then there have been more than a hundred schisms among those who claim to be his true heirs. Still today LDS leaders quote Smith when censuring or excommunicating critics. For instance, this from Smith: “That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that man is in the high road to apostasy.”
With respect to the real existing Christianity that is the Church, the words apply in spades to Joseph Smith. He knew, of course, that he was rejecting the Christianity of normative tradition, and he had an explanation. On the creation ex nihilo question, for instance, he declared only weeks before his death: “If you tell [critics] that God made the world out of something, they will call you a fool. But I am learned, and know more than all the world put together. The Holy Ghost does, anyhow; and he is within me, and comprehends more than all the world; and I will associate myself with him.” By definition, he could not be apostate because he spoke for God. It is an answer, of sorts.
The history of Christianity, notably since the sixteenth-century Reformation, is littered with prophets and seers who have reestablished “the true church,” usually in opposition to the allegedly false church of Rome, and then, later, in opposition to their own previously true churches. There are many thousands of such Christian groups today. Most of them claim to represent the true interpretation of the Bible. A smaller number lay claim to additional revelations by which the biblical witness must be “corrected.” One thinks, for instance, of the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. There are other similarities between Mormonism and the Unification Church, such as the emphasis on the celestial significance of marriage and family. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Gods and humans are the same species of being, but at different stages of development in a divine continuum, and the heavenly Father and Mother are the heavenly pattern, model, and example of what mortals can become through obedience to the gospel.”
Mormons have added Joseph Smith’s supposed revelations to correct the Bible, and that’s no small thing.
But Rick Perry and his friends assembled in Houston today are rooted in the same religious ferment of America’s early 19th Century that birthed Mormonism. Having added no supposed revelations to correct the Bible, they nevertheless claim, against Christian history in many instances, to represent the true interpretation of the Bible. In this, they are at best untethered from Christian history, which for them pauses at the last verse of Revelation, flickers on the radar with St. Augustine, and sort of resumes a bit with Martin Luther. It really hits its stride with John Nelson Darby, Dwight L. Moody and the Azusa Street frenzies.
They have, thank God, stood on the shoulders of the Martyrs and Confessors of the faith who populated the first and second Ecumenical Councils. They even will unwittingly hang with Christian history through the Council of Chalcedon (the 4th Council). But they think they got these doctrines from the Bible, which is implausible; they plagiarized them from those who took them, with or without grateful acknowledgement, from historic Christianity.
Which “they,” out of Neuhaus’ “many thousands of … Christian groups,” have the “true interpretation” beyond the Council of Chalcedon is a question that will be assiduously elided today in Houston, as the assembled faithful bask in the glow of more-or-less common feelings (what Ken Myers called “orthopathos” in contrast to “orthodoxy“) and political purpose.
So in the end, the LDS faith of Romney and Huntsman is a political stumbling block for me more only slightly larger than the chest-thumping Evangelicalism of Rick Perry. I’m enthusiastic about none of them, but don’t have any more orthodox political choices I know of.
Thank God politics ain’t all there is to life. Off to Liturgy!