Answering A Call

Bob Burney claims to be an informed non-expert as he offers Mormons A Plea for Candid Truth Telling. (Funny, leaders of the LDS church are encouraging the same thing.) The charge seems simple and fair-enough – “You can believe anything you want. . . But tell the truth! If you believe it, be proud of it—don’t try to hide it.” He takes exception to church statements that seem to borrow the language of evangelicals. I would contend that there is a simple explanation for such borrowed language and it’s not so sinister as the deception he seems to infer from those statements. Basically I would ask Mr. Burney if he would expect to be more effective communicating in Moscow by speaking Russian or by speaking Cantonese.

He claims that the church has made a concerted effort to remake its image since 2002 – before which:

I remember a time when it was common for Mormons to be offended if you called them Christian.

Admittedly my public memory only goes back a couple of decades (not counting my childhood when I was blissfully unaware of much outside my immediate world), but that is well before 2002 and I don’t ever recall a time when members of the church would be offended at being called Christian. A more accurate assessment of this very real effort by the LDS church to refine its public image stems from two factors. One, church leaders became aware/concerned with the fact that there were altogether too many members of the church who mistakenly identified more with Joseph Smith than with Jesus Christ. This led people outside our faith to naturally conclude that we worshiped our first prophet.

The second factor was that in 1995 Gordon B. Hinckley became our new prophet and brought with him a lifetime of experience in public affairs. Under his direction the church organization became much more media savvy and conscious of how other people perceived the church. Under his direction they used the publicity of the Olympics as a platform to correct misconceptions. With the current interest in the church stemming from Mitt Romney’s candidacy they are once again trying to make the most of the moment.

As for the specific doctrine in question – the answer given by the church to the charge that Mormons view Satan and Jesus as brothers was apparently unsatisfactory because rather than stating “Yes we do, what of it,” the response was meant to indicate that this apparently heretical idea is not inconsistent with Protestant scripture. Christ repeatedly called himself the Son of God. Isaiah says that Satan had fallen from heaven.

As far as I can tell, the idea that men can become like God is the most radical doctrine of the church (at least from an evangelical perspective – I couldn’t say about other perspectives) but members of the LDS church are not alone in thinking this. C.S. Lewis made this same statement in Mere Christianity (p. 205-6) and he had no connection with the church. (By the way, the idea is not the we make ourselves into gods or that it just comes with time, it is that God has the power and interest to make us into beings like Himself through the Atonement of Christ. Whether you agree or not, it is not so self-aggrandizing as some people make it sound.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the leaders and other public figures in the church handle all these inquiries perfectly – they’re only human – but it would be nice if all the theological pundits out there could ascribe less-than-sinister motives to their every effort.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.

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7 Responses to Answering A Call

  1. Primrose says:

    Mr. Bob Burney isn’t as perceptive as he thinks he is. My memory goes back more than 25 years longer than yours does, so let me say as you do, that there never was a time we were offended at being called “Christian.” Years ago, we differentiated ourselves as “not Protestant.” Our church was not a break off, but a restoration. We were not and still are not Protestant. We always have been Christian, and proud of it.

    I believe if our friend Mr. Burney could put things back into proper context and get the timing right, he would see that the document “the Living Christ” came before the evangelical movement which declared that we were not Christian. It came by inspiration from the Savior and not in response to anything Mr. Burney could have been aware of.

  2. David says:

    That’s a good distinction – I do remember hearing church members making that argument when I was younger. I seem to remember The Living Christ as coming in advance of the Baptist convention that was held in Salt Lake City.

  3. I think Mormons have always viewed themselves as “real Christians” or “restored Christians” and that other Christians were those who had followed false Christian doctrine.

    “The Great Apostasy” by James E. Talmadge does a good job of articulating Mormon perceptions regarding other Christian denominations and the source of their doctrines and authority.

    In my opinion, one of the greatest challenges to Mormonism has always been the lack of evidence for any early Christian religion resembling Mormonism. But that may be for a post on my own blog.

  4. David says:

    Then you can see why it would be disappointing for someone to claim that Mormons used to get offended if they were called Christian.

  5. The point they should’ve made is that for much of it’s history, Mormons would not consider themselves as “mainstream Christians.” As the religion has aged, Mormons have toned down their rhetoric somewhat. This quote from Brigham Young is telling:

    “With a regard to true theology, a more ignorant people never lived than the present so-called Christian world.”
    – Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 8:199

    A more recent quote still has some of that 19th Century fervor:

    “This is not just another Church. This is not just one of a family of Christian churches. This is the Church and kingdom of God, the only true Church upon the face of the earth…”
    – Prophet Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p.164-165

    I think it depends upon the paradigm through which you view this religious divide. Saying you are NOT LIKE them on the one hand, but that you ARE LIKE them on the other sends mixed signals. Mitt is in the precarious position of taking the later stance while the church continues to take the prior. Both Mormons and Christians see it through their own prism and have difficulty understanding where the other is coming from.

  6. Primrose says:

    I thought Mitt was saying that we all love god and worship in our own way. I guess that’s too subtle – We are like you in that we love god. We are all good people who want the best for our families. We are different in our understanding of god but not different in our values. I don’t see the mixed message.

    Is there some where a collection of quotes by other Christians or non Christians collected at the time period of Brigham Young or Ezra Taft Benson so we could get those two quotes into context? Maybe they wouldn’t seem so outrages.

    I wonder what Brigham Young should have said about people who believed that he locked his wives in the Salt Lake temple and the only way they could escape was by jumping out the window into the Great Salt Lake. What should he have said about people who believe that “Mormons” have horns? “Ignorant” seems like a good word to use.

    Benson faced a much different time and a different set of ideas. Not to mention that Benson is a much different man than Young.

  7. David says:

    Obi wan,

    Well said. It is difficult to get the balance right of a message like “We are like you/them, but not just like you/them.” It’s difficult for the church, its’ difficult for Mitt, and it’s difficult for any individual.


    You suggest and interesting challenge. Finding statements from other Christians during the time of President Benson shouldn’t be too hard, but finding such statements from the time of President Young would be a bit more tricky.

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