TMatt has a helpful post parsing through what people are saying when they call Mormonism a “cult” and what they mean when they say Mormonism is not Christian. The two claims are not the same thing, and TMatt, writing on the religion-and-media blog Get Religion, says political reporters trying to make sense of all this should be aware of a few things. TMatt writes, in part:

(1) The vast majority of Trinitarian Christians do not believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints is an orthodox “Christian” body of believers. This is not a belief rooted in fundamentalist Protestantism or some sort of raving bigotry (unless you want to pin that label on the Vatican, as well). It’s a statement of fact about doctrinal debates between sincere believers on both sides.

Read his whole list. I was interested to read a quote from a Southern Baptist official saying that when Southern Baptists call Mormonism a cult, they’re not using the phrase in a sociological sense, but in a precise theological sense:

“This may not be the best word and we admit that,” said Davis. “We’re using it in a technical way, trying to make it clear that we’re describing a faith that is — according to its own teachings — far outside the borders of traditional Christianity. … We’re not trying to be mean-spirited. We want to be very precise. We take doctrine very seriously and we know that the Mormons do, too.”

TMatt goes on to say:

In other words, Jewish historians would have solid grounds for referring to Trinitarian Christians as members of a “cult,” one that has radically changed the Jewish faith.

That’s a clarifying comment. I was thinking today that Jews refuse to recognize Jewish believers in Jesus Christ  who still use Jewish liturgies and cultural practices as authentically Jewish, even though they define themselves as “Messianic Jews.” That seems to me to be perfectly fair and accurate, even though Messianic Jews find it hurtful and unfair. Jews have the right, and indeed the obligation, to define who is a Jew, and who isn’t a Jew. It’s important. Now, not all Jews draw the line in the same place, but I think it’s accurate to say that almost no Jew recognizes Jews who confess Jesus of Nazareth at moshiach as authentically Jewish. They have, in Jewish eyes, gone so far from orthodox (small-o) Judaism that they cannot be understood as Jewish, even though Messianic Jews wish to be thought of as Jews.

So it is with the LDS church, in the eyes of many, many Christians — and not for reasons of spite. I can understand faithful Mormons being upset that they confess Jesus as their messiah and redeemer, but other Christians refuse to recognize them as authentically Christian. But there are some very basic theological issues that cannot be ignored.

Here’s a link to a fascinating interview PBS did a few years back with a Mormon historian (that is, a practicing Mormon who studies Mormon history), who observes that the LDS religion is radically different from the Christianity that came before it. At one point the interviewer asks the question:

Then there’s the question of are Mormons Christian? It’s a paradox; according to Mormons, perhaps the Christians aren’t Christian!

Part of the problem is insolvable because Mormons are using “Christians” in one sense; everybody else is using it in another. When Mormons say we’re Christian, [what] we mean is we believe in Christ. And we do. We believe there is no salvation outside of Christ, that he is the Son of God.

But when everybody else uses the term, what they mean is there’s this historically defined tradition that gives us definition through a set of formal creeds of Christianity, and you don’t participate in that tradition or that belief, and they’re right. So we’re talking at cross purposes.

This is so very important! Mormonism really is extremely different from traditional Christianity. In fact, one of the foundational beliefs of Mormonism is that all the other churches had gone into apostasy, and God had to raise up the LDS church to restore the truth. I suppose it could be a point of contention over whether believing that all other Christian churches are “apostate” implies that they are no longer authentically Christian; the “apostasy” entry in the authoritative LDS source Encyclopedia of Mormonism makes it pretty clear that Mormonism teaches all other churches were so far removed from the true faith that they held at best a “form of godliness,” and that God re-established the true church with Mormonism. It sounds to me like Mormons doubt whether other churches are Christian, too — as well they should, given how very, very far every other Christian church is from the True Faith that is Mormonism.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism is a great resource for learning what Mormons believe, from Mormons themselves. Here’s a link to a short, to the point, non-polemical explanation of where Mormonism diverges most basically from Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The entry on Protestantism is even shorter, but the Catholicism entry makes it clear how very far Mormonism is from basic Protestant Christianity. The Encyclopedia doesn’t deny this, either:

While Latter-day Saints share with Protestants a conviction of the importance of the scriptures, an extensive lay priesthood (but given only by the laying on of hands by those having proper priesthood authority), and the primacy of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior as the first principle of the gospel, they differ from them by affirming a centralized authority headed by a latter-day prophet and by a number of other doctrines unique to the Church, i.e. temple ordinances for the living and the dead, and the eternal nature of the marriage covenant. Despite some important differences, Latter-day Saints actually share much in doctrine, heritage, and aspiration with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Even so, they view themselves as embodying an independent Christian tradition standing on its own apart from these other traditions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a reformation of a previously existing ecclesiastical body but is instead a restoration through heavenly ministrations of authority and of truths, structures, and scriptures that God returned to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors.

Obviously the LDS church wants to have friendly relations with other churches, and I think that’s right. Other churches should want to have good relations with Mormons too. And, as I’ve said repeatedly, I think it’s ridiculous that Christians wouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon. But wanting to get along with Mormons, and saying that Mormonism should in no way be a bar to the presidency, are not the same thing as this theological controversy.

Here’s the point I’ve been trying to get to. That same PBS site has an interview with the late Gordon Hinckley, who was at the time the president of the LDS Church. Excerpt:

There are many, many people — and I’m talking about the people who are respectful of your religion, and who are knowledgeable, literate — who nonetheless question whether you are, in fact, Christian according to their definition. I’m wondering whether you can talk to the people who really are trying to understand: Can you address their concerns? What is it that people find so difficult?

I don’t know. I can’t understand it. The very name of the church is the name of Jesus Christ. Our whole message is centered around Christ. The Book of Mormon is an additional witness for Christ. Everything we do is done in the name of Christ. I don’t understand why people say we’re not Christians. That’s their right, of course. They can have their own opinion. But all that I can say is that in our terms, we worship Christ; we believe in Christ; we accept him. And he’s our savior; he’s our redeemer. He’s the Son of God; he’s the great creator; he’s the word made flesh as spoken of by John. He’s the savior of the world, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The interviewer ought to have asked a number of clarifying follow-up questions, but I’m guessing knew little or nothing about Christian theology, so didn’t know how to respond to this. Anyway, Hinckley is plainly grieved by the judgment other Christians have made on the church he leads (or rather led; he died a couple of years after this interview). You’d have to be hard-hearted not to feel his pain. His statement, though, raises a good question for other Christians: If a man affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and is the savior and redeemer, in what sense is he not a Christian? The question beneath this question is: How do we know who Jesus was?

These foundational questions were hammered out by the early Church councils in great detail, and often amid great turmoil. The only reason any contemporary Christian has any ground to judge Mormonism as too deviant from Christianity to be considered Christian is because theologians in the Church councils settled these questions for us, and most of the Christian world accepted their authoritative teaching. Mormons are polytheistic; they do not believe in the Trinity. How do the rest of us know that the doctrine of the Trinity is true? It is not explicitly in Scripture. We know this because we accept the authority of the Church councils that defined the doctrine of the Trinity — even though it took nearly four centuries to sort it out. The doctrine of the Trinity is so important that the Oxford Dictionary of Christianity describes it as “the central dogma of Christianity.”

And Mormonism explicitly rejects it. If one can reject the doctrine of the Trinity, Christianity’s central dogma, and still be within Christianity, then one has to wonder if orthodoxy (= “right belief”) has any meaning. Are self-described Messianic Jews authentically Jewish even though they affirm what normative Judaism in all its iterations explicitly denies? How is this possible?

To be sure, some fundamentalists and born-again Evangelicals deny that other churches are Christian — or at least have a very specific understanding of what it means to be a Christian. In Baptist school growing up, my wife remembers there being a couple of Catholic girls in their social group; the word on them was, “they’re Catholic, but they’re Christian.” This is so puzzling and even insulting to Catholics, who don’t understand why it’s even a question that they’re Christian. Catholics may not realize that for a certain kind of Protestant, to be a Christian means not to be a member of the church, or to affirm Christian creeds. It means to have had a specific “born-again” experience. This, from a born-again apologetics site, is standard:

Are Roman Catholics Christians? They are if they have trusted in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of their sins. However, if they believe that the are saved by God’s grace and their works, then they are not saved — even if they believe their works are done by God’s grace — since they then deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.

This is extremely odd from a historical Christian perspective. Baptism doesn’t make one a Christian. Believing in the creeds — statements of Christian orthodoxy — doesn’t make one a Christian. Adhering to a very specific theological innovation is the dividing line between real Christians and those who only think themselves Christian. Of course, by this definition above, no Catholic who understands her own faith’s teachings can truly be a Christian.

It is my impression that many (but not all!) born-again Christians believe this, or something close to it. If so, I can understand a little bit why Mormons are so puzzled by their exclusion from Christianity. If one does not have to affirm the Trinity, or anything in creedal Christianity, but one only has to trust in Jesus alone for salvation, then why are so many Evangelicals so willing to call Mormons un-Christian. Re-read Gordon Hinckley’s statement in light of that apologetics site’s definition of what makes one a Christian. Can you see why he would be confused? I can.

The one good thing that might come out of this discussion for Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, is that it might compel us to reflect on how we know what we know about who God is, and why it’s important to get orthodoxy — right belief — correct.