Everyone wants Mitt Romney to talk about Mormonism, and so far he has more or less refused. That is perhaps the wiser political course. But if it were me, I’m not so sure that I would be able to stay silent on the subject. The vacuum has left reporters with the idea that Mormonism is far removed from traditional Christianity and thoroughgoingly weird. It’s true that Mormonism is rife with theological heresy (from the perspective of most Christians), but virtually every idea percolating within it can be found somewhere within historic, traditional Christianity. So if it were me, I would have a little talk with those asking about my Mormonism, to try to help them place the faith in some context that they might understand, something like this:
Most of the Christian world is divided into three large groups: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Each has further divisions, especially Protestantism, which is particularly fragmented. The Magisterial Reformation (associated with various states) resulted in three main traditions: Lutheranism in Germany, Reformed Christianity originating in Switzerland, and the Anglican Church in England. There were also Protestant movements not affilitated with the state in any way, often referred to as the Radical Reformation, various Anabaptist sects being an example of this.
Although most Christian churches fit comfortably within one of those three large categories, not all do. There are various Christian movements that exist outside those borders. One form of such Christian profession is called “restorationism,” which came into vogue early in the 19th century. Mormonism is a restorationist church (another prominent example of a restorationist movement from the same time period is the Stone-Campbell Movement).
The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, largely as a reaction to the Second Great Awakening. Joseph lived in a time and in an area historians have referred to as the Burned-Over District, from the extensive revivalism that took place there. The young Joseph Smith was deeply troubled by the contest for converts by the various churches, and reportedly had a vision in which God told him to join none of them. He later would form his own (Christian) Church.
How do the beliefs of Mormons differ from more traditional Christians? Well, Joseph was a simple man, lacking in formal education, so he used the Bible and a belief in modern, continuing revelation as his guide. As restorationists, Mormons do not feel bound by the great ecumenical councils of the first millennium. So, for example, they do not feel bound by the definition of the Trinity that was first formally promulgated at Nicea in A.D. 325 and refined in subsequent councils. Mormons see the Greek philosophy underlying the idea that the Father and Son are homoousia, “of the same substance,” as meaningless gobbledigook. We believe in God the Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost, and that these three are one in purpose and will, but not in essence. So yes, our understanding of the Trinity is heretical, but I doubt that one in a hundred Christians you meet on the street could accurately describe the orthodox understanding of the Trinity.
We have a priesthood. We believe in succession and ordination, but ours is a lay priesthood, widely held by the men of the Church. Therefore, we’re sort of halfway between the Catholic and Protestant (with Luther’s priesthood of all believers) conceptions of priesthood.
We believe in an open canon of scripture. We accept the Bible (in its Protestant form), but we also accept certain other writings, most famously the Book of Mormon. I realize most people think the origin story of the book is untenable. But try reading it sometime. The substance of the book is a fairly straightforward Christianity expressed within the framework of a tale of ancient migration and fraternal strife. Even if Joseph simply wrote the book, there is precious little in there that a traditional Christian would find objectionable, and the pseudonymous authorship of literature we now regard as scripture is a longstanding tradition.
Most people immediately associate Mormonism with its most distinctive practices, such as its (one-time) encouragement of polygamy and temple worship. Joseph tried to restore the biblical practice of polygamy, much as the Anabaptists of Muenster did centuries ago. I realize most Christians think these things are wrong. But I would hope that, even from that perspective, one can see that Joseph Smith was trying to take the Bible seriously. Perhaps he took it a little too seriously. But that was the source of so many Mormon distinctives.
So yes, Mormonism is a heterodox form of Chirstianity, but the differences between Mormonism and more traditional Christianity are often to be found in the realm of formal theology. On a day to day basis, Mormons go to church, worship, read the Bible, pray, take communion, love their families, and serve others, just like all Christians do.