It is a matter of ongoing, unresolved, and deeply irritating debate whether Mormons are a kind of Christians or an alternative to Christianity. Mormons sometimes believe that this debate is strictly due to either a lack of information or a presence of malice on the part of non-Mormon interlocutors. However, this is not the case. At issue is a contest of definitions — and a power struggle in which each of two competing religious camps is proposing definitions that put their rivals in the worst available strategic position.
For Latter-day Saints, the answer to whether Mormons are Christians is a simple “yes.” The root of the Mormon argument is that Christians are those who believe in and worship Jesus Christ, and that the worship of Jesus Christ is central to Mormonism. This position has been advanced, in more or less sophisticated presentations, in a variety of books, a large collection of sermons in church conferences, and even a very brief episode of the podcast This Mormon Life. For Mormons, the definition of Christianity behind this argument has a scriptural basis in a Book of Mormon passage that identifies true belief in Jesus Christ as the one and only prerequisite for the label of “Christian”:
And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come. (Alma 46: 15).
However, this definition is neither authoritative for nor generally acceptable to our informed non-Mormon interlocutors. Indeed, there are even reasons for Mormons to want to place additional qualifications on the bounds of Christianity, since this definition (when applied with suitable flexibility, so that “true” can be read as something like “sincere” rather than “in the correct church”) includes not only Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and a wide variety of Christian New Religious Movements, but also many varieties of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and members of other religious traditions that permit or teach belief in Jesus Christ as a true prophet, an incarnation of some deity, or one God in a large pantheon. So some other definitional traits are probably required if our definition of Christianity is to distinguish even between those who claim the label for themselves and those who do not.
Christians who would deny that Mormons are also Christian would typically suggest that the necessary conceptual clarity can be found in the early Christian creeds, particularly the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. These creeds were originally formulated in part as a way of distinguishing what participants in the councils wished to define as legitimate Christianity from the many variants of the early years — particularly those more mystical variants that early church fathers derided as gnostic. So there is a long tradition of regarding assent to these creeds as the litmus test of Christianity. Our interlocutors are not inventing post hoc definitional criteria to exclude Mormonism from the Christian camp; rather, they are using post hoc criteria invented millennia ago to exclude quite different religious ideas from the Christian community.
It appears to me that, if we go to the trouble of understanding what Catholics, Protestants, and so forth mean by the words in these creeds, Mormons can easily assent to the large majority of the theological claims that they make. However, our basic posture toward these creeds has been one of rejection and sometimes even ridicule, rather than one of understanding and partial or substantial agreement. Our scriptures describe the creeds as “an abomination,” and our leaders not infrequently characterize these texts as confusing, incomprehensible, and possibly even a barrier to the development of saving faith.
So, rather than seeking genuinely available common ground with other Christians, by emphasizing the many clauses in these foundational documents that Mormons certainly do affirm, the Mormon strategy has been to draw attention to our points of difference — often mischaracterizing our interlocutors’ formal theology in the process. (For example, most Mormon rebuttals of other Christian views of the trinity are in fact rebuttals of the idea of modalism — the concept that God the Father and Jesus Christ are one person playing two different roles — which was rejected as heretical by the very church fathers who wrote the creeds. As the Athanasian Creed explains, the mainstream Christian theology of the past several centuries involves “Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.” That is, other Christian churches in theory believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate persons with one shared divine substance — with the reference to substance being an Aristotelian concept not worth going into in any depth.) Thus, it is no mistake — and it should be no surprise — that many in other Jesus-centric traditions characterize Mormons as non-Christian.
Thus, this classificatory debate is based on genuine disagreement and not mere misunderstanding. Indeed, it seems to me that “Christianity” is what the philosopher W. B. Gallie described as an essentially contested concept. In brief, an essentially contested concept is one for which all speakers recognize some core definitional meaning — in this case, adherence to the message of Jesus Christ — but for which speakers have fundamental disagreement about how to offer specific definitions of the concept or to identify real-world instances of the concept.
Gallie and others working in his tradition suggest a variety of common traits shared by all essentially contested concepts — traits that are richly present in the case of the concept of Christianity. First, the concept must be evaluative in the sense of bearing normative loading for the speech community engaged in the definitional debate. For Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, and so forth, “Christian” is obviously regarded as a morally positive thing to be, so this first criterion is met.
A second criterion is a little harder to understand: the object being evaluated must be internally complex. By this, Gallie means that the object must have many distinct facets that can be independently evaluated. Clearly, a theology meets this criterion: one might discuss its overall orientation toward worship of Jesus Christ, or the details of its formal Christology, or its conception of God the Father, or its views of scriptural canon, and so forth.
Furthermore, for a concept to be essentially contested, different participants in the debate must disagree about how important the various components of the object to be evaluated are for the concept in question. Mormons, for example, regard overall orientation toward Jesus Christ as the fundamental component of a theology for applying the concept of Christianity, while other interlocutors emphasize Christology, the broader doctrine of God, monotheism, and so forth.
These traits, in combination with a set of other, in my view somewhat less important, characteristics that also richly apply to debates over Mormon Christianity, characterize the term Christian as an essentially contested concept. Gallie argues that, when a concept is essentially contested, any usage of the concept is necessarily, and to some extent consciously, performed in opposition to competing usages. Hence, any application of the term by actors on any side of the debate is always both aggressive toward other positions and defensive against counter-characterizations. Defining the term “Christian,” or answering the question, “Are Mormons Christian” in either the affirmative or the negative, is thus a power play.
When non-Mormons characterize Mormons as non-Christian, this exercise of power is intended to marginalize Mormons in society and to reduce Mormons’ ability to proselytize. Conceptual and definitional clarity may also be at stake, but it is clearly less important than these more tangible effects of classification. When Mormons characterize themselves as Christian, one relatively anodyne goal is to claim equal status in society. Another, more aggressive goal is to seize religious high ground: if Mormonism is Christianity, then Christianity has nothing to offer that Mormonism does not also offer. Yet Mormonism manifestly offers more and different beliefs, practices, and scriptures than do its competitors. Hence, by defining itself as Christian, Mormonism becomes “Christianity plus,” while relegating other churches to a lesser status. This power play is reflected in Gordon B. Hinckley’s often-cited invitation for Christian believers to come to the Mormons, bring their Christian faith and knowledge, and discover what we can add to it.
There is thus no answer to the problem of Mormon Christianity that is neutral, or self-evident, or free of strategic implications for social position and proselytizing efforts. Debates over this classification reflect genuine disagreements about definitions, but also the exercise of social power. As such, while we may want to continue to use our own preferred definition, we should recognize that those who use other definitions are not merely wrong and that the debate will probably not be resolved easily or soon.