The painful clash of evangelicalism and MormonismBy Tom Airey
Growing up in the world of Orange County (Calif.) fundamentalist-evangelicalism, I quickly learned that “cult” was synonymous with “Mormon.” Virtually every evangelical Christian I have ever met believes that Mormonism is not a legitimate brand of Christianity. Of course, much of this is understandable considering that Mormons have added sacred texts to the Bible and have divergent views on Christology, the Trinity and the “requirements” of salvation. But this evangelical brand of hostility toward Mormonism has always had a unique quality that is, today, more relevant than ever.
The New York Times has published a significant piece from J. Spencer Fluhman, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University. Fluhman exposes the hypocrisy of historic anti-Mormon sentiment coming from evangelical circles:
“In the 19th century, antagonists charged that Mormon men were tyrannical patriarchs, that Mormon women were virtual slaves and that Mormons diabolically blurred church and state. These accusations all contained some truth, though the selfsame accusers denied women the vote, bolstered racist patriarchy and enthroned mainstream Protestantism as something of a state religion.”
Communicating a simple-yet-vital religious history lesson, Fluhman posits that evangelicalism’s anti-Mormonism has only gotten more intense in the past few decades:
“Embarrassed after their fight with modernists in the mid-1920s, evangelical Protestants withdrew from public engagement, built their own impressive church and educational networks, and re-emerged in the 1970s as a formidable force on the political right. The subsequent “countercult” movement within evangelicalism targeted Mormonism with gusto.”
But Fluhman is hopeful for a kinder, gentler evangelical-Mormon relationship, mostly because evangelicals “seem more concerned with Mr. Obama’s political heresies than with Mr. Romney’s religious ones.” Fluhman concludes with a hopeful-yet-realistic prediction:
“This election, regardless of outcome, unquestionably pushes the United States onto new political terrain because neither candidate represents the religious old guard. But until U.S. Americans work through our contradictory impulses regarding faith, diversity and freedom, there is no reason to believe anti-Mormonism will go away anytime soon.”
Evangelical Christianity’s historic obsession with hating on Mormonism needs to end. Not because we necessarily need to be critically “tolerant” of each and every religious option (“relativism”), but because the criticism of Mormonism coming from the powerful evangelical wing of the Body of Christ is saturated in hypocrisy.
Oh, the audacity of evangelicals to criticize Mormonism’s patriarchy while white males dominate pulpits, committees and non-profit evangelical hierarchies. And the conspicuous intertwining of racial baggage and the-lack-of-separation-of-church-and-state has haunted evangelical circles since Martin Luther King Jr. This is how Princeton University Professor Cornel West describes the evangelical political significance of the late 20th century in his book Democracy Matters (2004):
“Ironically, the powerful political presence of imperial Christians today is inspired by the success of the democratic Christian-led movement of Martin Luther King Jr. The worldly engagement of King’s civil rights movement encouraged Constantinian Christians to become more organized and to partner with the power elites of the American empire. The politicization of Christian fundamentals was a direct response to King’s prophetic Christian legacy. It began as a white backlash against King’s heritage in American public life, and it has always had a racist undercurrent — as with Bob Jones University, which until recently barred interracial dating.”
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