Scandal: Mormons Think Their Church is True!

Another in an ongoing series of RomneyExperience rebuttals, responding to attacks that were made at the beginning of the ’08 campaign. Other in this series may be viewed here.

Democratic political strategist Garry South wrote an article for Politico.com this past April under the title “Ask Romney About Mormonism’s Intolerance.” The column made the central claim that Mormons believe their Church to be true, and all other Christian churches to be false. Indeed, alleges South, while every other Christian church accepts baptisms performed by other denominations, Mormons do not accept any baptism not performed by a person ordained to the Mormon Priesthood. Mr. South argues at the close that Mitt Romney ought to be questioned about the intolerance of his faith, since South’s former employer, Joe Lieberman, was subjected to some inane questions too.

Are you still waiting for me to explain what the “Intolerance” in the title refers to? Well, we’ve covered it. That’s right, the intolerance of Mormonism is that it purports to be true and correct, with the necessary implication being that other denominations are less true and correct. Or, as Joshua Trevino rather drolly pointed out in his recent NRO column (discussed here), “[c]ompounding its alien status in secular eyes is Mormonism’s peculiar insistence on publicly believing in itself and its tenets, and furthermore proselytizing by virtue of that belief.”

Is it true that Mormonism believes itself to be true, to the exclusion of other faiths? The answer is a qualified yes, depending on what you mean by true. When Mormons describe their Church and the true church they mean something specific by the claim. That is, Mormons believe that the LDS Church is the true Church of Christ by virtue of the (1) direct authority, or “Priesthood,” they believe it has received from God, and (2) the continuing guidance or revelation they believe Christ bestows on the Church. These two beliefs are the basis for the exclusivity of truth in Mormon claims.

Authority is an important part of Mormon doctrine, going back to Joseph Smith. Mr. South is correct in his statement that Mormons believe no authority to organize a church in the name of Christ existed during the long span between the death of Christ’s original followers (or a few generations removed) to Joseph Smith. In Mormon belief, Joseph Smith was called to “restore” the gospel, meaning that through him, God restored to men the authority to act in his name. Thus, it is correct to say that Mormons believe that no other church is empowered to act specifically in God’s name or to perform divine ordinances (like the one Mr. South focuses on, baptism).

And yet, in a larger sense, Mr. South treats Mormon ecumenism unfairly. While Mormons see their own church’s importance in its possession of divine authority, they still recognize the great contribution and piety of other denominations. For example, Mr. South’s claim that Mormons see the contribution of the great reformers- men like Luther, Zwingli and Hus- as “null and void” is simply incorrect. Mormons look to these men as inspired, and acting for God’s purposes, though they do not believe they received direct authority to act in his name. Here is the President of the LDS Church, speaking in 1999 on his view of the reformers:

Reformers worked to change the church, notably such men as Luther, Melanchthon, Hus, Zwingli, and Tyndale. These were men of great courage, some of whom suffered cruel deaths because of their beliefs. Protestantism was born with its cry for reformation. When that reformation was not realized, the reformers organized churches of their own. They did so without priesthood authority. Their one desire was to find a niche in which they might worship God as they felt He should be worshiped.

Other leaders of the Church have emphasized that these were noble, heroic, and inspired men who God employed to bring about religious change in the world. See this talk by Mormon Apostle Robert D. Hales for a recent example of this open-mindedness in Mormon teaching.

Beyond respect for other Christians, however, the LDS Church also believes that other churches are filled with truth. While Mormons believe that their church holds a unique position in its ability to receive the revealed will of God directly, they recognize great faithfulness and wisdom in the teachings of all of Christianity. Given that huge swaths of Mormon beliefs are identical to those of Christianity, this is unsurprising.

Furthermore, while it is correct that Mormons do not accept the baptisms of other denominations, this is not such a rare thing as Mr. South imagines. For instance, the Catholic Church does not accept Mormon baptism, despite the orthodoxy of the ritual itself. What this shows is not “intolerance” as Mr. South puts it, but a disagreement over authority. The Catholics do not believe Mormons are authorized to baptize in God’s name, and the Mormons feel the same way toward the Catholics. Indeed, the Catholic Church has recently broadened its claims of exclusivity, having released a statement declaring that even mainstream Christian churches are not authorized parts of the body of Christ. It will be interesting to see whether Rudy Giuliani and Sam Brownback are questioned about their church’s “intolerance” in the wake of this news. They likely won’t be, and justifiably so.

But despite the differences in doctrine, the Mormon and Catholic Churches seem to get along fairly well, as do their members. Indeed, Mormons tend to have good relationships with all Christians, barring perhaps those who spend their time trying to tear down Mormonism. This illustrates how warped Mr. South’s interpretation of the word “ecumenism” is. That concept does not suggest a complete agreement over doctrine and practice. Rather, it stands for the idea that Christian churches ought to be unified on those points on which they agree, and should be respectful and charitable on those issues where there is no agreement.

Perhaps the most startling weakness in Mr. South’s argument is the glaring omission of mainstream Christianity’s approach to Mormonism. Unsurprisingly, most mainline and evangelical Christians think that Mormonism is misguided. In fact, a substantial number of evangelicals believe that Mormons are destined for Hell.* Is this intolerance, or is it simply the nature of religion?

Mitt Romney’s belief in his faith is no different from that of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, or Mike Huckabee. Each of these men belong to churches that have some claim of exclusivity. In today’s America, it is no rare thing for a religion to believe it has something others do not, with that “thing” often being the authority to act or speak for God. The idea that this belief is intolerant would result in nearly every Christian church deserving the label.

Thus, it makes no sense to single out Mitt Romney as uniquely intolerant because he holds truth claims that draw boundaries, as all faiths do. Mr. South’s argument seems specifically calculated to cause trouble and drive rifts between Christians in America. This behavior comes much closer to “intolerance” than a man’s sincere but private belief that his church is true.

*It bears noting that Mormons do not hold the same belief as to other Christians. LDS doctrine holds that all who believe in and confess Christ as their Savior will be given the opportunity to be saved, depending on their acceptance of an authorized baptism. Compared to the teachings of other denominations in the Christian tradition, this is a uniquely tolerant and inclusive position.