Last week some evangelical students at Liberty University protested their school’s invitation of presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as its annual commencement speaker. As McKay Coppins wrote for BuzzFeed, Liberty still offers a “cults” class that teaches evangelical students how to correct the errors of religions like Mormonism, Christian Science, and Seventh Day Adventism. Liberty’s students, like evangelical Christian conservatives around the country, are trying to reconcile the fears they have traditionally had about Mormonism with the greater fear that President Obama will be elected for another four years.
As evangelicals brace for the unthinkable—voting for a Mormon—a new book by Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw can ease their cognitive dissonance. Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals is written by an evangelical for fellow evangelicals, though I expect many Mormons will read it too. You can check here for a great article about Mouw in the Salt Lake Tribune. It is a generous and thoughtful contribution to an evolving dialogue.
For over a decade Mouw has been involved in in-depth conversations that bring Mormon and evangelical scholars together regularly for frank theological discussion. I know several people (on both sides) of this group, and I’ve been impressed not only by the books that have emerged from their discussions but also by the greater fruit of their mutual friendship. These are people, Mouw says, who pray with and for each other. No matter how much he may disagree with his Mormon colleagues about extrabiblical scripture or the Trinity, he does not doubt their sincerity as Christians whose lives have been transformed by the power of Jesus. And they do not doubt his.
Mouw is a devout Calvinist, which means that even among evangelicals he has a particular theological perspective that many do not share. I was quietly delighted to see that although he quotes liberally from Calvin, Charles Hodge, Charles Spurgeon, Abraham Kuyper, et. al., he does not do so to bludgeon readers with the One True Theology he has found in the Reformed tradition. Rather, he quotes them because they are his best lens for understanding the world—and the other, sometimes quite different, Christian traditions that world contains. So we read of how Charles Hodge deeply respected Friedrich Schleiermacher despite their radical theological differences, or how Charles Spurgeon found himself practically cheering in a “Romish” mass he attended on a trip to Europe. The message here is that deeply cherished Christian convictions can sometimes – often – be found in the writings and teachings of those with whom we disagree.
Mouw chides his fellow evangelicals for several ongoing “countercult” strategies that have been used to discredit Mormonism—and sometimes, to discredit Mormons themselves. These include:
- The search for a historical “smoking gun.” Because Mormonism is “a religion that rests on some very specific (and spectacular!) historical claims,” evangelicals have been right to probe into the religion’s origins. However, Mouw says that evangelical detractors have not kept up with Mormon apologists; the evangelicals continue to level the same accusations as if they were news and seem wholly unaware of a body of LDS scholarship that addresses those issues. Although Mouw has not always found the LDS answers to be compelling, “the Mormon thinkers have at least succeeded in showing that the situation is more complex than would appear from the evangelical critiques.”
- Doctrinal checklists. Many evangelicals have criticized Mormonism for not accepting the Trinity or the creeds. But Mouw says that these same critics don’t often take the time to understand why Mormons reject these traditional elements of creedal Christianity, and what is being offered as an alternative.
- Demonizing. The countercultists sometimes take the additional step of not just rejecting Mormon belief as heresy but condemning it as Satanic. Mouw expresses deep caution about anyone ever doing this, quoting the marvelous G.K. Chesterton as saying, “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils.”
- False teachings, not false teachers. This is deeply intertwined with the demonization problem, as critics “feel justified in using any method we can latch on to in order to destroy the enemy.” Mouw notes that there’s something very ironic about an approach that sanctions half-truths and even outright lies to challenge another religion. “If in our attempts to defeat them we play fast and loose with the truth, by attributing to them things that they don’t in fact teach, and if we don’t really care whether we have it exactly right or not, then we have become false teachers.”
- Killing a bluebird. This phrase comes from a story in Mouw’s book about someone who was trying to shoot scavenger birds on his property, birds that often attacked his beloved bluebirds. However, he came to realize that in his haste to be rid of the enemy he had brought down a bluebird himself. “We must be rigorous in making sure we’ve discerned the truth” before we go on the attack, Mouw advises.
I’m sure that Mouw will take heat for this book’s insistence on respect and restraint. He already has – he tells some stories about how fellow evangelicals have attacked him for becoming friends with Mormons. And as of today, the only review posted on Amazon was from someone who openly admitted to not reading the book but felt free to give it only one star: "This man claims to know what a cult is but does not even recognise one that has been put right in front of his face!!!"
Sigh. Way to put the "jerk" in "knee-jerk reaction."
Probably to default anti-Mormon critics like that one, the book’s most controversial claim is that evangelicals need to stop calling Mormonism a cult. Cults, Mouw says, lack two things that Mormonism has in spades: a robust internal dialogue and a world-class university.
As an independent blogger who is occasionally reprimanded my fellow Mormons for my allegedly liberal views, I’ll be sure to point to Mouw’s statement about robust internal dialogue the next time someone insinuates that when the prophet speaks the thinking has been done. That’s a comment I’ve received a number of times about my enthusiastic support for same-sex marriage. I am bringing down the church from the inside, these people say. Not so, I will reply. I am merely helping evangelicals to see that Mormonism is not a cult of the party line!
I hope this book gets a wide audience. I also hope that if it’s revised and expanded in a later edition, Mouw sees fit to quote some women scholars, because apart from Jan Shipps there are none cited in the entire book. It is a sad commentary on Mormon-evangelical dialogue when one thing that both groups have in common is the conspicuous absence of female and minority voices.
That quibble aside, this little book is a shining example of what can happen when two devout religious groups sit down and actually listen to each other. They may not be so very far apart after all.
The image of the Salt Lake City LDS temple is used with permission of Shutterstock.com.