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November 4, 2012

Evangelical anti-Mormonism: A guide for Jews

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/evangelical_anti_mormonism_a_guide_for_jews/

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Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil
against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in
heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. – Matthew 5:11-12

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During a recent presentation on Mormonism at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, I was asked twice why Evangelicals don’t consider Mormons to be Christians and why some of them go so far as to classify the LDS Church as a cult. After suggesting that they must have a different definition of Christianity, I recommended that they ask Evangelicals why they hold those views instead of relying on me to explain them. In hindsight, I realized that I was extending to Evangelicals a courtesy that is rarely reciprocated.

Much has been made of the willingness of Evangelicals, Baptists, and other conservative Christians to set aside their misgivings about LDS Christianity and pull the lever for Mitt Romney this week. Four years ago they championed Mike Huckabee, and this time they’re holding their noses and voting for the Mormon anti-Obama candidate. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has even removed Mormonism from its list of “cults” just in time for the election. Well, bully for them! While one can certainly hope that decades of Evangelical anti-Mormon bigotry will soon go the way of Evangelical anti-Catholic bigotry and Evangelical anti-Semitism, I have a feeling that things will revert to the status quo ante after the election.

There are many opportunities for Mormons to work with Evangelicals (and Jews, for that matter) to make the world a better place. This is especially true in the political arena, which has witnessed the formation of conservative faith coalitions in order to uphold traditional moral values and religious freedom. People don’t have to worship in the same place or believe exactly the same things in order to see eye to eye on the issues of the day. In my experience, Evangelicals in the pews are decent, God-fearing people of conviction and action. Left to their own devices, I believe that they would be accepting of other people who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. However, many Evangelicals are led by pastors who are theological cowards and liars to boot.

If only pastors would follow what I call the Jewish/Mormon Model for Interfaith Inquiry. When Jewish and Mormon congregations want to know what other religions believe, they invite leaders from those faith communities to address them and answer questions. I have spoken at many such events in synagogues and Jewish schools, and once moderated a series of presentations by religious leaders for Mormons living in Santa Monica. One presentation was made by a friendly Evangelical pastor whom I knew from my Israel advocacy work. Truth be told, Evangelical theology as seen through a Mormon prism is incomplete and fairly uninteresting.  A recent Pew survey showed that Mormons know the Bible better than Evangelicals. In addition, we accept Jesus as our Savior, and we believe in God’s grace as a means of salvation. Those topics took up all of the good pastor’s talk, and those present were courteous and respectful as they peppered him with questions. What is relevant here is that a faithful Evangelical was given the opportunity to speak about his faith to Mormons. The reverse almost never happens in the Evangelical community.

Instead, pastors who want to “educate” members of their flock about the LDS Church will often invite anti-Mormon speakers to speak at a “Mormon Night” where living, breathing Mormons are not welcome. Some evangelical leaders even claim expertise in LDS theology after reading an anti-Mormon book or two. A case in point is Jay Childs, Senior Pastor of the Midland Evangelical Free Church in Midland, Michigan. On his personal blog, which is linked to the church’s website, Pastor Childs claims to have lectured on Mormon theology “in a couple of venues” and to have “talked these things over with Mormon missionaries” before stating his strong disagreement with the “bedrock theological moorings” of LDS Christianity. What, pray tell, are these offensive moorings? “In a nutshell, Mormons believe that Jesus was a polygamist, that He is the spirit brother of Lucifer, that all faithful Mormon males can become gods, and that Adam is the resurrected god of this planet.” A Mormon fact checker would have a field day with these assertions: The LDS Church does not teach that Jesus was married, let alone that He was a polygamist, and we certainly do not believe that Adam is God. The other two statements are true, but require additional explanation, sort of like having an “expert on Judaism” assert that faithful Jews support the “mutilation” of little boys. True? Yes. An adequate explanation? Hardly.    

What is especially sad about this mendacious pastor’s rants is that just down the road is an LDS Institute (=Mormon Hillel) headed by a director with a graduate degree whose job is to teach LDS theology. One would think that a pastor in Midland who was truly interested in teaching his congregants about Mormonism would give Daymon Leonhardt a ring and ask him to make a presentation at his church.

However, if I were Daymon, I wouldn’t stand by the phone. The dynamic in play here is fear, not friendship. Lots of current Mormons used to be Evangelicals, and our church is viewed as a threat by their leaders. Fear is the catalyst for the whole anti-Mormon industry of books, videos, and speakers that have slandered and vilified our church for decades. My Catholic girlfriend in high school was given an anti-Mormon book by her guidance counselor after expressing interest in her boyfriend’s church. One can only imagine the reaction of Jewish parents if their son’s girlfriend were given The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by a school official after expressing interest in Judaism. Where Christian principles fit into this campaign of distortions and lies is a mystery to me.   

While I welcome critical comments on my blog, I do have a policy of deleting anti-Mormon comments, reasoning that anti-Mormons are welcome to create their own blog on a Jewish website if they feel that Jews care what they have to say (good luck!). However, I must thank the good pastor for inspiring me to set a new rule for posters to my blog: If you claim that Mormons believe something outrageous, be prepared to back it up by offering up a quote from an LDS leader or official source from this century (i.e., the last 12 years). The pastor got his “Adam-God” theory from controversial statements made by Brigham Young over 140 years ago (and probably cited in an anti-Mormon book). Church leaders have opposed this theory since the 19th century, and in the 1970s LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball publicly denounced it. As any Mormon can tell you, we don’t believe that Adam is God. Here’s a theological rule of thumb for my Jewish readers: If the only source for a “Mormon” belief comes from the 19th century, it’s not a Mormon belief. I’ve set the 12-year rule because chances are good that the people making those statements can defend themselves. It’s pretty cowardly to attribute false teachings to Mormons by quoting leaders who are not around to respond. 

I am proud to belong to a church that does not hold “Evangelical Nights,” publish anti-Evangelical books, produce anti-Evangelical films, or host anti-Evangelical speakers. Although we disagree with some aspects of Evangelical theology, we accept them as fellow Christians. However, we don’t believe that Christianity condones slander and libel. It is my hope that Evangelical leaders will eventually choose to shut down the anti-Mormon industry and devote themselves to the exclusive preaching of their faith. Until they do, they’re not going to get any applause from me for their occasional praise of individual Mormons’ virtues. If I had to choose today between having Romney win with the support of pastors who think he belongs to a non-Christian cult, or having Obama win without it, I would toss a coin.

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