Here’s how I see the situation (and I’ll admit at the outset that I haven’t entirely been able to make sense of it or read all the relevant history).
In a sense, Mormonism is anti-everything. In the ideal Mormon realm no other religions would exist, since their understanding of truth is partial and corrupt; other people would ultimately be better off as Mormons. A robust emphasis on proselytism indicates as much. Mormon theology makes universal truth claims that by their very nature are bound to impinge on others’ religious truth claims, as well as universal claims to authority that are bound to impinge on others’ claims to authority. Note: I’m not necessarily persuaded this a bad thing. I’m simply observing that Mormon theology sets itself in opposition to all other faith traditions. We’re right; they’re wrong. There is no salvation outside the Church.
But of course “anti-” sentiments exist along a spectrum, from innocuous assertions that everyone else is misguided (which we’re bound in this theological system to encounter) to vituperative denunciations of others’ motives. Are Mormons waving pitchforks and busting down people’s doors? Absolutely not. Do Mormons often show respect to other traditions? For sure. Let’s look at some of the murky terrain between these two poles.
Because they share with us important history, scripture, and tradition (besides the fact that they’re important to the cultural incubator in which Mormonism developed), Jews and other Christians serve as Mormons’ primary foils, and our discourse about them functions as a significant site both of boundary maintenance and the construction of our own self-understanding in the salvation-narrative of our history. Regular denigration of other Christian groups (and I have serious doubts I’m the only one who’s heard these comments in Sunday School) play an important role in reaffirming the community’s exclusive claims to legitimacy. But are Roman Catholics singled out for more intense castigation than Protestants or Jews? (I’m setting the Eastern Orthodox Church aside as my impression is they’re off the radar.)
Our relationship to Judaism is enormously complicated, and I’ve never yet encountered an adequate explanation for it. On the one hand, we identify very closely with Jews. We like to compare our practices to Jewish practices under the assumption that locating parallels between the two traditions will confer legitimacy on us. Jews have dietary codes; so do Mormons. Jews wear sacred clothing; so do Mormons. In each case, this is said to redound to Mormonism’s validity. (To anticipate my later argument: Have you ever heard a Mormon make the case that since Catholics also have a hierarchical structure and put emphasis on sacraments, this is evidence Mormonism is legitimate?) I even know Mormons who regularly celebrate Passover or participate in other Jewish community events in the explicit belief that Judaism is quite literally a part of their Mormon heritage.
At the same time, we seem oblivious to how offensive this expropriative behavior is to many Jews, who have their own boundary maintenance to think of. (Recall that Mormons celebrate not a biblical Passover as outlined either in Exodus 12 or Deuteronomy 16, or even a Passover based on the Last Supper; rather, what’s celebrated is a Seder as developed by early rabbis and set forth in the Mishnah. Is it possible we think Christians were blinded by apostasy at this point but Jews who had explicitly rejected Jesus as the Messiah were not? Such a position is hardly theologically coherent within Mormon claims.)
Not only are we unabashed in our supersessionism–we are the new, true Israel–we do basically nothing to mitigate the anti-Jewish sentiment in our holy writ. However problematic the New Testament may be, the Book of Mormon goes shockingly further:
“For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.” (2 Nephi 25:2)
“Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ . . . should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they should crucify him–for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God.” (2 Nephi 10:3)
That stings. There’s no group more wicked than the Jews. What’s the special evidence for it? They knowingly, deliberately rejected and tortured Jesus. (No mention of Roman involvement here, or of the fact that basically all of Jesus’ followers during his lifetime were Jews. To say nothing of the possibility this passage seems to foreclose: that one can reject Jesus innocently.)
Whatever our scriptures say and in spite of our tendency to lambast the Pharisees, we tend to be unswervingly enthusiastic about today’s Jews, sometimes in problematic ways. There’s little theological consistency here, and I suspect we’re not interacting with Jews enough in religious environments to have become sensitized to issues in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Of course from the Mormon perspective Protestants are as wrong as anyone, and for people who wear symbols of our own we express a surprisingly hostile attitude to the cross. But this is mitigated to some degree by the praise we lavish on the Reformers. Paeans to Luther, Tyndale, and company proliferate in official Church publications; when was the last time you heard Ignatius of Loyola or Francis of Assisi selected as the subject of fulsome eulogizing?
President Hinckley’s summary of the course of Western history in April General Conference 2004 is, I think, representative:
“Ignorance and evil enveloped the world, resulting in what is known as the Dark Ages. Isaiah had predicted: ‘Darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people’ (Isaiah 60:2). For centuries, disease was rampant and poverty reigned. The Black Death killed some 50 million people during the 14th century. Was not this a season of terrible peril? I wonder how humanity survived.
“But somehow, in that long season of darkness, a candle was lighted. The age of Renaissance brought with it a flowering of learning, art and science. There came a movement of bold and courageous men and women who looked heavenward in acknowledgment of God and his divine Son. We speak of it as the Reformation.”
Did Thomas Aquinas and Hildegard of Bingen not look heavenward in acknowledgment of God? While the Bubonic Plague wreaked havoc in Europe, did the Reformation not do the same–why do we hear nothing of the millions who were slaughtered through human agency in the wake of Luther’s actions? This is a fundamentally Protestant reading of history that associates Protestantism’s origins with sweetness and light and periods of Catholic dominance with ignorance, wretchedness, and iniquity.
I’m not arguing that anti-Catholicism is unique to Mormonism; I’m quite aware we’re the heirs of a long-standing Protestant bias in this nation and that anti-Catholic sentiment basically originates in Protestant circles (hence the name “Protestant”). We’ve clearly absorbed basic Protestant assumptions evident in everything from how we number the commandments in the Decalogue to how we build our churches.
But for a tradition that also “protests Protestantism,” this is hardly theologically grounded. The Great Apostasy (i.e. the illegitimacy of the Catholic Church) is undeniably an important tenet of our faith–but then so, implicitly, is the belief that the churches the Reformers founded were corrupt, although we rarely to never articulate it this way. We share barely a thread with Luther’s theological tapestry (do we accept justification by faith alone, a priesthood of all believers, or Sola Scriptura?), yet we laud him adoringly. What exactly did he do that’s so praiseworthy from the Mormon perspective? I submit that it’s exactly this: He thought the Catholic Church was wrong. The point that we think the church he founded is arguably more wrong hardly seems to matter to us.
At the same time, on the Protestant front we’re currently competing with conservative Christians for our social niche, and this has resulted in a lot of jostling and skirmishes. But it’s resulted in something else too: dialogue. As far as I can tell, we’re dialoguing more with Evangelicals than with any other group. (Can anyone point me to a book on how wide the divide is between Rome and Salt Lake?)
Because our claims to exclusive authority are arguably more central than our claims to truth, there are good theological reasons to view Catholicism as our primary threat and rival. But what’s often striking to me is that in discussing Reformers like Calvin we seem unaware how far his ideas are from Mormonism, where in discussing Catholicism we often seem oblivious to how close they are.
To take just one example: Not too long ago I listened to an Institute teacher fulminate against the obvious corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. Why? Because they believe the efficacy of a sacrament is not contingent on the worthiness of the priest performing it–even disreputable priests are able to perform valid baptisms or give last rites. When did Mormons become Donatists? I wondered. We believe the exact same thing.
That brings us to that magisterial, well-worn tome laying out in florid prose our doctrines on the Messiah, a book that has never gone out of print and never lost the Church’s official imprimatur: Talmage’s Jesus the Christ, in whose pages we find statements like this about Catholicism:
“[The Roman Catholic] church, reeking with the stench of worldly ambition and lust of dominance, audaciously claimed to be the Church established by Him who affirmed: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’”
Is that really so audacious? After all, we’re making the same claim.
“The arrogant assumptions of the Church of Rome were not less extravagant in spiritual than in secular administration. In her loudly asserted control over the spiritual destinies of the souls of men, she blasphemously pretended to forgive or retain individual sins, and to inflict or remit penalties both on earth and beyond the grave.”
Is it really so outrageous to suppose Church leaders have been deputized by God to assess whether forgiveness has been granted or penalties incurred, or to suggest our behavior on Earth can directly influence the dispensation of grace beyond the grave?
“In her unrestrained abandon to the license of arrogated authority, the Church of Rome hesitated not to transgress the law of God, change the ordinances essential to salvation, and ruthlessly break the everlasting covenant, thereby defiling the earth even as Isaiah had foretold. She altered the ordinance of baptism, destroying its symbolism and associating with it imitations of pagan rites; she corrupted the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and befouled the doctrine thereof by the vagary of transubstantiation; she assumed to apply the merits of the righteous to the forgiveness of the sinner in the unscriptural and wholly repellent dogma of supererogation; she promoted idolatry in most seductive and pernicious forms; she penalized the study of the holy scriptures by the people at large; she enjoined an unnatural state of celibacy upon her clergy; she revelled in unholy union with the theories and sophistries of men, and so adulterated the simple doctrines of the gospel of Christ as to produce a creed rank with superstition and heresy; she promulgated such perverted doctrines regarding the human body as to make the divinely formed tabernacle of flesh appear as a thing fit only to be tortured and contemned; she proclaimed it an act of virture insuring rich reward to lie and deceive if thereby her own interests might be subserved; and she so thoroughly departed from the original plan of Church organization as to make of herself a spectacle of ornate display, fabricated by the caprice of man. . . . Under the tyrannous repression incident to usurped and unrighteous domination by the Roman church, civilization was retarded and for centuries was practically halted in its course. The period of retrogression is known in history as the Dark Ages.”
There’s a lot one could say about this passage, but I’ll say this: it sounds chillingly similar to a medieval Christian anti-Jewish screed. Other religions know they’re wrong. They know we’re right. The reason they don’t share our beliefs is not that they came innocently and genuinely to different conclusions; it’s that they’re contumaciously, deliberately rebelling against God’s will so they can revel in rank wickedness and sordid devilry. Here again, there is no room for honest disagreement.
Maybe it was nothing more than social context that led those missionaries in San Luis to desecrate a Catholic church, specifically (that is, Catholic churches were what was available). But I’m not persuaded it’s insignificant (or even uncommon). While anti-Catholic sentiment is undeniably on the wane, I’m not convinced we’ve completely eradicated that impulse that reached its apogee with Bruce R. McConkie’s famous statement, later retracted, that the Catholic Church was in effect founded by the devil.
There are ways in which we identify with both Protestants and Jews; I see no evidence we identify similarly with Catholics. We sometimes look to Gnostic texts or those of other early “heretics” to buttress particular claims; where do we look to patristic authors? We quote Reformers, but when do we quote Counter-reformers? We adulate C. S. Lewis; is there a single Catholic thinker from any period who has received so much attention?
Have Church leaders in high office ever targeted any other religious tradition with this level of animus in our history as an organization (aside from the anti-Jewish passages in scripture discussed above)?
- 4 December 2009