Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 2-12.
Richard John Neuhaus’ essay "Is Mormonism Christian?" (March) is disappointing. As a First Things reader for years and a recent subscriber, I have come to expect a higher standard than is exhibited in several aspects of this article.
With regard to the question posed by the title, the essay is superficial, offering only a selective answer. Thus, a judgment is rendered based on historical factors, but not on theological issues—or, rather, a distorted and limited view of Mormon doctrine is judged against "ecumenical councils" (instead of the Bible). Of course, Mormonism is not, from either its own perspective or that of a Catholic priest, a continuous part of historical Christianity in either creedal or institutional dimensions. But, then, neither was Protestantism from the point of view of Catholicism a century after the Reformation.
On the other hand, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints can and does make a credible case that its belief system is Christ–centered and therefore Christian in the truest meaning of that term. One may disagree with LDS interpretations of biblical stories—as one may disagree with various renditions in other Christian denominations—but that should not prevent a scholar of religion or an impartial observer from granting as much theological legitimacy to the one position as to the others. That Mormonism does not subscribe to the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds, or to the Westminster Confession, etc., is not a sufficient criterion for rejecting Mormons’ claim to confession of and commitment to Christ as Creator, Messiah, and Savior who died on the cross for us all and who overcame death by his resurrection, and to the absoluteness and primacy of his teachings. The focus of discussion should be the Bible, not later formalized creeds quite removed from the culture of Jesus. Father Neuhaus’ approach is not unlike Republicans claiming Dem ocrats are not American.
The article confounds church organization and sincere beliefs of individuals when it attributes to Mormonism the doctrine that non–Mormons cannot be Christian. That is not quite accurate. LDS "official teaching" is that divine authority was lost with the original apostles and that historical Christian institutions are a mix of truth and error, but that individuals may be more or less Christian in commitment and conduct independently of churches (including the LDS).
Fr. Neuhaus further misunderstands LDS "official teaching" in asserting that it describes other church bodies (whether only Catholic or all historical Christian churches is not clear) as being "members of ‘the great and abominable church’ that was built by frauds and impostors." The LDS Church does not have an official position on what and who constitutes the "great and abominable" (a phrase without specificity from the Book of Mormon). When a book was published forty years ago by a young LDS church leader associating the Catholic Church with that phrase, the LDS Prophet–President had the book removed from the market and insisted on a revision that deleted the reference.
Fr. Neuhaus also uses an inappropriate word to represent LDS belief. For Mormons, Joseph Smith did not "rediscover" what had been lost; rather, it was a "revelation" to him direct from God—an important distinction.
Fr. Neuhaus concludes by saying that "as for the rest of us, we owe to Mormon Americans respect for their human dignity [and] openness to honest dialogue," but some of his language hinders that respect and openness. One might wonder how Mormon polygamy was more "sensational" than that practiced by such biblical figures as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon. Fr. Neuhaus even appears to vilify the Mormon view of "the celestial significance of marriage and family" by a very stretched comparison with the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. That attack seems particularly strange since Catholicism (I had thought) attaches great significance to matters of marriage and family.
Fr. Neuhaus writes of LDS leaders: "The top leadership is composed, with few exceptions, of men experienced in business." Let’s examine actual facts. Of the current Twelve Apostles, four came out of university academic careers, a fifth was an educator in the LDS seminary program, a sixth was a surgeon, and of the rest some were in small businesses. Of the current First Presidency, one has worked for the LDS Church virtually his entire adult life, another was a lawyer, and the third worked in newspaper publishing for about ten years prior to being called as an Apostle in his early thirties. Of the eight Church Presidents since World War II, not one was an executive of a substantial corporation. One was a teacher, two worked for the Church their entire life, a fourth was a teacher and small businessman, a fifth was a small town insurance agent, a sixth was an agricultural economist involved in promoting cooperatives, a seventh was a lawyer.
So, are Mormons Christian? That depends on one’s definition; at the end, God will judge. While Mormonism agrees with Fr. Neuhaus that it stands "in radical discontinuity with historic Christianity," it disagrees that that tradition adequately or accurately defines the central issue. As a strongly committed seventh–generation Mormon and social scientist who has studied comparative religion for years, who has attended many different denominational worship services, who has served for years in multi–faith community service organizations, and who has been associated with and published in Sunstone, Dialogue, and FARMS Review of Books, I answer: yes, because I believe, believe in, and seek to imitate Jesus the Christ.
T. Allen Lambert
Ithaca, New York
Richard John Neuhaus apparently believes that Mormon intellectuals will ultimately get rid of such outrageous claims of the Mormon Church as revelations, new scriptures, and divine revelation and become like other Christians. As a member of the Mormon Church, I have two comments on this. First, Mormons have watched a dissident offshoot church, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ, go through this process. That church is now almost indistinguishable from any other Protestant group, so the scenario is not only plausible, but being realized. The second observation is that I have listened intently to the voice of LDS intellectuals for over forty years, and have seen that voice mimic every fashionable trend to sweep academia, the latest being deconstruction.
I also found Father Neuhaus’ approach to the Book of Mormon superficial. It recalled the statement of a certified Mormon intellectual, Hugh Nibley, who said that reading the book was not necessary before condemning it. I would also suggest that some of the criteria Fr. Neuhaus uses to dismiss the book would play havoc with entire sections of the Bible. Where, for example, is the archeological evidence for Moses or an exodus from Egypt? The Book of Mormon was the defining event in the foundation of the Mormon Church, and has remained, as Joseph Smith said, its cornerstone.
Joseph L. Lyon
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
In determining who is a Christian, neither the standard that the Church should be "identified with the Great Tradition defined by the apostolic era through at least the first four ecumenical councils" nor the view that Christianity is the "past and present reality of the society composed of Christian people" is apparently enough to hang your hat on. Richard John Neuhaus himself notes ("Incorrigibly Christian America II," March) the habit of some evangelicals of distinguishing between Roman Catholics and Christians. Along with the Orthodox and liberal Protestants, that’s a billion–plus Christians booted out of the Bridegroom’s wedding banquet. The Mormons welcome all of you to the left hand of God. There seems to be plenty of room over here. Latter–day Saints’ faith is centered in Jesus Christ. He died, was buried, and rose on the third day. There is no salvation outside of his atonement. He will return to earth to reign and rule. Mormons worship and love Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we seek to follow his example and keep his commandments, and we pray to the Father in his name. This may not be enough for a board of theological overseers; it may be enough for Jesus Christ.
In the January issue, Richard John Neuhaus endorsed William F. Buckley, Jr.’s assertion that aggrieved readers of journals should "cancel [their] own damn subscription[s]" rather than asking editors to do so on their behalf, so I’ve gone ahead and contacted your subscription department. The reason I’m writing to First Things is that the woman who handled the cancellation of my subscription asked why I wanted to cancel, and I felt that perhaps I should tell you directly.
I found Father Neuhaus’ article "Is Mormonism Christian?" deeply offensive. My personal respect and appreciation for the faith of those in traditional Christian denominations led me to assume that those feelings were somehow reciprocated. Fr. Neuhaus’ article convinces me that in your case that assumption was a bad one. I’ve been a First Things enthusiast for a little over five years now, purchasing it regularly in the BYU bookstore or subscribing to it, and on several occasions recommending especially good articles to my friends. But now that enthusiasm has vanished.
There’s nothing wrong with a journal having a point of view; indeed, it seems to me to be inevitable. But I never realized until reading "Is Mormonism Christian?" how different the point of view of First Things is from my own.
Thanks for several years of good reading. Best wishes.
It has always struck me as strange that Mormons would call themselves Christians. It may be, as Mormons hold, that the idea of Christianity was hopelessly corrupted and disappeared after the death of the last apostle and that it came alive again only in the nineteenth century as revealed to Joseph Smith. That would mean that for almost two thousand years God left us bereft of the true meaning of His revelation in His Son and canceled His promise to be with us to the end of time.
That, as I say, is possible, but it is highly unlikely. It would mean that the whole notion of Christian tradition is a complete fraud and that for two millennia we have misunderstood the message, mission, and life–sustaining reality of Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God.
Therefore there is an essential choice to be made between traditional Christianity and Mormonism. Mormons, wonderful and courageous people as they are, are not Christians and can never be Christians until they commit themselves to the core belief that Jesus Christ, the unique Son of the one God, creator of heaven and earth, came among us in the flesh, was crucified, died, and rose again, and, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, forms one body, the Church. Mormons today do not believe this. Ergo, Mormons are not Christians.
Peter J. Riga
While the argument of "Is Mormonism Christian?" is generally well–taken, the comparison of Mormonism’s approach to Scripture with that of the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon is erroneous. Unificationism takes the Bible to be the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not claim, as Richard John Neuhaus implies, that the biblical witness must be "corrected." We do not believe that the original revelations given the biblical writers were later corrupted. And we do not hold the view that the Church fell into apostasy.
The Unification Church does claim to have the correct interpretation of the Bible. We do claim additional revelations beginning with Jesus’ call to Sun Myung Moon. These revelations call into question various traditions of biblical interpretation. They do not cast doubt upon the truthfulness of the Bible itself, any more than the gospel casts doubt upon the truthfulness of the Hebrew scriptures. Any failure we attribute to Christianity is not one of apostasy but of falling short at various times with respect to the moral teachings of Christ.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints and a recent subscriber, I was drawn by the question, "Is Mormonism Christian?" Richard John Neuhaus’ answer seems to be "not yet, but with time they might come to us. Meanwhile, noblesse and the law do oblige us to treat them civilly, and they can even be useful when their goals and ours coincide."
Leaving aside the condescension and hubris of all that, it puts me in mind of Humpty Dumpty’s sweeping declaration in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." Having determined that only those with Christianity’s two–thousand–year history are to be masters of the word "Christian," Father Neuhaus finds, surprise, that the word includes him and excludes me.
C. S. Lewis correctly observed in the preface to Mere Christianity that when a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about an object, it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. He also pointed out elsewhere that the first Christians were made by one historical fact—the resurrection—and by one doctrine—the redemption. It belabors the obvious to say that the early Christians knew nothing of two thousand years of history or of what Fr. Neuhaus calls "the Great Tradition." Yet they were Christians.
The word Christian, properly used, means a follower of Jesus Christ—one who believes what he taught, tries to live as he lived, and who has been baptized into his Church by the priesthood authority he bestowed on his apostles for that purpose. The difference between Fr. Neuhaus and me is that I don’t think he has that Church and authority, and he doesn’t think I have it. It will be in another life that we find out who’s right.
In the meantime, we can each respect the other’s belief and the sincerity of his efforts to follow Jesus’ teachings. That would be the "Christian" thing to do, wouldn’t it?
Richard B. Low
I have frequently said that when non–Latter–day Saint writers attempt to define the LDS faith, they always make the same mistake. They refer to non–LDS writers (e.g., the Ostlings) or Sunstone "dissenters and exiles." They need to come talk to someone like me. I do have a doctoral degree (J.D.), but I have never been described as an LDS intellectual. I am just a sixth–generation LDS member who tries imperfectly to live by a Christian religious code.
When I was on the regional board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in Southern California a few years ago, Jacqueline Wexler, a nun and president of the NCCJ, told me that the position of the NCCJ was that every religion has the right to define for itself what its beliefs are. I like that position. As a Mormon believer, that position gives me the authority to conclude that Mormons are Christians. I also conclude that the LDS religion is not, as Richard John Neuhaus suggests, a "new and another religion" akin to Islam, a "derivative of Judaism and Christianity" that does not claim to be Christian.
I believe that the first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that if I can demonstrate my faith by repenting of my frailties, living the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and enduring to the end, I may inherit eternal life and live forever with my family in the presence of the Savior. I was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. I have been taught from infancy the teachings of Jesus from the New Testament (King James Version), and know that living the Christian principles of faith, hope, charity, love of my fellow men, and forgiveness will bring me the greatest fulfillment and happiness in this life. My family and I are Christians.
Father Neuhaus draws strength from writings peculiar to Catholicism, Latter–day Saints have the Book of Mormon and other works, Lutherans rely on Martin Luther, Presbyterians on John Calvin, and every denomination has differences in belief and emphasis. But we are all Christians. LDS President Gordon Hinckley recently emphasized that the Latter–day Saints have no monopoly on truth, and we invite all those who come to us to bring with them the truths they have. We hope we can add to that. We believe we can.
Park City, Utah
I thank Richard John Neuhaus for his insightful and fair–minded, if not fully accurate, commentary on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints and its relationship with the Christian tradition. I hope that his article can contribute to a higher level of open and mutually respectful dialogue in the future. As Father Neuhaus implies, whether Mormonism is Christian depends on the definition of "Christian." If being Christian includes as an indispensable component the acceptance of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds set forth in the fourth and fifth centuries, then the LDS Church cannot be Christian since it clearly rejects a number of doctrines set forth in those creeds.
To understand in what sense LDS doctrine may be considered Christian, one must study what the Book of Mormon has to say about Christ and his doctrine. The Book of Mormon was written to "the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all the nations." To name only a few items, the Book of Mormon contains wonderful expositions of the fall of man (2 Nephi 2), the atonement of Christ (Alma 42), the nature of salvation through Christ (2 Nephi 9), the Christian covenant (Mosiah 2–5), the essential and sacred role of the Bible (1 Nephi 5; 2 Nephi 9), the nature of faith (Alma 32), repentance (Alma 5), baptism (Mosiah 18), the gift of the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 31), and the fulfillment in these latter days of the covenant of the Lord with the House of Israel (3 Nephi 21). In these and countless other ways, the Book of Mormon joins the Bible as a true witness to Jesus Christ.
In my opinion, the Book of Mormon doctrine that there are only two churches—"the church of the Lamb of God, and the church of the devil" (1 Nephi 14:10)—should not be provincially interpreted to presume that only Latter–day Saints are members of the church of the Lamb of God. The Bible makes similar statements, which must be considered in a broader context (e.g., Matthew 12:30).
It is only recently that serious and fair–minded scholarship has addressed the archeological, cultural, and historical correlates of the Book of Mormon narrative (see, for example, John Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Deseret, 1985). While such studies are important and undoubtedly will continue to yield enlightening discoveries, my suspicion is that there will never be enough positive evidence to convince those who wish to rely primarily on historical proof, simply because the Book of Mormon itself notes that its people shifted constantly between tents and improvised "cities" (Mosiah 9:4,8; Alma 48:80), the construction of which was limited to earth and timber (Alma 50:1–4). The population of the "Nephites" at the time of Christ’s visit was only "2,500 souls" (3 Nephi 17:25). Larger population numbers of the "Lamanites" undoubtedly included indigenous peoples with whom the "Lamanites" intermarried. On the other hand, the lack of available historical evidence does not persuade believers to abandon their faith. It seems to me that this is substantially the same situation for biblical studies, as illustrated by the present debate between the biblical minimalists and the advocates of orthodox Jewish history.
The Book of Mormon contains this promise from God to all who read it: "I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, He will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4). This promise, which parallels James 1:5, is the means by which millions of Latter–day Saints (including myself) give their own witness to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, especially its Christian message, which agrees in all particulars with that of the New Testament.
Joseph B. Stanford
Salt Lake City, Utah
Richard John Neuhaus’ observation that Mormons cannot expect, as their visibility and influence increase, to be "exempt from critical examination and challenge" is a fair one. We Mormons cannot benefit indefinitely from the ambiguity Father Neuhaus detects in the way we tend to present ourselves in relation to more common understandings of Christianity. But his efforts to clarify this relationship are hindered by his heavy reliance on the Ostlings’ Mormon America and by certain assumptions regarding the meaning for a revealed religion of an intellectual tradition.
Fr. Neuhaus’ candid assessment of "the founding stories and doctrines of Mormonism" is that they must "appear to the outsider as a bizarre phantasmagoria." While appearing for a moment to take seriously the question of the truth of these claims, he soon concludes that "outside the fanum of true believers, these tales cannot help but appear to be the product of fantasy and fabrication." Since he must after all be saying more than that such tales are believed only by those who believe them, Fr. Neuhaus is bound to give or to suggest some account of the substantial and growing success of such bizarre claims.
This seems to be his explanation: that there are, as always, those who believe such tales "uncritically," and then there are "more critical souls who embrace the community whose fabulous founding, they contend, points to higher truths"—that is to say, who don’t really believe the tales. For the first group, the uncritical majority, "the conventional version, controlled by LDS authorities, [that] it is true if you believe it is true," seems to be enough. But Fr. Neuhaus is generous enough to hope that the number of critical souls, who now "find themselves in the company of ‘dissenters and exiles,’" might grow and become dominant as Mormonism matures into a religion more hospitable to an intellectual tradition.
Of course Fr. Neuhaus recognizes that Christianity itself originally appeared as "foolishness" to the world’s wisdom, but this seems for him to have been remedied by two thousand years of the most intense and sophisticated intellectual labor. But just what is the relationship between the originally scandalous claims and the now culturally confident and intellectually sophisticated tradition of inquiry? Does not the reality of Christ’s resurrection—if this was a true event and not a fable—overwhelm in importance whatever an ensuing intellectual tradition might have to say about it? Does Fr. Neuhaus mean that Christ’s resurrection can now have no meaning apart from the mediation of a venerable and ongoing debate concerning "alternative and opposing construals of reality"? How much weight does he mean to put on the observation that "almost all agree" with defining Christianity according to the terms of the first four ecumenical councils? He is certainly entitled to notice that the Latter–day Saints position implies that "almost all" are wrong. But it is not clear why it is legitimate to disagree about "where the Church is to be located historically and at present," but only up to the point where the foundations of a "Great Tradition" might be critically examined. Mormonism indeed invites such an examination. That is a large undertaking, in which we have much to learn. We welcome interlocutors.
We rejoice that the great truths of the Christian faith have been newly witnessed (and, yes, their meaning clarified) in our age by the coming forth, by miraculous means, of another ancient record, the Book of Mormon. Fr. Neuhaus has not explained why the miracles attending the emergence of this record should be considered less intellectually respectable than the older miracles upon which his intellectual tradition is founded—surely it is not simply that they are older. Nor has he explained why we should not take seriously the evidence for the veracity of this record that is available to the natural rational faculties and that Mormon scholars have long been sifting and evaluating: for example, the well–authenticated and consistent testimony of witnesses to the existence of the gold plates (even of a number of witnesses who had an interest in repudiating their testimonies); certain evidence internal to the text itself (structure, literary forms, etc.); and especially the puzzle of the sheer existence of such a substantial and complex text as the Book of Mormon, for which (contrary to Fr. Neuhaus’ conventional but unfounded suggestion) no plausible naturalistic explanation has yet been offered.
Fr. Neuhaus surely has a point when he writes that "Mormonism is still very young. It is only now beginning to develop an intellectually serious theological tradition." But one must be open to the possibility that a tradition of critical inquiry might not develop in the direction Fr. Neuhaus seems to expect and to wish—that is, as theology grounded finally in the categories of Greek philosophy. For example, the lives of Mormons are likely to remain oriented more by revealed ordinances and covenants whose deep resonances and meaning for life may be praised or evoked in various learned vocabularies, but which are never fully present in any systematic articulation, and thus are not susceptible of representation by a specialized profession of theologians. This speculative suppleness and a certain lightness of doctrinal hierarchy might indeed be the key to a feature of Mormonism that seems to bewilder Fr. Neuhaus: that is, its capacity to adapt modern organizational means to the purposes of a living covenant community.
Ralph C. Hancock
Professor of Political Science
Brigham Young University
I wish to respond to just one particularly challenging statement made by Richard John Neuhaus: "Not a single person, place, or event that is unique to the Book of Mormon has ever been proven to exist. Outside the fanum of true believers, these tales cannot help but appear to be the product of fantasy and fabrication."
Trusting that Father Neuhaus is open to truth from whatever source it may come, such a statement can come only from a bias that archaeology offers the only acceptable form of evidence, or from innocent ignorance of the vast amount of reputable scholarship establishing linguistic, cultural, and religious and secular historical evidence that this truly amazing book is indeed the product of ancient writers.
In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly (January 2000), Marc K. Stengel examines the types of evidence arrayed for and against the theory that ancient Asians and Europeans visited and established foot holds in the Western Hemisphere from 7000 b.c. to the Middle Ages. Those scholars offering linguistic, cultural, and other compelling evidence for such visits are known as "diffusionists." Other scholars, known as "traditionalists," argue that the most important type of evidence—archaeological evidence—does not support this "crackpot theory."
The traditionalist argument is summarized in the following line of thought: the wheel and the keystone arch flourished in the Old World before Columbus. The wheel and the keystone arch do not appear in the material record of the New World until after 1492. Ergo, there was no contact between the Old World and the New World until after 1492.
I have heard only slightly less silly arguments against the Book of Mormon. For instance, since the gold plates are not available for examination, Joseph Smith was, ergo, a fraud. Or since no fourth–century stella have been uncovered in the jungles of Guatemala with the inscription "Mormon was here," there is, ergo, no evidence for the Book of Mormon.
The diffusionists’ response is to examine "the nature of acceptable evidence." In looking at the nature of archaeological evidence—the wheel and arch evidence, for example—the diffusionists cite a simple fact. First, Mesopotamians intimately familiar with the wheel and arch had direct contact with Egypt for a thousand years, and yet there is absolutely no archaeological evidence in Egypt in all that time period that the Egyptians knew a thing about the wheel and arch. The evidence for the contact is found elsewhere, in linguistic and cultural similarities, for example. Rejection of these legitimate fields of scholarship reveals an unfortunate bias.
There are already highly qualified experts and scholars who have produced a great many books and articles regarding linguistic, cultural, secular–historical, and religious–historical evidence for the diffusionist theory as it relates to the Book of Mormon. These are largely Mormon scholars who have established a formidable mountain of scholarly evidence that the Book of Mormon is exactly what it purports to be: the translation of a religious record written and compiled by individuals who lived in the Western Hemisphere from 3000 b.c. to 400 a.d. and that it could not plausibly have been written by any man or group of men in 1829 in upstate New York.
This evidence cannot be ignored by any serious person who hopes to call himself a scholar, of whatever religious persuasion he may be. This is the conclusion of two honest evangelical scholars who, when they began to examine Mormon scholarship, were surprised at the numbers of Mormon scholars, their training, their sophistication, and their intellectual conclusions regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon. (See Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" Trinity Journal 19/2 , 179–205).
A good place to begin an examination of the work of these Mormon scholars would be the thirteen–volume collected works of Hugh Nibley, a highly accomplished and widely respected scholar of ancient languages, early Christianity, and "Mormonism," recently published by The Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS; see farms.byu.edu). FARMS is also an excellent resource to become acquainted with the first–rate academic work of a growing new generation of orthodox Latter–day Saint scholars.
But, alas, as any convinced Mormon knows, all the evidence in the world for the Book of Mormon will not begin to touch certain individuals, will deeply offend some, and will highly threaten others. First Things experienced first hand some of these reactions in the "blistering letters of protest" to Dr. Joseph B. Stanford’s article on Natural Family Planning ("Sex, Naturally," November 1999). "Didn’t we know that Mormons are the enemies of Christ and his Church?" the letters asked. I for one applaud your well–founded and eminently reasonable belief that readers might find an article on NFP by a non–Catholic to be persuasive on this traditionally Catholic issue. I wish that all people could be so reasonable when it comes to religious issues.
Craig E. Hughes
North Salt Lake, Utah
I am grateful for the many letters received, some of them not for publication, in response to the article on Mormonism. Well, not for all of them. Some were exceedingly uncivil in condemning my incivility in even raising the question of whether Mormonism is Christian. As should be obvious, the question posed by my essay is not civility but clarity—more particularly, clarity about what is meant by "Christian." As also should be obvious, I along with almost all Christians of all times subscribe to a normative view of what is Christian. Call it C. S. Lewis’ "mere Christianity" or the Great Tradition or biblical Christianity, it includes the acceptance of the unique inspiration of the biblical canon and the end of public revelation with the apostolic era. As I wrote, "If Christian doctrine is summarized in, for instance, the Apostles’ Creed as understood by historic Christianity, official LDS teaching adds to the creed, deviates from it, or starkly opposes it almost article by article." And LDS teaching does so on the basis of claimed new revelations to Joseph Smith and his successors.
Evidence that some thoughtful Mormons recognize the legitimacy of the question posed by my essay is found in an article by Jan Shipps, a noted non–Mormon scholar of Mormonism in BYU Studies, published by Brigham Young University. The title of the article is, interestingly enough, "Is Mormonism Christian? Reflections on a Complicated Question." Professor Shipps notes "the LDS Church’s doctrinal insistence that all Christian baptisms are null and void except those performed by properly ordained holders of the LDS priesthood," and recounts the history in which culturally besieged Mormons insisted that all other Christians are truly "other"—Gentiles outside "the only restored church of Jesus Christ that had been on the earth since the days of the ‘Great Apostasy.’" In recent decades, however, with the achievement of a greater cultural confidence, Prof. Shipps writes that there has been a "turn away from labeling outsiders as Other [that] has coincided with the dramatic turn toward Christian rhetoric and Christian themes, not only in Mormonism’s official presentation of itself to the world, but in Mormon life generally."
I am now inclined to think that my essay, like the Ostling book (Mormon America) that I cited favorably, overestimated the degree to which Mormon intellectuals who explore difficult and sometimes embarrassing questions are viewed by the LDS as "dissenters and exiles." There are academics and others in very good standing who are wrestling with these questions and are eager for dialogue with (other?) Christians. As I wrote, that dialogue should at present be viewed as interreligious rather than ecumenical (i.e., intra–Christian), but, historically considered, Mormonism is still very young, and that could change in the century ahead. We should hope so.
More disappointing than the dismissive tone of the note on my book, The American Myth of Religious Freedom (Briefly Noted, March), is its violent misrepresentation of what the book argues.
First, I do not agree with the New York Times—nor could my book be reasonably read to argue—"that a bishop who excommunicates a politician violates the First Amendment." Rather, I argue that when the First Amendment is pressed to the full power of its genius, it does not necessarily (or even probably) offer protection of such an act by such a bishop from government sanction (see Employment Division v. Smith and City of Boerne v. Flores). Even readers less sophisticated than those of First Things will see the severe distinction between these ideas.
Second, neither Harold Bloom nor I argue that "Christianity in America since the Pilgrims [is] basically heterodox and Gnostic." Nor is any such idea remotely contemplated in my book. Rather, Bloom and I agree that the "American religion," Gnostic and (ironically) Pelagian as it is, arose in the nineteenth century through the vehicle of various exotic variations on the Christian narrative, as well as the more "mainstream" Southern Baptists and the Restoration Movement. The notion that your reviewer ascribes to my book cannot be found there.
Third, I would be interested to know which of your readers (other than the reviewer of my book, I suppose) disagrees that "Hobbes’ understanding of natural rights [is] the assertion of individual autonomy."
Fourth, one need only superficially read Locke, Jefferson, and Madison to see that they regarded the Catholic Church of their day as "the enemy of religious freedom." It is a naked idea in their writing. (Why else a novus ordo seclorum?) That they might not regard the Catholic Church of our day as an enemy of their version of religious freedom is an indication of the success of their agenda. Unfortunately, your readers do not know that I make a tentative suggestion of a different way to understand religious freedom in the latter part of my book.
Fifth, I explicitly and repeatedly argue that "the First Amendment encourages religion in public life." Indeed this was the strategy of the Founders’ design to dilute the power of Christian witness against the State.
Finally, while my teacher Father Ernest Fortin disagrees with much in my book, no student can forget his oft–repeated metaphor that the natural law tradition and the natural rights tradition are like the flow of water from the Continental Divide. They go in irreconcilably opposite directions. Your reviewer has apparently not read Fr. Fortin either.
It is certainly fair to be critical—even dismissive—of my book. It is most unfair, however, both to the author and your readers to publish such a wildly tortured summary of the book. I have experienced first–hand your stringent requirement that reviewers fairly represent the books they review, even when disagreeing with the argument. You will understand my surprise and disappointment, therefore, that you suspended this requirement in the present case. Your reviewer was not honest.
Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr.
School of Law
As the author of the review in question, I would like to respond to the points Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr. makes in his letter, beginning with his last point. It is too strong to say that Ernest Fortin "pressed home" the existence of a medieval tradition of individual rights theories. It would have been more accurate to say that he grudgingly acknowledged the scholarship of Brian Tierney and the theoretical labors of Jacques Maritain and John Finnis on this point. (See his "On the Presumed Medieval Origins of Individual Rights" in Classical Christianity and the Political Order, Roman and Littlefield, 1996, pp. 248–49.) When Father Fortin talks about theories of natural rights, he usually means the modern theories associated with Hobbes and Locke, which do have the theoretical and theological problems Dr. Craycraft enunciates in his book. It is the older theory that John Courtney Murray, the Second Vatican Council, and arguably even the United Nations wish to embrace. Dr. Craycraft’s book, by failing to discuss this other theory of individual rights, fails to engage the argument about religious freedom as it currently stands. As for his other complaints, the first two make distinctions irrelevant to the criticism in the review, the third and fourth misread the criticism (I criticize Dr. Craycraft for agreeing with Hobbes, Jefferson, et al., not for misinterpreting them), and the fifth point contradicts the first—how can the First Amendment promote religion in public life if it fails to protect the public religious actions of a bishop from government sanctions? One might well argue that the Smith and Boerne decisions read the First Amendment incorrectly, while Dr. Craycraft thinks they express its "full power." For years scholars, not least in these pages, have examined arguments like those of Dr. Craycraft, and found them wanting. It is not unreasonable to ask that Dr. Craycraft address arguments opposing his own.
Richard John Neuhaus’ analogy (While We’re At It, March) between the impact of the NCAA on Notre Dame’s internal affairs and the proposed implementation of the norms of Ex Corde Ecclesiae does not work. The NCAA is a voluntary organization formed by the academy itself to oversee the athletic activities of colleges and universities in the United States, and its rules and enforcement procedures are the result of a consensus of peers. The very point of critics of the norms of ECC is that their formulation and proposed implementation did not come from within the academy but from without.
Richard W. Conklin
Associate Vice President
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana
And is not the Catholic Church an institution to which the University of Notre Dame is voluntarily related? Since it does call itself a Catholic University, it would seem that the "rules and enforcement procedures" of the Church do not come "from without" the University’s definition of itself.
Allen D. Hertzke’s article, "What I Learned in China" (March), suffers from a number of shortcomings. First of all, the believers that Professor Hertzke was meeting with were not representative of the church in China. It appears from his article that he was meeting with university students and professors and communicating with them in English. But the church (the body of believers) is largely rural, uneducated, older women for whom questions such as party membership are far removed. With just over three million university students and less than 5 percent of China’s total Communist Party membership (where Christian faith is growing much to the chagrin of party leaders), the portion of Christians Prof. Hertzke spoke with is far from representative. At the same time, intellectuals and professionals are grossly underrepresented in the churches of China, and thus in many cases are ignorant of what church life is like in China. On the one hand, though Beijing and Shanghai with their growing middle class are exceptions, most intellectuals in China feel uncomfortable associating with "the masses" who make up most of church membership. On the other hand, Western mission efforts on university campuses in China have tended to set up their own alternative fellowships outside the local (registered or unregistered) church structure. This reflects both the para–church bias of contemporary evangelicalism and the age–old missionary temptations surrounding the issues of popularity, personality, and control.
Second, Prof. Hertzke’s analysis of the lack of interest in civil society among Chinese intellectuals is shallow and gives insufficient credit to China’s own nascent conceptions of civil society. China has long placed social stability at the top of its list of public goods. The emphasis on corporate experience and identity within Chinese culture is a challenge to the Western conception of a civil society based on specifically individual freedoms. As Christians who are citizens of the benevolent dictatorship known as the kingdom of God, surely there are acceptable definitions of what constitutes civil society that might look different from our classical Western definitions. There is in fact a substantial literature on the question of civil society in China, most of which highlights the enormous progress that has been made in the last decade (see, for instance, articles published in the pages of China Quarterly). Rural elections, though often dismissed by American observers as irrelevant to national policy, have nevertheless led to a marked degree of democratization on the local level.
And as any student of China will tell you, the average citizen has much more to do with his local government and much less to do with his national government than we in America. Ironically, Chinese government is experienced as federalist while American government is increasingly experienced as national and monolithic. What Prof. Hertzke sees as the contrast between economic liberalism and single–party oligarchy, Chinese people of all walks of life see as an attempt to keep things stable. The negative example of Russia is always present in the back of their minds, as is the incredible patience that Chinese history both symbolizes and inculcates. Prof. Hertzke accurately recorded what he heard from the Chinese intellectuals he spoke with, but his analysis is shallow and oversimplified.
Third, Prof. Hertzke uses American terminology to discuss the status of the church in China, and this leads to inaccuracies. "House churches" in China are not illegal—many believers worship in homes. According to China’s constitution, Chinese citizens are guaranteed freedom of religious belief and freedom of speech; however, they do not have freedom of assembly. This means that regardless of whether you worship in a factory or in a cave, in a house or in a cathedral, the salient point from the government’s perspective is whether or not your assembly is registered. And registration itself is amenable to local situations. In our city some 100 to 150 home fellowship groups are "registered"—but registered with the local church, and not the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) per se. In many rural areas, particularly in the North, believers worship in homes or other buildings, and yet for practical, nonpolitical reasons they are not registered. In some cases the RAB officials could not care less what the Christians do—as long as they don’t engage in antisocial behavior (such as the Falun Gong fraud cases). Nor is registration status necessarily a bone of contention within the church. I recently surveyed pastors and seminary professors in China and found they agreed with what I have witnessed: in Northern China Christian workers make no distinction between registered and unregistered believers in terms of who they serve, teach, baptize, or provide with printed materials.
Admittedly, in Southern China conflicts between the registered and unregistered churches are much more common. But these conflicts rarely find their root in government politics. Often the conflicting churches exist because a given area had two charismatic Christian leaders and yet China’s nondenominational policies required them to work together—perhaps one under the other’s authority—and so one party rebelled. In other cases, contacts with Christians from overseas—often through Hong Kong—have created separatist churches that are utterly dependent on overseas funding and materials. Likewise, the overseas organizations that support them must find evidence of extensive violent persecution or else they lose their ministry and their fundraising appeal. This pattern is not new to China, nor are these problems foreign to missions around the world.
Finally, Prof. Hertzke’s assertion that "officially sanctioned seminaries and ministers are not free to preach the pure gospel" is simply not true: there is no system of sermon censorship. Last Christmas I heard the best evangelistic sermon I’ve ever heard in my life, and it came from the pulpit of my city’s local registered Three–Self church with city government officials present and listening. Many souls were saved for Christ that night. And the seminaries, like their counterparts in the U.S., are made up of both orthodox and not so orthodox faculty members. If the top few seminaries seem worse than the others, it is due only to their increased exchange with the less orthodox side of American seminary life. But the teachers teach what they like.
Prof. Hertzke’s confusion on this point is just one of many commonly held Western assumptions about the church in China that simply don’t hold true. Contrary to popular belief, the official magazine of the Three–Self church in China (Tian Feng or "Heavenly Wind") has more testimonies, biblical content, and theological teaching in one issue than a year’s worth of Christianity Today. Bibles are cheap and available at the churches to all—in the major metropolitan areas there are programs to distribute them free of charge to nonbelievers. The only restrictions on my fellowship with local believers are ones I myself and all of mission history agree with—in fact, they are the same three–self principles (self–governing, self–propagating, and self–supporting) that Roland Allen and others propounded so many years ago.
I invite Prof. Hertzke and others associated with First Things to come and visit Western Christians like myself who have been living in China, who speak the language, and who have been worshiping with a particular group of local believers for some years. Meet the folks in the pews, not just the foreigners who flit in and out like secret agents, muddling in local contexts they do not have the time to understand. This will give a different and far more representative impression of what it means to be a Christian in China today.
Andrew T. Kaiser
Shanxi Evergreen Service
People’s Republic of China
Like the blind men in the fable, each of us can only grasp a part of the elephant that is China, and we all learn from each other’s experiences. Thus I welcome the opportunity to learn from, and dialogue with, Andrew T. Kaiser.
I will respond to each of his major arguments, but a more general point is in order here. The rosy picture he paints of religious freedom in China not only contrasts with what I heard, but with a huge documentary record assembled by independent church groups, human rights organizations, and our own State Department. All of those entities report numerous instances in which House Church Protestants and unregistered Catholics have faced exorbitant fines, arrest, and beatings for their faith. Christian churches have been closed, destroyed, or had their assets confiscated. Buddhist Tibet is a virtual police state; Muslim Xinjiang is approaching that. I wonder if Mr. Kaiser has allowed his optimism to color his general perception.
To be sure, wide variation exists in the way authorities treat unregistered churches, and we should applaud those instances in which incipient civil society or local democracy is sprouting. But after all, this is still a Leninist–party regime that will attempt to crush any perceived threat to its monopoly on power.
Let me now turn to Mr. Kaiser’s specific charges. First, he argues that I present a distorted picture because the believers I met constituted an educated elite unrepresentative of Chinese Christians. That is obviously true in some demographic sense, but I wonder how relevant it is in light of the extensive growth of Christianity in China. Here Mr. Kaiser himself seems conflicted. He claims that the Christian church is largely composed of rural, uneducated older women, yet he testifies to the vibrant growth of the church, of many souls saved for Christ. I assume these people are not just older rural women.
Second, I did not say that there was a lack of interest among Chinese intellectuals about civil society. Quite the contrary. I said that there was a tremendous interest in civil society and even in the role that religion might play in its development. What I also said is that the government fears civil society. And on that score the evidence is overwhelming. Has Mr. Kaiser read the trenchant reportage of David Aikman, the documentation by Compass Direct or the Cardinal Kung Foundation, the reports by Voice of the Martyrs? What does he make of the courageous public communiqué out of Henan province by house church leaders, some of whom now sit in Chinese jails?
Here Mr. Kaiser emerges as an amazing apologist for the Chinese regime. He claims that the Chinese people experience their government as truly federalist, while we in America experience it as national and monolithic. Thus, China is really more democratic than America! Even China’s most vigorous defenders in the U.S., who frequently employ arguments of moral equivalence, have not gone that far.
Third, Mr. Kaiser seeks to correct the record on the legal status of churches in China. He notes that the Chinese Constitution "guarantees" freedom of religious belief and speech, but not freedom of assembly. Thus house churches are not illegal, as I allege, and people can worship in their homes undisturbed. Problems arise only with respect to registration for assembly.
But how seriously can we take constitutional guarantees in a one–party state? Can anyone really argue that freedom of speech is enjoyed in China? Our own founders feared that a mere "parchment barrier" would not be enough to protect rights. How much more ought we to be suspicious of Chinese authorities who can use registration laws as they please to clamp down on believers? The distinction Mr. Kaiser draws is a fine one indeed. Freedom of worship inherently involves freedom of assembly.
Finally, Mr. Kaiser challenges my statement that officially sanctioned seminaries and ministers are not free to preach the pure gospel. Perhaps I left the wrong impression here. The gospel, happily, is preached in numerous Three–Self congregations and Patriotic Cath olic parishes, and many believers have worked out complex accommodations to government realities. But why do the majority of China’s Christians refuse to worship in such places, often at some risk?
One explanation rests on the nature of government control over seminary education. There may be no outright sermon censorship, as Mr. Kaiser argues, but the system has powerful means of ensuring political conformity. Students who attend official seminaries must demonstrate "political reliability," pass tests on political knowledge, and profess support for the Chinese Communist Party. Can anyone doubt what would happen to a typical Three–Self seminarian or minister who challenged the government’s treatment of house churches?
Mr. Kaiser clearly embraces the idea of "oriental difference" with respect to human rights concerns. He argues that many average Chinese, along with authorities, desire stability more than Western–oriented individual rights. Given what the Chinese have been through this last half century—devastating man–made famines and the convulsions of the cultural revolution—stability and some measure of prosperity are indeed good things. But they are clearly not enough for many of the faithful. Nor should the government be allowed to justify harsh treatment of independent churches with the excuse that they might undermine stability.
I remain awed by believers in China, whether they worship in underground fellowships or in registered churches. In both cases they must develop strategies to avoid the state’s intrusive glare. And I have no doubt that many Chinese experience authentic Christianity in "official" churches. But I stand by my contention that such state–sanctioned churches cannot satisfy the spiritual hungers of China’s restless people. Why is that is so hard to fathom?