Was this Bryant Gumbel apologizing for belittling the BYU Cougar’s 1984 NCAAF title? Was it Jim McMahon asking forgiveness for consistently sitting on the Wyoming stands for BYU homecoming games? No, it was noted evangelical scholar Richard J. Mouw, President of the Fuller Theological Seminary.
In the rush of news articles handicapping Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations is an unnoticed but significant thaw in the troubled relations between Evangelicals and Mormons.The Big Freeze
Of course, before the thaw, there was the freeze.
The two religious movements share similar roots in the early 19th century revival period. However, while the predecessors of the American evangelical movement enjoyed the fruits of their labors across New England, Mormons were being forced westward.
The motives behind the Mormon ouster were generally competitive (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew to 100,000 members in less than 15 years) but also economic (Mormon-dominated Nauvoo, Illinois had a population eclipsing Chicago’s in 1844). While this first religious rift ended in physical separation the second rift ended in theological banishment from Christendom.
In the 20th century, Evangelical Protestants found a huge number rallying to the revivalist message of pastors on the lecture circuit. Simultaneously, Mormons left their Wasatch haven to vie for converts. In 1950 the Mormon Church had over a million adherents. By 1981, Mormons numbered 5 million, with 2 million members overseas.
Suddenly, a good body of literature began to grow up around “cults” and how to avoid their “traps.” The impetus for the anti-Mormon movement was based on conflicting theologies. In short, Mormon doctrine doesn’t conform with traditional evangelical interpretation of the Bible. While some of these points of contention are genuine disagreements (i.e. the nature of God, the notion of an open cannon) other debates wallow in accusations.
A Dialogue Begins
In 1996 a very unlikely pair of scholars attempted an unprecedented feat: a book on Evangelical and Mormon beliefs. The “unprecedented” and “unlikely” part is this: one scholar is Evangelical, the other Mormon.
In one corner: Craig Blomberg (Ph.D., Aberdeen), professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. In the other corner: Stephen Robinson (Ph.D., Duke), professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young. Under the traditional rules of engagement, the gloves would come off and the rhetoric would fly long and hard.
Astoundingly, and to the chagrin of many a rhetorical boxer, the book was an attempt at “listening” to the other side, and explaining one’s own beliefs. In their book, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation, Blomberg and Robinson tried to dispel common caricatures about each movement that have grown increasingly un-Christian over the past two decades. Most importantly, the book became the first major dialogue between a recognized Evangelical scholar and his Mormon counterpart.
Soon after its publication, the prominent head of an evangelical organization declared the book to be “an abomination”. Evangelical bookstores started boycott efforts. Deseret Book, the Mormon Church-owned publishing powerhouse, pulled its backing from the project which was originally intended to be a joint publication with InterVarsity Press. Clearly, this was new ground for all the parties involved. The ark was, so to speak, rocking.
Losing the Battle?
A year later in 1997, two evangelical scholars published an article entitled: “
Mormonism, has, in recent years, produced a substantial body of literature defending their beliefs… In this battle the Mormons are fighting valiantly. And the evangelicals? It appears that we may be losing the battle and not knowing it.
Their purpose in publishing the article was hardly to concede the fight. Indeed, their efforts were “to serve to awaken members of the evangelical community to the important task at hand.”
From the Mormon perspective these were unprecedented admissions. Many LDS speak to their frustrations in defending the Mormon Church from debunked century-old attacks. Up until Owen and Mosser, there were very few critiques that had approached Mormon scholarship in a dialogue.
The New Mormon Challenge
Fast forward to 2002, Messrs. Owens, Mosser together with noted conservative author Francis J. Beckwith publish a lengthy volume, The New Mormon Challenge to address the growing Mormon movement.
It was within the first paragraphs of the forward that Richard J. Mouw first made the admission of being “ashamed of our record in relating to the Mormon community.” As Mormon apologist Dan Peterson noted, the tone is “light years” from the usual rhetoric.
Of course, beyond the courtesy and rapport of the authors are serious disagreements with Mormon theology. “Mormonism’s challenges are real and can be dismissed only at a cost evangelicals are unwilling to pay” says Carl Mosser.
The newfound dialogue between Mormons and Evangelicals has left the melee in favor of the gentleman’s war. While it can get messy and sticky at times, the general tenor of the battle seems wholly improved and marks a significant thaw in their relations. For example, in his chapter on Mormon theology, Mosser notes: “One has failed to appreciate Mormonism’s distinctiveness if one can classify it as Christian without qualifications.” I believe this is a definition that most Mormons would agree with.
Of course this is at the academic level. Is there discomfort among Evangelicals about Mormons? Yes. Is the breach in the wall large enough where a dialogue can begin in the grassroots? Perhaps. Is it insurmountable? Time will tell. After all, as someone noted, if common religious bonds were the only yardstick in the voting booth, conservative evangelicals would have chosen Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan.