SALT LAKE CITY — Polygamy, missionaries on bicycles and the Osmonds.
What most people know or think they know about Mormons might be summed up in those few words. The renowned Tabernacle Choir and, perhaps, quarterback Steve Young could also fit on that list.
Despite 177 years of history, much about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the church of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — remains a mystery to most.
Questions about his faith, which some mainline religious groups discount as a non-Christian cult, have dogged Romney throughout his campaign, and on Thursday he’ll tackle the issue at the George H.W. Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University.
Romney isn’t expected to focus on the details of Mormonism, but it’s in those details that evangelicals and other Christians sometimes break with Latter-day Saints.
The fundamental issue: the nature of God.
”Christians and Jews have always held that there is a great gap between creator and creature. God is God and we’re not,” said Richard Mouw, head of the Pasadena, Calif., Fuller Theological Seminary. “Mormons believe that God and humans are of the same species. In our eyes they have tried to bridge that gap in ways that really is a fundamental violation.”
Mormons also disavow belief in the Trinity — that the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one — instead believing the three to be individuals united in a single purpose.
Many non-Mormons dispute claims that the faith’s central text, the Book of Mormon, is a valid account of Jesus’ dealings with ancient Americans. Mormons believe the book was translated through revelation by founder Joseph Smith from a set of buried golden plates. It’s one of three texts from Smith, who also drafted his own version of the Bible, altering many of its passages in light of what he said were errors that had crept into modern translations.
”The Bible has almost a talismanic significance to evangelicals and they simply don’t like the idea of anybody changing it,” said Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Columbia University. “Here you’ve got an additional testament of Jesus Christ and a source of continuing, authoritative revelation. It simply rubs evangelicals the wrong way.”
Smith founded the church in 1830, 10 years after a vision near his family home in Palmyra, N.Y. The original church had just six members, mostly members of Smith’s family. Today the church claims nearly 13 million members worldwide and is rapidly growing. With about 5.7 million members in the United States, it is the nation’s fourth-largest church.
Culturally, socially and politically, Mormons and evangelical Christians should have no trouble finding common ground.
Mormon culture centers on faith and family, with church activities and callings — from teaching Sunday School to leading Boy Scout troops — filling the calendar.
A patriarchal society, Mormons hold up the traditional family as the ideal, with women encouraged to raise children instead of work outside the home.
Healthy lifestyles are promoted through the faith’s ”Word of Wisdom,” which warns against the use of alcohol, tobacco and ”hot drinks,” including coffee and tea.
Mormons tithe 10 percent of their incomes to their church and are encouraged to serve proselytizing missions.
Mormons oppose gay marriage and denounce gambling. They’ve largely supported the war in Iraq and twice voted overwhelmingly for President Bush. The church opposes abortion, except when the health of the mother is at risk.
Officially, the church is politically neutral. It doesn’t endorse candidates, and it encourages members to vote their consciences.
From the beginning, Mormonism set itself apart from other faiths in both culture and doctrine. Modern leaders don’t dispute the differences — a church Web site says the faith is “not Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox but holds a unique place in the Christian world as restored New Testament Christianity.”
”We believe [the church] was lost after the times of Christ and his apostles and required to be restored through a prophet,” said M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Mormon church’s second-tier of leadership, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Think in terms of Abraham and Moses . . . Joseph Smith to us is just the Moses of our day.”
But the debate over the church’s place in Christianity remains a sore spot for leaders who in 1995 altered the church logo to place more emphasis on the words ”Jesus Christ” in its name.
The problem is that most evangelical Christians see Mormon doctrine, which stems from Smith, as ”un-Biblical,” said Robert Millet, a professor of religion at the church-owned Brigham Young University.
Aside from continuing revelation, there are a host of Mormon beliefs that evangelicals find hard to swallow. Mormons, for example, believe in a Heavenly Mother — God’s female partner — a pre-existence in heaven before birth, a hereafter that includes a three-level heavenly kingdom. They wear religious undergarments that some say possess protective powers; they bar non-Mormons from entering their temples; practice posthumous baptism and believe that man can progress to a God-like state in Heaven.
Millet, who has spent much of the past decade working alongside evangelicals, said of those non-Mormons: “They would say, `Look, it’s not a bad idea, but it’s not biblical. My comeback would be, the real question is whether or not it’s true.”
Other Christians also don’t accept the Mormon contention that they are members of the ”one true church,” the authentic version of Christianity that Smith claimed to have restored to Earth at God’s own direction.
Even language adds to the divide. Mormons refer to all non-Mormons, including Jews, as gentiles and call God ”Heavenly Father” as if ‘ `Heavenly’ were his first name,” Balmer said. “Evangelicals just don’t do that.”
Another concern for some: that Mormon church presidents are held out as prophets with revelatory power that can alter the church’s direction and beliefs.
Such revelations discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890 and, in 1978, ended a ban on giving black men priesthood authority.
Said Mouw, “That notion that things can just get changed is scary for a lot of people who worry that a church with a very strong authority center could influence a public leader by suddenly getting a new revelation that has an impact on public policy.”
Among non-Mormons, 62 percent think Mormonism is very different from their own religion, according to polling this summer by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and Pew Forum. Some 53 percent said they had a favorable view of Mormons, compared with 76 percent who had favorable feelings toward Jews and Catholics, 60 percent for evangelical Christians, 43 percent for Muslims and 35 percent for atheists.
Fifty-two percent said they think Mormons are Christian.
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