mormons vs. evangelicals: a question in the sociology of religion

A few weeks ago, I read this about the GOP South Carolina primary voters:

One of the biggest questions for Mr. Romney has been the impact of his Mormon faith in a heavily evangelical state like South Carolina.

Voters were not asked about that explicitly in exit polls, but among those who came to vote looking for someone who shared their religious beliefs, Mr. Romney did not do well.

This raised a question. Why do evangelicals not accept Mormons? Mormons  believe in Christ. It’s even in the official name of the main religious organization – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Furthermore, most Mormons adopt the Christian label.

To resolve this puzzle, I asked three sociologists of religion if the Mormon faith is really that different what has traditionally been called Christianity. Surprisingly, I got a strong and uniform answer – yes. What I gathered from these conversations is that comparative religion scholars employ a definition that suggests that evangelical Christians and Mormons are very distinct.

How do the experts go about this question? The focus is on social practice. If group X and Y do the same things, then they are the same religion. In the study of religion, X and Y are similar if the employ the same ideas (religious beliefs) and texts. Also, religion scholars emphasize the role of spiritual mediation, ritual, and social practice. For example, Catholicism is considered different than Protestantism because the latter permits individuals a direct relation to god.

On these counts, Mormonism and Protestantism are considered quite different. Ideologically, Mormons have different beliefs about the after life, the nature of the soul, and other issues. Textually, they do not adhere to Biblical literalism and they have added a new primary text, the Book of Mormon. They are schismatic as well, in the sense that they do not accept the authority of earlier Christian or Catholic organizations. Finally, they have their own social organization (e.g., they are endogamous and have their own social groups).

Let me end with a note about self-identification. Why do members of the LDS use the term Christianity? The answer is simple – they are Christians. This is a truthful and accurate use of the term “Christian” because Mormons believe in Christ and still read the Bible.

Why the difference between the congregation and the experts? I think that’s simple as well. When Mormons say, “I am Christian,” they are saying that they share some of the same theology as Protestants, Catholics, and other groups that trace their lineage through Jesus Christ. The experts would also recognize that, but they have a different term for that. They would say Mormonism is “Abrahamic,” a term denoting monotheistic religions that have evolved from Abraham.

Sociologically, the emergence of a religion, like Mormonism, indicates social differentation. A group breaks off and establishes a new identity. Since the new group has retained traits from the old group, it’s fair to point to similarities. Also, there will be important differences which form the foundation of the new group, so it is fair to say that their different. Same branch, different leaves.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 23, 2012 at 12:16 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

13 Responses

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  1. Could it be that Mormons associate themselves with Christianity (and self-referring as Christians) to attempt to obtain a degree of legitimacy? After all, over time they’ve evolved in a way to bring themselves more in-line with evangelicals. They seemingly have also evolved in a way more similar to Protestantism in order to appeal to a larger audience. It’s also a lost less costly for a new religion to emerge and to associate with a dominate religion insofar as they say it is an “updated teaching” (or the REAL meaning/translation of the Bible). There have been other religious organizations that were created that attempted to cling to the Bible but have been significantly less successful. Overall, it seems to work more in their favor to associate with a dominant religion than attempt to emerge as a completely autonomous religion.



    February 23, 2012 at 12:32 am

  2. @undergrad. There’s probably some of that at play – especially consciously on the part of the Mormon leadership. On the other hand, I grew up in an Adventist household and there’s a fair bit of a “bubble existence” during childhood in which you think everyone else is also an Adventist (or a Mormon) and that everyone else goes to church on Saturdays and that church on Sundays is the outlier, not you.

    On another note: perhaps religions follow that “fractalizing” process that Omar talked about in discussion Abbott’s “Chaos of Professions” ?



    February 23, 2012 at 12:55 am

  3. What I find interesting about evangelicals vs Mormons is that their differences do seem to be almost entirely theological and not political. As I said the other day, they agree about everything but coffee and the Nicene Creed. This contrasts with the general trend Hunter describes in Culture Wars towards ignoring theological distinctions and emphasizing essentially political disputes such that in parsing us vs them, beliefs about abortion is more salient than beliefs about predestination or intercession with the result that evangelicals are quite content to ally with people who a few generations ago they would’ve derided as papists.

    The only real explanation I can see for evangelical rejection of Mormons is to take their arguments at face value and see them as actually objecting to the rather substantial doctrinal differences, which dwarf any differences within Chalcedonian Christianity.

    A more interesting contrast is evangelical attitudes towards orthodox Jews, who are also endogamous and also disagree with them on very basic theological points, but whom evangelicals adore. I think that has to do with ownership of the word “Christian” which evangelicals recognize is fuzzy, but wish to keep from getting too fuzzy. As an analogy, think of the tree of sociology. If it was called the “tree of modern literature” many of us would’ve said, well, there’s a lot of stupid ideas on there but that’s the English department’s problem so I really don’t care. In contrast, putting the word “sociology” on it puts us into hardcore boundary work mode. I may not agree with everything many sociologists in other subfields say, but I recognize them as a legitimate part of my discipline whereas saying the discipline includes people like Jacques Derrida makes me really angry. In the same way, an evangelical understands that Jews don’t buy into the trinity because they’re Jews, whereas if someone calls himself a Christian and doesn’t believe in the trinity that’s going to get the evangelical mad.



    February 23, 2012 at 1:38 am

  4. @Gabriel: many evangelicals believe that the Second Coming of Jesus cannot occur unless Jews are firmly in control of the Land of Israel. This explains a large part of evangelicals’ supposed adoration of Orthodox Jews.

    Also, lots of evangelicals don’t think Catholics are Christians either.



    February 23, 2012 at 3:22 am

  5. Mikaila,

    Only some evangelicals are premillenial dispensationalists and the rest of them are also pretty philosemitic.

    Also conservative Protestant hostility to Catholics is much attenuated from how strong it was a few generations ago.



    February 23, 2012 at 4:01 am

  6. In my opinion, you don’t really count as philosemetic if you believe all Jews are going to hell.



    February 23, 2012 at 5:26 am

  7. I think the answer to why Mormons call themselves Christian can be found in the Jews for Jesus sect. They are Christian like Christians are Jewish.


    Philip Cohen

    February 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm

  8. Frankly, I am surprised anyone wasted time asking sociologists. There is no surprise here- the Mormon conception of who Jesus Christ is just too different. You could learn this from Mormon and you can learn this from Evangelicals- you can learn this from Catholics. You could even learn this from a few atheists who happen to like to specialize in religion.



    February 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm

  9. Fabio, you are going to get some pushback from evangelicals even for the Protestant label that you assume fits them nicely. To many evangelicals, the term Protestant is reserved for mainline Protestants, and their preferred term, Christian, distinguishes them from Protestants as it does from Catholics and Mormons. The issue is one of cultural grouping, really, rather than doctrine or theology.



    February 23, 2012 at 5:53 pm

  10. Fabio: Some thoughts on your post. I’m a member of the LDS/Mormon church, for what it’s worth (in terms of this discussion), though I don’t do comparative religion type research. And I’m frankly not into conversations that implicitly lump ALL people who are of x religion (or whatever category) into certain buckets – so that gets reflected below. (And one more qualifier: I’m not a US citizen, so perhaps some of my reading of US politics is off.)

    I’m not sure the basic premise of your post holds – that Evangelicals would not vote for Romney. Iowa and Florida (I think they are both around 25% Evangelical, if I remember correctly) have nearly the same number of Evangelicals as South Carolina (35%) and it seems that Romney did ok there. Though, I don’t know what the breakdown of votes ended up being (yes, Romney likely gets more of the fiscal conservative vote). Newt did well in SC because he is from the South (or, b/c the Romney campaign seemed to be taking the nomination for granted at that point) and Romney is a Easterner, or something.

    And, whether Evangelicals vote for Romney depends on the alternatives. When it was Romney versus McCain, then I think Evangelicals (perhaps reluctantly) voted for Romney (and obviously, in the general election this issue would drop out of the equation). But Romney is not a social conservative (rather a fiscal one), which I think is the reason why Evangelicals don’t readily jump on board with him, particularly when folks like Santorum appear to be viable and pushing the social angle. But if a Mormon were running as a social conservative (again, depending on the alternatives) then I think there would scarcely be the issues. Different folks are likely to make different aspects of who they are salient (Huntsman, also a Mormon, did not try to reach out to Republican social conservatives at all).

    Another problem with the post is that Evangelicals are a rather heterogeneous lot. You lump them under Protestants, but the Lutherans of Europe (or US) and many brands of US Evangelicals would not see eye-to-eye on many, if any, issues. So when you say that “Mormonism and Protestantism are considered quite different” – it depends on what brand of Protestantism you are talking about. On some dimensions Mormons are closer to Evangelicals, on some dimensions closer to Protestants (of the non-evangelical variety) and on other dimensions Mormons are closer to Catholics. For example, to get more fine-grained on one point doctrinally, Mormon conceptions of the trinity have some closer links to Eastern Orthodox views, compared to Catholics or (again, some) Evangelicals. And, there are doctrinal matters that might be compared, but then also just matters of basic day-to-day practices, friendship associations, affiliations, identity claims, etc, etc.

    Some other random thoughts:

    The modern origins of the Mormon church are quite “American” – rooted in the Great Awakenings of early 1800s, where many other denominations (including some Evangelical ones) saw their beginnings. For some basic background, see here:

    Mormons of course also are a rather heterogenous lot, particularly politically (though in the US more to the political right than some other stereotyped religious groups) – you’ve got Glenn Beck on the far right and then Harry Reid more on the left. There are currently many groups that reflect this: Mormons for Obama, Mormons for Ron Paul etc. The heterogeneity in Mormon politics increases if you look at Mormons internationally (over half of church membership): everything from Green Party to Pirate Party to Libertarians, Communists etc.



    February 23, 2012 at 6:17 pm

  11. Teppo,

    On the churches of the East point, I did think it was interesting that a few months ago when a Perry campaign proxy was reading Mormons out you also saw Egyptian Copts in the news and absolutely nobody objected to calling them “Christians” on the basis that they are non-Chalcedonian monophysites who have been out of communion w both Rome and Constantinople since late antiquity.



    February 23, 2012 at 6:47 pm

  12. I’m with those who fail to see the puzzle here. Why do evangelicals not accept Scientologists? Take your pick, but we could start with Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy. Yea, that probably has something to do with it. Why do evangelicals not accept Mormons? Again, take your pick. We could start with Jared and the destruction of the Nephites, all those people riding around on horses, eating that sweet, sweet pig meat, etc. Theology.



    February 23, 2012 at 9:36 pm

  13. As a practicing Mormon and a convert from protestantism, I agree that Mormons and many other Christians are different in a number of ways. I have long thought that the cause is do to extremely different paradigms.

    Most mainstream Christian churches are bible churches. They study the bible and compare all teachings to the standard of the bible. If it is not written in the bible, it cannot be accepted. The word biblical is commonly used. If you do not agree with their interpretation of the bible, you are not Christian.

    The Mormon paradigm is quite different. Though Mormons study the bible as an ancient religious text, the LDS church claims to be led by revelation to authorized priesthood holders (apostles). Mormons accept the words of modern apostles just like the ancient Christians accepted the words of Peter, James and John. This opens up a world of possibilities.

    Mormons do not believe that Mormonism contradicts the bible. The problem is that the bible can be interpreted many different ways. Totally opposite interpretations can be supported equally well by using multiple verses. One of the things that attracted me to Mormonism in the first place was that passages of the bible that I previously placed on a shelf because I could not fit them into my belief system, were now important pieces of the religious puzzle. For example, I could not understand why the bible talks so much about doctrines like repentence, sacrifice of self and obedience to commandments when my church placed no emphasis on it. Why did Jesus tell the rich young man that he not only needed to keep the commandments but that he also needed to give all his posessions to the poor in order to be saved? Now I understand the place of personal sacrifice in developing the kind of faith that moves mountains.



    February 23, 2012 at 10:24 pm

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