Monday, June 4, 2012

Evangelicals & Mormons Unite!


Imperial Christianity, market spirituality, money-obsessed churches, gospels of prosperity, prayers of let's-make-a-deal with God or help me turn my wheel of fortune have become the prevailing voice of American Christianity. In this version of Christianity the precious blood at the foot of the cross becomes mere Kool-Aid to refresh eager upwardly mobile aspirants in the nihilistic American game of power and might. And there is hardly a mumbling word heard about social justice, resistance to institutional evil, or courage to confront the powes that be--with the glaring exception of abortion.
Cornel West, Democracy Matters (2004)

Growing up in the world of Orange County Fundamentalist-Evangelicalism, I quickly learned that "cult" was synonomous with "Mormon." Virtually every Evangelical Christian I have ever met believes that Mormonism is not a legitmiate brand of Christianity. Of course, much of this is understandable considering that Mormons have added sacred texts to the Bible and have divergent views on christology, the Trinity & the "requirements" of salvation. But this Evangelical brand of hostility towards Mormonism has always had a unique quality that is, today, more relevant than ever.

This morning the NY Times published a significant piece from J. Spencer Fluhman, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University. Fluhman exposes the hypocrisy of historic anti-Mormon sentiment coming from Evangelical circles:

In the 19th century, antagonists charged that Mormon men were tyrannical patriarchs, that Mormon women were virtual slaves and that Mormons diabolically blurred church and state. These accusations all contained some truth, though the selfsame accusers denied women the vote, bolstered racist patriarchy and enthroned mainstream Protestantism as something of a state religion.

Communicating a simple-yet-vital religious history lesson, Fluhman posits that Evangelicalism's anti-Mormonism has only gotten more intense in the past few decades:

Embarrassed after their fight with modernists in the mid-1920s, evangelical Protestants withdrew from public engagement, built their own impressive church and educational networks, and re-emerged in the 1970s as a formidable force on the political right. The subsequent “countercult” movement within evangelicalism targeted Mormonism with gusto.

But Fluhman is hopeful for a kinder, gentler Evangelical-Mormon relationship mostly because Evangelicals "seem more concerned with Mr. Obama’s political heresies than with Mr. Romney’s religious ones." Fluhman concludes with a hopeful-yet-realistic prediction:

This election, regardless of outcome, unquestionably pushes the United States onto new political terrain because neither candidate represents the religious old guard. But until Americans work through our contradictory impulses regarding faith, diversity and freedom, there is no reason to believe anti-Mormonism will go away anytime soon.

Evangelical Christianity's historic obsession with hatin' on Mormonism needs to end. Not because we necessarily need to be critically "tolerant" of each and every religious option ("relativism"), but because the criticism of Mormonism coming from the powerful Evangelical wing of the Body of Christ is saturated in hypocrisy.

The audacity of Evangelicals to criticize Mormonism's patriarchy while white males dominate pulpits, committees and non-profit Evangelical hierarchies! And the conspicuous intertwining of racial baggage and the-lack-of-separation-of-church-and-state has haunted Evangelical circles since MLK. This is how Princeton professor Cornel West describes the Evangelical political significance of the late 20th century in Democracy Matters (2004):

Ironically, the powerful political presence of imperial Christians today is inspired by the success of the democratic Christian-led movement of Martin Luther King Jr. The worldly engagement of King's civil rights movement encouraged Constantiian Christans to become more organized and to partner with the power elites of the American empire. The politicization of Christian fundamentals was a direct response to King's prophetic Christian legacy. It began as a white backlash against King's heritage in American public life, and it has always had a racist undercurrent--as with Bob Jones University, whcih until recently barred interracial dating.

Ultimately, finger-pointing and name-calling masks the common denominators at the core of both Mormon and Evangelical political imaginations (both of which are overwhelmingly married to the Republican Party): the utter lack of critical engagement with American imperialism and economic injustice. The crucial litmus test of what it means to be a follower of Jesus--whether Evangelical, Mormon, Anabaptist, liberal Protestant, Catholic or "other"--is that she loves both her neighbor and enemy, regardless of national origin or economic class. A love that mimics the Messiah ought to take seriously the policies (from drones to derivatives) that wreak deathly havoc on the rest of the world. Neither brand of faith-based political participation consistently displays this kind of global neighborly love.

Mormons and Evangelicals, although differing signficantly on core doctrinal convictions, bond politically over their quest to reverse Roe v. Wade and to block gays and lesbians from the marriage altar and their overwhelming support for free-market economic policies and militarist solutions to global threats. Both relgio-political movements are largely run by wealthy white males. In West's helpful construal of American Christian options, both Mormons and Evangelicals are Constantinian, committed to keeping the economic and social status quo.

So far, fortunately, both Obama and Romney have been reluctant to remind voters that their political opponent dwells on the religious fringe. It ought to stay that way through November because all people of faith cannot afford to focus on anything other than the actual policies that affect lives on the ground. All our energies should be spent on how whether one's lifestyle and policy proposals are actually compeling. Religious doctrines, from the days of Constantine until this very second, have been consistently shaped by social, economic and political forces. Power begets belief. It takes a Jesus of Nazareth, a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi to ignite a radical revolution of values that he has prophetically "brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate" (Luke 1:52).

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