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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

One particularly interesting development regarding the 2012 Presidential Election is the possibility that Americans could elect a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known to many as a Mormon.  Personally, I’m quite surprised that the issue of Mitt Romney’s religious faith has not played a larger role in public discussions.

If we turn back the clock a few decades, when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the fact that he was a member of the Catholic Church was a cause for concern for many citizens throughout the nation, sparking fears that he would owe his greatest allegiance, not to the United States and her people, but rather to a pope in the Vatican.  Recently, in response to this potential 2012 Mormon controversy, the perhaps best-known evangelist, Billy Graham, tried to defuse the situation, offering some tactic support of Mitt Romney’s candidacy and his church.  This news was a bit of a shock to many, given Graham’s previous declarations that the Mormon Church is a “cult”. 

I assume that there is generally little widespread knowledge regarding the Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS Church.  Before spending considerable time learning about the religion and meeting many Mormons while living in Charlottesville, VA, in the mid 2000s, I’ll confess that Mormonism put me at unease; this concern did not stem from a reasoned theological disagreement with the church, but rather a lack of understanding and general widespread prejudice.  Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I’ll start off by saying that there are a number of issues that set Mormonism apart from what is generally regarded as traditional Christianity.  Some of the best well-known distinctions of Mormonism include the Book of Mormon and the church’s previous support of polygamy.

Let’s start with the Book of Mormon.  According to Mormon theology, Joseph Smith, the founder and first prophet of the LDS Church, through the assistance of the angel Moroni, discovered a number of golden plates on a hill in upstate New York.  With the aid of “seeing stones”, Smith translated the writing on many of these plates into what is now known as The Book of Mormon.  The text describes the ancient people of America as a lost tribe of Israelites and explores their history and theology.  In addition, after his death in the Middle East, Jesus appeared to these early Americans to impart teachings, many of which are similar to the concepts found in the Bible.  Some time later, two factions within these ancient peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites came into brutal conflict.  The last Nephite, the then human Moroni, wrote the final portion of the Book of Mormon and buried the text only to be discovered by Smith about 1500 years later.  Besides the Book of Mormon, the LDS have additional extra-biblical texts including the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrines and Covenants.

Polygamy, (more specifically polygyny, the practice of a man taking multiple wives), was an early custom in the Mormon Church.  Joseph Smith had a number of spouses as did Brigham Young, who led the Mormons on their trek to what is now the state of Utah.  Perhaps not surprisingly, polygamy caused considerable tension with the non-Mormon population and the United States government, which was one compelling reason for the Mormons to move westward, away from the established American communities.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Utah was not admitted as a state in the union until the Mormons renounced polygamy, which they did in the Manifesto of 1890.

Besides the Book of Mormon and early support for polygyny, there are a number of other aspects of the Latter-day Saints, which set them apart both in theology and in practice from traditional Christianity.  For example, there is baptism for the dead, where a member of the Church can, by proxy, be baptized for a deceased person.  The reasoning in doing so is to allow the deceased person an opportunity to enter into heaven, which would previously be denied to someone who had not participated in this rite while alive.

Most people consider a fundamental element of Christianity is the idea of Trinitarianism, the belief that God exists simultaneously in three separate but united persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, Mormons believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three separate gods.  In addition, Mormons believe in the concept of eternal progression where men and women can become like God.  As former LDS President Lorenzo Snow stated, “As God now is, man may be.”   This theological distinction could lead some to claim that Mormons are not monotheistic, but rather either polytheistic or henotheistic.

Interestingly, I have found that many socially conservative Christians, like Billy Graham, who, all things being equal, I would assume would reserve the greatest criticism for Mitt Romney’s Mormon ties, are some of his more ardent defenders.  Then again, I’ve also heard some of these very same people use the line that it is better to elect “a Mormon than a Muslim”; playing upon the fear that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim and threatens to subvert our national interest to Islamic terrorists.  Do they dislike Mormons still, but reserve a greater distrust of Muslims?  For some people, is it simply another case of choosing the “lesser of two evils”?

One overarching question that needs to be asked is what makes a person or a church Christian?  It is simply holding the belief that Jesus is the messiah sent by God for the redemption of mankind and that following him is the only path to salvation?  Does it require a literal or figurative understanding of the Bible?  What about acceptance or rejection certain texts like the deuterocanonical portion of the Bible, also known as the Apocrypha, or the Book of Mormon itself?  Is baptism required and, if so, how and when should it be done?  Must Christians adhere to follow the leadership of a certain spiritual leader?  So, are Mormons Christians?  How about other groups often labeled as cults such as Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, or Unitarians?  Given their veneration of Mary and other differing beliefs, are Catholics Christian?  Does supporting predestination preclude calling Presbyterians Christian?   And can a person be a Christian even if the church to which he or she belongs is outside the traditional definition of the term?  What about those who have no official church membership?  Is there one simple answer to this question and can it be universally applied?

Anyway, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is quite possible that, like the 1960 election, this contest will re-define the American perception of what it means to be a Christian.  Mormons, like Catholics before them, once viewed with suspicion and hostility, might slowly be welcomed into the larger Christian fold.

Although I appreciate the chance to improve religious dialogue, I am disappointed that this conversation seemingly arose, not from a desire to promote understanding, but rather as an afterthought to advance a particular candidate.  Do conservatives, like Billy Graham, honestly now believe that Mormonism is simply another branch of Christianity and not a cult?  Or are they willing to cast aside their longstanding beliefs for political gain?  If the answer is the first, then I’m hopeful that this change will permit more people in this country to openly practice their religious convictions without fear of societal persecution.  However, if the answer is the second, which I worry is the case, then the state of organized religion and politics in America is in a much more sickly state than I previously imagined.

Regardless of the circumstances and any particular personal preferences, as a result of the 2012 elections, Mormonism is being mainstreamed.  Whether you adhere to a more traditional Christian tradition, you are a Mormon yourself, or you chart a path separate from either, this development does make for a lot of important theological and political ramifications in America today.

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You know, I was under the impression that citizens and businesses were allowed at least some measure of religious freedom.  After all, along with the freedom of speech and the press, isn’t that one of the primary purposes of the 1st Amendment?  Well, according to our unelected masters at the Federal Reserve, that right can be revoked.

Until late last week, a small bank in Perkins, Oklahoma displayed crosses, had a Bible verse on their website, and their tellers wore “Merry Christmas” buttons without any reported trouble.  However, having learned of this religious display, the Fed stepped in to trample upon the freedoms of the bank.  Worried that all of this imagery and holiday cheer would offend someone, it had to go.

Now, I believe that any person should have the freedom to express their religious beliefs as they see fit (assuming, of course, it doesn’t hamper the liberty of another).  If a bank wishes to display a cross, a menorah, a crescent moon, or a statue of Shiva, isn’t that their right?  Concurrently, whether they choose to celebrate (or not to celebrate) Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or anything else, shouldn’t they be allowed to?  If I don’t care for their display, as a customer, I am free to take my business elsewhere.  Is your faith (or lack there of) so weak that even the smallest of mention of a contrary opinion is damaging?  Do we live in a land of religious freedom and toleration…or a land forcibly wiped clean of religion, especially Christianity?

Fortunately, after considerable public demand, the Fed countermanded their original orders…at least for the moment.  I wish I could say that the issue has been resolved permanently, but such a claim would be extremely naïve.  This incident further illustrates that in the mad scramble for political correctness and overreaching government control, our rights can be quickly swept away if we are not constantly vigilant and willing to stand up for them.  I’d like to leave you with one question.  Would the Fed had acted in the same manner if the displays were Jewish or Hindu instead of Christian?  I really doubt it.

I want to send out thanks to the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party for bringing up this issue.  The original stories from the KOCO News of Oklahoma City can be found here and here.

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Recently, I thought back to an event here in Harrisonburg with Dinesh D’Sousa.  At one point during the speech, he mentioned how it was a good thing that his ancestors were converted to Christianity (presumably not as a result of their own wish) as it resulted in his faith today.  Regardless of whether or not I remember this moment and its implications correctly, I wanted to discuss the issue of conversion by the sword.

Some people claim that when it comes to Christianity, it is perfectly acceptable to convert people using any and all methods possible, including force.  I completely disagree.  Although this tactic may, on the surface, appear to accomplish your goals, such an act actually damages both the convert and the faith as a whole.  Where, I ask, does it recommend the use of threats and/or force to spread the Christian message?  Can anyone find me a quote from Jesus advocating such a plan?  Shouldn’t one’s religious choice be made through spiritual desire as opposed to duress?  Now certainly, as a Christian myself, I believe that Christianity is the one true faith, but far too many have committed wicked acts to supposedly advance the cause.  History is replete with examples of supposed Christians forcing their beliefs on others through compulsion.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, colonization, and imperialism all spring to mind.  Even Christian groups violently fought each other: the Thirty Years War, the Huguenots against the Catholics, the Spanish versus the French, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few.  How, as Christians, can we condemn the radical elements that advocate violent conversions and executions in Hinduism, Islam, and other religions when we do not reject the practice in Christianity too?  But wait, Joshua, it’s ok because we know that we are right!  Really?  What would Jesus say?  More importantly what would Jesus do?  Did he tell his followers to convert by the sword, or did he say, “Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword”?  (Matthew 26:52 NLT)  If one of the two most important commandments is supposedly, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:40 NLT) how can you justify persecuting your neighbor and promoting bodily harm should he or she either not be Christian or happen to follow a differing denomination?  Would you do the same to yourself or your own family?  Is killing adults so that you can raise their children as Christians acceptable?  How about kidnapping or starvation?  Is perverting the original message through violence right if it swells the ranks of the faithful?  When it comes to Christianity, do the ends justify the means?  Although one can point to numerous examples of such behavior in the past, I cannot condone violence done in the name of Jesus.

For some reason, it seems perfectly socially acceptable to promote the ideals of democratic governance through force as well.  In World War I, we were supposedly fighting to make the world “safe for democracy”.  In the civil wars in Vietnam and Korea, we were fighting to preserve a democratic government from the forces of Communism.  In a more recent example, the conflict in Iraq, we were fighting to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle Eastern nation.  As George W. Bush stated in 2005, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.”  Although Americans would likely agree that democratic government (or, at least, what we think of when we say democratic government) is the best form of government, how should we go about promoting this belief?  Early in our nation’s history, we thought that leading by example was the best method.  John Quincy Adams, while Secretary of State, echoed American thought when he stated in 1821, “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart….Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”  Unfortunately, American leaders began to break free of this historical mooring and fought not for their own freedom, but sacrificed her children for the sake of others.  For examples, one need not look further than the conflicts mentioned in the early part of this paragraph.  Promoting democracy aggressively became a sort of religious zealotry.  Did, as Wilson suggested, the world need to be made safe for democracy?  If we had not entered World War I, would our government and way of life been either constantly imperiled or destroyed?  We held the same mistaken beliefs during the struggle against Communism with the Domino Theory.  Despite the logic of some leaders, the rise of Communism in some far eastern country would not necessarily lead to Communism in America.  After all, less than twenty years after losing the Vietnam War (or achieving “Peace with Honor” if you prefer), the entire Soviet Union collapsed.  And yet, this downfall did not come with some great and heroic military victory over the Red Army, but rather through the inherent weaknesses of the Communist system coupled with the desire for freedom from many of the nations and citizens trapped under such a regime.  Rather than learn from history, our leaders, such as President Bush, prefer to repeat past mistakes.  Although I would agree that a democratic government in the Middle East would be of value, some people pushed for war to establish such a government.  They pointed to the murderous atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein as justification, and then created a conflict that took the lives of about a hundred thousand Iraqi men, women, and children.  When we push our government on others (especially the unwilling ones), do we not lower ourselves to the level of tyrants, dictators, and imperialists?  Is democracy so great that an outside power can create it militarily and not create resentment regarding its bloody birth?  I certainly think not, though history shall prove the final judge.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate my earlier points.  Even though there are many differing viewpoints in this world of ours, and the prevailing trend is to remain silent, one should not be hesitant to properly promote and articulate one’s own thoughts.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the issues of both personal and state religion and politics, one should not and must not resort to the temptation to use the sword to convert one’s neighbors, be they either foreign or domestic.   To do so would be a gross perversion and betrayal of the original principles of both Christianity and American democracy.  Can’t these pillars stand upon their own merit or should we drag them through the mire of coercion, tainting them and their adherents further?  Don’t the notions of freedom, liberty, and love teach better?

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