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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been thrust into the national spotlight, and the media's intense scrutiny has revealed a faith no longer sequestered in Utah's valleys.
The 14 million Latter-day Saints today comprise a faith comparable in size to Judaism. This revelation has sparked a furious effort within the religious world to properly categorize the faith.
The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, says Mormonism is a second Islam. He claims that the Book of Mormon is the Latter-day Saint equivalent of the Koran, and calls the faith the "fourth Abrahamic religion" (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the other three).
Harold Bloom, the renowned patriarch of Yale's humanities department, characterizes early-Mormonism as America's Judaism. "The great affinity between Judaism and 19th-century Mormonism" he says, "is that each is the phenomenon not of a people becoming a religion but of a religion becoming a people."
What both Land and Bloom miss in their assessments is precisely what Stephen Webb gets: the centrality of Christ in Mormon theology.
Webb, a professor of religion at Wabash College, published an article titled, "Mormonism Obsessed with Christ" in the latest issue of First Things, a prominent journal of religious thought.
A Protestant who converted to Catholicism, Webb calls Mormon theology "Christology unbound," and says "everything it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him." Surprisingly, Webb came to this view from reading the Book of Mormon. Every page, he claims, "prepares the way for its stunning climax, which is a literal appearance of Jesus to the ancient peoples of America."
Though non-Mormons don't typically believe that the resurrected Jesus came to the Americas, Webb doesn't see why other Christians would be troubled by stories which, though different, only expound on Christ's divinity.
To make this point, Webb describes a scenario in which your family gathers for a loved one's funeral and you all share familiar tales about the deceased. While telling these stories you notice a second group of mourners who are also sharing anecdotes about your loved one. As you listen in you notice that some of their stories you recognize while other stories you've never heard before.
Webb says, "Whether or not you decide to expand your family to include this group, you can still welcome them as promoters of your [family member's] memory."
Of course, the loved one in Webb's parable is Christ, and the second group of mourners represent Latter-day Saints. While the strength of Webb's parable does not reside in its overly flattering picture of Christians as one big happy family Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Methodists all have their differences the parable deftly depicts Mormons as Christians with more.
Brigham Young put it this way, "We, the Latter-day Saints, take the liberty of believing more than our Christian brethren: we not only believe … the Bible, but … the whole of the plan of salvation that Jesus has given to us. Do we differ from others who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? No, only in believing more."
So how should others in the United States label Latter-day Saints? Some suggest expansionist Christians or openness Christians. We'd simply prefer to be called "more Christians."
As Robert Millet, emeritus dean of religious education at Brigham Young University, observes "it is, of course, the 'more' that makes many in the Christian world very nervous and usually suspicious of [Latter-day Saints]. But it is the 'more' that allows us to make a meaningful contribution in the religious world."
David Paulsen is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University. He and Hal Boyd are co-contributors to Oxford University Press' forthcoming "A Handbook to Mormonism."