Friday, May 25, 2012

Romney Is Mormons’ Path to the Christian Mainstream

From Noah Feldman here.  A taste:
And as a Mormon, Romney is a participant -- indeed, he is the most important participant -- in the long-term project of convincing mainstream American Protestants that Mormonism is a normal denomination like all the others. Given this historic opportunity to “normalize” Mormonism, Romney is acting not opportunistically but on deeply felt principle. By embracing evangelicals and being embraced by them, he is bringing Mormonism into the denominational scheme that characterizes mainstream American Christianity.

Short-term politics is therefore making a long-term historic difference. Evangelical Protestants who once believed that Mormonism was a deviant sect, not a legitimate denomination, may come to believe something very different as they prepare to cast their votes for a Romney. The practice of pluralism can come first. The beliefs can come later.

There is nothing unique about this cart-pulling-the-horse version of tolerance. The modern doctrine of religious toleration grew out of the wars of religion of the 17th century. When enough people had died, practical people -- especially politicians -- begin to see the benefits of leaving well enough alone. Once the government has dictated toleration, the citizens who must practice it need to find a good reason for doing so. Tolerance is the theory that justifies practical coexistence.

As Americans, we can pat ourselves on the back in celebration of increased toleration. The fact that it comes from a historically less-tolerant strand of American life just makes the victory for coexistence all the sweeter.

In historical terms, this change is business as usual. Catholics came to be seen as a legitimate Christian denomination only after years of oppression. Then came the acceptance of Jews. Mormons are the latest beneficiaries. Eventually, Muslims and Hindus will have their day as well.

Price of Normalization

Yet the consequences of turning Mormonism into just another denomination are epochal for Mormons. The doctrine of “be careful what you wish for” certainly applies.

On the one hand, Mormons no doubt believe, with reason, that their evangelizing efforts will be enhanced by a broad public perception that they are Christian. After all, American Protestants change denominations with little frictional effect. If all are worshipping Christ, the mode of worship seems altogether secondary.

On the other hand, seen through the lens of history, entering the mainstream poses major risks. If Mormons think of themselves as another Christian denomination, the risk of defection rises. The distinctive Mormon beliefs in a new scripture and in the possibility of joining the supernal realm for eternal life will come into jeopardy precisely because they mark differences with the Protestant mainstream. If you believe you are not that different from others, there will be a tendency to downplay those practices and beliefs that suggest otherwise.

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