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Salt Lake City Weekly Beyond Belief

A heathen's guide to the LDS and Southern Baptist theological divide.

By Ben Fulton

JUNE 1, 1998:  It took God seven days to create the earth and the heavens. It takes a group of Mormons and Southern Baptists seven hours to box each other around the ring of opposing theological beliefs.

The prize? It depends on who wins. If the Latter-day Saints deliver a knock-out, they receive a glittering "one, true church" belt. All hail the new champion! If the Baptists muster enough Southern thunder they get to tell the world that Mormons were always wanna-be punks with dubious ecclesiastical origins. On top of that, they aren't even Christians!

Examine the evidence, and it's obvious that these two denominations are painfully aware of each other. For the Southern Baptists, this awareness reached a crescendo of sorts the moment the LDS Church announced it would build a temple in Nashville, Tennessee, the buckle of the Bible Belt. Nashville is also home to the Southern Baptist Convention's Sunday School Board and Executive Committee.

Truth be told, the Latter-day Saints have had considerable success in the South as a whole, with several recently constructed temples and 720,000 members. It hurts to have the sheep of your flock stolen. But stolen by a gang of charlatans? It takes a good chicken-fried steak to take away that kind of pain.

Now, just as they announced in 1992, the Southern Baptists are coming to Salt Lake City June 9 in full force for their convention. That's right, Southern Baptists in the high-mountain bosom of Mormondom. Some 12,000 of them, actually. And they'll be going door-to-door with their own pamphlets, giving Mormons a dose of their own medicine.

Look under the serene composure of the LDS Church leadership, meanwhile, and it's easy to see an equal amount of steam coming out of their collars. Just as the church has fully entered the international stage with more than 10 million members worldwide, it must answer to the humiliating accusation that its doctrines aren't Christian.

Reeling under an urgency to respond, the church changed its logo to a more Christ-centered design in 1995, and fortified its communications muscle by hiring New York-based Edelman Public Relations. There's evidence that church leadership has even downplayed certain parts of doctrine to dodge the "you're-not-Christian" epithet. It's this kind of name-calling that makes it hard to win converts, something the church tracks with corporate-like accuracy.

So, the church hauled out its big guns. During a general conference early last year, President Gordon B. Hinckley told his faithful, "Let no one ever say that we are not Christians." At devotionals early this year, Apostles Boyd K. Packer and M. Russell Ballard fired almost twin fusillades that reiterated Hinckley's statement. Make no mistake, they said. Mormons are Christians.

High up in the church's public affairs office, spokesman Don LeFevre says the hiring of Edelman Public Relations has nothing to do with the upcoming Southern Baptist Convention. Still, it's apparent that the church is reshuffling its image in response to some outside force.

These Are Serious Matters
This battle of religious beliefs played out in miniature last December when Robert Millet, dean of religious education at Brigham Young University, and Stephen Robinson, professor of ancient scripture, flew to Kansas City for a meeting with members of the Southern Baptist faith.

Millet and Robinson wanted to set the Baptists straight on certain points of LDS doctrine, especially in light of The Mormon Puzzle, a 50-minute video used to explain the Mormon religion to 16 million church-goers in the Southern Baptist denomination.

Mark Coppinger, president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, along with two others in the church's Committee on Interfaith Witness, were glad to oblige.

The conversation started off at lunch. They discussed the nature of the Trinity, or what Mormons call the Godhead. They discussed exaltation, or what Baptists call salvation. They cited scripture.

And on it went, even through supper. Moving to Coppinger's living room, they mounted a board on a tripod for the drawing of diagrams that would illustrate certain points. God's plan works like this. No, God's plan works like this. On and on, for seven hours.

"I don't think any of us thought it would last that long," says Coppinger, speaking with a charming drawl from his office in Kansas City. "Sure, there were times when it got tense. It's not as if everyone was giggling with delight that we have differences. These are serious matters."

And the winner? A simultaneous knockout. Both sides agreed to disagree. While everyone knows that religious discussions rarely bare fruit, Mormons and Southern Baptists don't mind risking a bitter harvest.

Millet, speaking from his BYU office in blissful quasi-monotone, frames the issue this way: "What if someone kept spreading rumors that Baptists were really atheists?" he asks. "Wouldn't they react in a similar fashion? Would they not feel the need to correct an image that's been wrongly portrayed?"

Coppinger sees it all in terms of a doctor-patient relationship. Telling someone they aren't Christian is a bit like delivering a diagnosis of cancer. Of course your patients are going to be upset. They might even run out of the room in tears. But the doctor has a loving responsibility to deliver the truth.

As for the heathen, for whom this guide is written, let's just say that you might get a kick out of watching from ringside seats. At the very least, you'll come away with a better understanding of two religions that are sure to shape the nation's future.

So Same, Yet So Different
The LDS Church has no formal program to respond to the Southern Baptist convention in Salt Lake City, but most every Mormon has a firm sense of what it means. "It's a coalescence of a lot of strains," says Millet. "What's happening here is the rise of an issue that's been at the surface for a long time."

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) contends that Salt Lake City wasn't a conscious choice for their convention, at least where the Mormons are concerned. After all, past conventions have been held in such dens of sin as San Francisco and Las Vegas. Many conventions have been held at locations were the Southern Baptists are not predominant. These are "new work" areas, of which Salt Lake City certainly qualifies.

Coppinger cites another reason, one that was made clear in the early '90s, when Planned Parenthood ran full-page ads in national newspapers urging Olympic delegates to boycott Salt Lake City as an Olympic host because of Utah's strict abortion laws. "We are very pro-life, and we wanted to cross Planned Parenthood's picket line," Coppinger says.

In fact, Mormons and Southern Baptists share an amazing amount of similarities: Both preach the importance of traditional families, and are strenuously opposed to homosexuality. The Southern Baptists, you'll recall, urged a boycott of all Disney products after the company granted job benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Both oppose gambling. You won't even find a deck of cards in some Southern Baptist households. Both are against drinking, although the Baptists won't frown too strongly if you indulge in a monthly glass of Merlot with your dinner. Both agree that sex belongs inside of marriage. For some Southern Baptists, temptations of the flesh are so dangerous they prohibit dancing and all its erotic overtones.

Both share a narrow view where the word of God is concerned. Publicly disagree with the leadership of the LDS Church, and you'll get a quick reservation in the ejector seat of excommunication. Southern Baptists can be just as demanding. In March this year, the SBC lost the president of its South Carolina Convention, Flynn Harrell, who switched to Presbyterianism. Obviously, he'd had enough of the Southern Baptists' unyielding ways. "My denomination has left me in doctrine, in worship, in exclusion of other Christians, in denial of the gifts of women in ministry, in extremist secular politicization," Harrell said in departure.

And both denominations share an embarrassing past of racist blunders. The actions of Southern Baptists toward their dark-skinned neighbors—lynchings, burnings, intimidation—during the '60s Civil Rights struggle speak for themselves. The very denomination itself was born as a defense of slavery in 1845, when the Baptist church split in two. Yankee Baptists went on to form the more liberal American Baptist Church, while Southern Baptists flew the Confederate flag. It was only recently that the SBC acknowledged its racists roots and atoned for them during a mass rally of atonement and forgiveness.

On the LDS side, Brigham Young defended slavery as a Biblical doctrine in his Journal of Discourses. And in a 1966 book of Mormon doctrine, Apostle Bruce R. McKonkie wrote that blacks had "spiritual restrictions" in pre-existence. Then, in a quick 1978 reversal, black men were allowed to receive the LDS priesthood.

But if Southern Baptists and Mormons share a dark side, they may also walk in the light of Christianity's better qualities: compassion, forgiveness, help for the poor and downtrodden.

Breaking Eggs
So what's the big diff? In a word, doctrine.

It all reeks of Gulliver's travels to Lilliput, where the Big- and Little-Endians waged war over the proper method of breaking an egg before breakfast. So which end do you break? The big end, or the little end? And how many angels dance on the head of a pin? Is the glass half empty, or half full?

Well, stop that sniggering. As Coppinger said earlier, "These are serious matters."

If you're LDS, you know the only "true church" resides at Temple Square. Its leaders are well-groomed gentlemen of the "restored church" who have the only direct line to God. You have four books of scripture—the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenents—to the Southern Baptists' one. God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are three separate personages who make up the "Godhead." God has a body of flesh and blood, like man's. Christ came to earth so that men, with their wives, might reach an exalted state of Godhood. Human nature is essentially good, original sin is obsolete. Other religions are in grievous error but, mindful of manners, LDS missionaries break it gently to people of other faiths. You diligently perform temple ceremonies, and you stand at attention when God's only living prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, speaks. In short, you break that egg at the little end.

The Southern Baptists are an altogether more boisterous, outspoken breed. As a Southern Baptist, you don't really care about which church is true. In fact, churches as institutions are beside the point. What matters most is a "relationship with Jesus Christ as your personal savior," a phrase that Billy Graham and other evangelists have made a permanent part of America's religious landscape. You get that relationship by reading the Bible and living a life of prayer. You believe in the orthodox concept of the Trinity, or the idea that one eternal God operates in three distinct ways: as God the Father, his only son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. God is an all-present, all-knowing spirit. Human nature is forever hopelessly corrupt, and Christ's death atoned for our sins. Anything else is a deviation from "traditional historical, Biblical Christianity." If you believe this, well, you break that egg at the big end.

Various points surrounding these differences have been loaded, packed and fired at a dizzying pace across The Salt Lake Tribune's Public Forum as letters to the editor. In reality, the nature of the conflict has long, deep roots some say can be traced all the way back to the beginnings of Mormondom.

So, in the full spirit of heathen understanding, let us indulge in a quick bit of history.

Abominable Creeds
Any Utahn who can point to our state on a map also knows that Joseph Smith is the cornerstone of the LDS Church. As a 14-year-old living in upstate New York, one day he went into the woods to pray about what church he should join. The results were nothing less than spectacular. As told by Smith in the Pearl of Great Price, God and Jesus appeared to him and went straight to the punch. Not only was every church on the face of the earth wrong, but "all their creeds were an abomination," and those who profess them "were all corrupt."

Faithful LDS call this Smith's "first vision." It's strong stuff alright, wiping every other religion off the map. But it can't possibly be denied, because it's a message from God. Other Christians either dismiss it is as mere piffle, or take great offense. No wonder Smith got hostile glares when he told neighborhood ministers about his vision.

To pull his church up, Smith pulled others down. Early LDS Church Apostle William E. McLellin recounts in his journals how Smith "exposed the Methodist Discipline in its black deformity" during sermons. The introduction of polygamy didn't help the church's popularity, either.

Flash forward to the LDS settlement in the Salt Lake Valley and the poor mouthing of other religions continues, due in part, it would seem, to the sting of persecution Mormons received in Missouri. What else could explain this kind of venom from Apostle Orson Pratt in 1854: "Both Catholics and Protestants are nothing less than the whore of Babylon whom the Lord denounces by the mouth of John the Revelator as having corrupted all the earth by their fornications and wickedness."

Distrust, and even disgust, toward any religion outside of the Latter-day Saints survived all the way up to Apostle McKonkie's 1958 edition of Mormon Doctrine, in which the Roman Catholic persuasion was singled out for special mention as the "Great Abominable Church." Following Catholic protest, the reference was removed for later editions.

Today's LDS Church is of an altogether different outward tone, even if the account of Smith's first vision will never change. It's just that words like "corrupt," "abomination," and "whore" aren't very useful if you're trying to convert a Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Christian to the LDS faith. Today's members are instead told that all religions have a flake, a brick, or even a house of truth. If it's the penthouse suite with a sunset view that you seek, however, only the "fullness of the gospel" as offered by the LDS Church will deliver.

As Millet explains, "It's not so much a change in doctrine as a change in approach." And it's an approach that's swelled the ranks of church membership.

House of Mirrors
Memories die hard, of course. Which is why many Christians, and Southern Baptists in particular, wonder why Mormons are so anxious to be accepted into the larger family of Christendom after hurling all those nasty remarks. The answer is that the LDS Church has outgrown its isolationist leanings of the 19th century to mature into a global institution. And like any global institution, the LDS Church wants respect.

But even today, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley can't resist a gentle broadside toward other faiths. During general conference last year Hinckley told the tragic, tearful story of how he lost a British convert who later "married a woman whose father was a Protestant minister." Tragic stuff, indeed.

Mike Gray, pastor of Southeast Baptist Church in the Salt Lake Valley, is polite when calling Mormons "our neighbors and our friends." Then his remarks grow stern. "I'm glad for the change in approach," he says. "But if they want acceptance they can't continue to carry the same beliefs they've always had about other churches. They're asking us to open our arms to them, but they still keep that dagger of being the 'one, true church.' If I were to say that about the Baptist denomination on my pulpit, not only would I be wrong, I'd be run out of town. If we were to open our arms to them in a hug they'd stab us in the back. They've already stabbed us in the front."

Is there any forgiveness in this "Christian" debate? And isn't Gray just shoving the dagger into his own breast to spite Mormons? Not really, he says. "I have met Mormons who I believe are born-again Christians and trust in Jesus," he says, with one caveat, "despite what the LDS Church teaches. You can't say that all Mormons are Christians. At the same time you can't say that all Baptists are, either. You don't have to have Baptists around to have Christians. You just have to have the true, Biblical Jesus."

There's a dizzying, house-of-mirrors quality to this mess. Although Millet at BYU admits that Baptists are certainly Christians, they're still in need of conversion. A Mormon Christian is better than a plain Christian. Matters aren't as confusing on the Southern Baptist side of the street, they're just more complicated. To them, being "Christian" rests on a proper interpretation of scripture.

The more you investigate, two conclusions become clear: While the Mormons are certainly more friendly, effective proselytizers, you get the feeling something remains hidden. And while Southern Baptists and other Christians win for honesty, their manners can be clumsy, unyielding, and even prejudiced.

Those manners couldn't have been on more gross display in 1982's The God-Makers, a film so laughable in its cartoon-illustrated depictions of Mormon temple ceremonies that it makes you want to stand up and give three cheers for the LDS Church. Commissioned by a group of evangelical Christians outside the SBC, it was derided by most every major denomination as bigoted propaganda.

The SBC's video, The Mormon Puzzle, does a much better job of explaining LDS doctrine, if only because it lets Mormons do the explaining. But after a half hour of narration and back-and-forth analysis, it homes in on the inevitable conclusion: The LDS faith is a "non-Biblical, non-Christian, counterfeit church."

Even a heathen can see the irony in this: Southern Baptists are guilty of the exact same charge they level against Mormons. In fact, it would seem that both religions are so concerned with the speck in their opponent's eye that they can't take the log out of their own.

Doctrinal differences between the two churches are many, but one the Southern Baptists pay special attention to is their charge that the LDS Church has abandoned the strict monotheism (belief in one God) of the Old Testament for a polytheistic doctrine (belief in many Gods) that allows men to become Gods as taught by Joseph Smith. Southern Baptists brandish two Bible verses in particular to support the orthodox Christian belief in one God: Isaiah 43:10 and Deuteronomy 6:4; 13:1-5. The Mormons, with equal zeal, point to the words of Jesus in John 10:34.

Look them up if you care to. Just remember that it's a futile debate. That's because people only see in Bible verses what they want to see. Or, as Shakespeare noted, "Even the devil can cite scripture for his own purposes."

At least one outside observer with absolutely no stake in the dispute has sided with the Southern Baptists, however. Harold Bloom, sterling professor of Humanities at Yale University, extensively analyzed both Southern Baptists and Mormons in his book The American Religion. He praised Joseph Smith as "a religious genius," but stopped short of saying what Mormons really wanted to hear.

"As for Christianity, no one need take the Latter-day Saints literally upon that insistence: the Mormons after all are not even monotheists, and they take Jesus only as another name for the God of this world," Bloom wrote. "None of this seems an irony to me, nor would I urge any of this as an indictment of the Mormons. They are a total system of belief and behavior, dedicated to particular hopes, dreams, and interpretations."

Close, but no cigar.

Evidence is strong that even the LDS Church knows the world isn't ready for the shock of its unique doctrine. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle last year President Hinckley stopped short of fully explaining the church's long-held belief that men may become Gods. "That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about," he said.

That same year, Time magazine's celebrated cover story on the church described Hinckley as "intent on downplaying his faith's distinctiveness."

To outsiders, it appeared as if the LDS Church was growing insecure. During general conference, Hinckley assured his flock that he had been misunderstood and misquoted by the press. "You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine," he said.

At BYU, Millet offers his own interpretation on these events. "We would see that [exaltation to Godhood] as the calculus of Mormonism, when what we want is to deal with the general math or algebra first before a large body of people," he says.

Wheat and Weeds
So, whom might a heathen agree with? Maybe the same mind that brought Israel and Egypt to the peace table.

Would former President Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist, consider Mormons Christians? But of course.

"Among the worst things we can do, as believers in Christ, is to spend our time condemning others, who profess faith in Christ and try to have a very narrow definition of who is and who is not an acceptable believer and a child of God," Carter said during an interview with the Deseret News.

If he was a Republican, his opinion might have meant even more to Mormons. And if Carter hadn't admitted to once lusting after a woman in his heart, it might even mean something to Southern Baptists.

Jan Shipps, a devout Methodist who is also a renowned expert on Mormon history and theology, also prefers a more inclusive definition of "Christian," citing Jesus' parable of the weeds among the wheat in Matthew 13. If an enemy plants weeds in your field, should you pull them out? "No," answers Jesus, "lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them."

It's a shame that Mormons and Southern Baptists might argue over which church is the weed and which is the wheat. At least they won't point to the heathens.

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