Mormonism is a distinctive way of life as well as a unique way of being Judeo-Christian that is deeply satisfying to the people who are active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Mitt Romney's candidacy for the presidency is making it obvious that many Americans regard this faith tradition with suspicion.
One thing that is not suspicious about Mormonism is its social dimension. Active members of the LDS Church live the same sort of conventional moral lives that are lived by conservative Protestants, devout Catholics, and observant Jews. They obey their own dietary laws; they care passionately about the well-being of their families; they tithe and render incredible amounts of volunteer service to their church and to the community; and they worship in a three-hour block of services on Sundays. The mystery of Mormonism is not the exemplary way Latter-day Saints live, but what they believe.
When the Church of Jesus Christ was organized in western New York in 1830, it differed significantly from neighboring churches. Its members believed that theirs was the restoration of the church of the New Testament in a special way. Their understanding was that a "Great Apostasy" had removed the church from the earth at the end of the Apostolic Age and they were its restoration.
Their leader was Joseph Smith, Jr., whom they believed to be a prophet. Smith was responsible for bringing forth the Book of Mormon, a new scripture he said was a translation of characters engraved on golden plates that, among much else, told of Jesus bringing the Christian gospel to the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. This event, which the Book of Mormon said occurred after Christ's crucifixion, is the basis for the book's current subtitle, "Another Testament of Jesus Christ."
The new church accepted the Book of Mormon as holy writ. They also believed that their priesthood was a restoration of the priesthood of ancient Israel, and they came to believe that they were a restoration of Israel, as well as the early church. This made them the chosen people. They built temples in which they performed "ancient ordinances" including baptism for the dead, marriage for all time and eternity, and plural marriage (polygamy). The practice of polygamy was ended in 1890 when Utah became a state.
Mormons hold other distinctive beliefs. Rather than accepting the Trinitarian Godhead of father, son, and holy spirit, they believe that the father and the son are "separate personages " and that the Holy Ghost is separate from both.
Members of the LDS Church also reject the notion that God created the world out of nothing. Their position is that God organized the world out of "existing element."
Nothing differs from traditional Christianity more than the Mormon understanding of the afterlife. Protestants and Catholics alike believe that after death people go either to heaven or hell. Mormons, however, believe that multiple kingdoms exist where people who have lived on the earth go after death.
Progressively these kingdoms are the Telestial, the Terrestial, and the Celestial, and those who merit admission to the Celestial Kingdom have an opportunity for eternal progression toward godhood. Latter-day Saints describe this process as becoming "like God," but the conservative Evangelicals who regard Mormonism as a cult connect the LDS belief about the afterlife to what an early church president said: "As man is, God once was; as God is man may become."
Extremely conservative Evangelicals along with some "Ex-Mormons for Jesus" turned this distinction into a book, film strip, and movie version of Mormon theology called The Godmakers. Comparable to a version of the theology of early Christendom that, because of the Eucharist, turned believers into cannibals who ate Christ's body and drank his blood, this work seems to have been partially responsible for the emphasis the LDS Church has placed on its being the CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST.
The charge that Mormonism started as a cult is accurate in that it began as a form of the Judeo-Christian tradition in much the same way that Christianity, which also started out as a cult, began as a form of Judaism. But when cults "grow up," the become cultures in which it is difficult to separate the social from the theological.
Mitt Romney became the person that he is by growing up in a social world that put great emphasis on family, service, and leading a moral life. At the same time he absorbed the LDS belief system in the same way that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews absorb their traditions' beliefs. With regard to his own faith, Romney's task on Thursday is to describe this process without downplaying the distinctiveness of Mormon belief so much that he appears to be dissembling.
Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is a well-known non-Mormon scholar on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her books include Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (University of Illinois Press, 1987) and Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons (University of Illinois, 2000).