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When I was in high school, my mother became the school nurse. As she is considerably more social and talkative than I am, she quickly became more well-known among the student body than I was. At one point, one of the students who frequently visited her heard her say that she was a Mormon. This student was caught by surprise. “What?” she said. “I thought you were Christian!” My mother nodded. “That’s right. I am.” She then had to give the usual explanation of how we believe in Jesus Christ and the Atonement, etc., which most people tend to accept at that point unless they are feeling particularly ornery.
Despite the hatred and misinformation surrounding the claim that Mormons are not Christians, I can certainly understand the reasons for this common dichotomy, however false it may be. I remember how, as I child, I used to lie on the living room carpet on weekends and flip through the channels. It was common to stumble across them. Some would shout angrily as they pounded their cross-shaped pulpits. Others would welcome the crowd onto the stage one at a time, at which point they would touch them on the forehead and cause them to become overwhelmed by an otherworldly power that made them fall neatly backward into the arms of…well…bouncers. Others just half-spoke-half-sang their sermons while they swayed back and forth. Others would try to build and maintain energy in their congregations by demanding that everyone say “Amen!” after every sentence. If the “Amen!” was not energetic enough, they would say, in kind of a passive-aggressive way: “Can I get a better AMEN?!” Then there was the vocabulary I had never before encountered, with words such as “Jesus-aaah!” Maybe this is an unfair depiction of Protestant worship on the whole, but it is the honest truth of how I perceived it as a child. Anyway, they had their different styles, but they all had one thing in common: They were all professional performers. At the age of six, I could see that clearly, and it repulsed me. Where was the sincerity I had come to expect from church? At my church, everyone took turns speaking, and though they were sometimes awkward, the sermons came from the heart. We had leaders, but they did not act like that. I thought Christians were silly. They and I were very different.
I think I was eight years old when I made some comment about what I perceived to be the silly worship practices of Christians, at which point my brother corrected me. “We are Christians,” he said. The obvious etymology of the word “Christian” then dawned upon me. A Christian is one who worships Jesus Christ. I worship Jesus Christ. I am a Christian. Begrudgingly, I had to admit that the weirdos I had seen on television were somehow part of some larger group to which I belonged. However, I did also realize that most of my friends from school belonged to this group as well, and I was fine with that. Pretty soon, I found myself correcting my friends when they said that I was not a Christian. I was a Christian. I worshiped Jesus Christ. At the age of nine, I started reading the Book of Mormon on my own, and I sometimes brought it with me to school. I would point to the subtitle of that book: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. We were different, but we had important similarities. I made peace with that idea.
My church has often been accused of trying desperately to be accepted by “mainstream Christianity”, whatever that is. One interesting note about that accusation is that many of those who make it, while agreeing to disenfranchise “the Mormons”, will also refuse to accept each other much of the time. Methodists and Baptists may accept each other as Christians, but what about Catholics? Now, that is a matter of debate. Adventists? Now we are getting really controversial. The truth is that we Latter-day Saints just want to be seen as what we are. We are not Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, but we are Christian. (The most correct subset name would be “Restorationist”.) We do not want to be labeled as “mainstream”, but we do not mind at all cooperating with “mainstream” churches when it makes sense to do so.
It is true that the leadership of our church has sought to make it clear that we are Christians, and most of our members seek to do so as well. However, not all do. One New York Times contributor, an active Latter-day Saint, once actually argued that, just as the truth of Christianity grew beyond Judaism centuries ago, so has our faith grown beyond Christianity now. Citing the issues we have always had with “mainstream” Christianity, he makes it clear that he is not in the same group as Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Episcopalians – and does not want to be. While I certainly sympathized with him to some degree when I read this, I could not help but feel that his arguments were still a bit ill-founded, as, while I was not a Jew and therefore could not be termed Jewish, I was a follower of Christ, and was still therefore a Christian. Also, while the term “Mormon” does not actually make etymological sense when used in this way, the term “Christian” does.
Another issue that bothered me about said New York Times article was the author’s readiness to be called a “Mormon” after having rejected the title “Christian”. After all, “Mormon” is not the correct term for members of my church. Some people seem to think that the Book of Mormon gets its name from the name of our religion, but this is not actually true. Mormon was an ancient prophet who, with the help of his son Moroni, compiled the sacred records of his people into a single work. When Moroni finished his father’s work, he gave it his father’s name. Those who initially used the word “Mormon” to refer to people of my faith were our detractors and persecutors. We simply have not fought the term “Mormon” much because, while inaccurate, it is not offensive in any way. The correct term for someone who belongs to my faith, however, is Latter-day Saint.
But here is where this discussion of terms and labels really gets interesting: You see, just as the term “Mormon” was imposed on those of my faith by those who hate us, the term “Christian” actually has a similar origin. As is related in Acts 11:26:
And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
The word “Christian” was coined as a derisive term for those who followed the teachings of Jesus and who believed that He was the Christ, and this seems to have happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is no record of Jesus using the term “Christian” during His ministry. In fact, other than this statement about the word’s origin, there is only one other instance of its use in the Bible (1 Peter 4:16).
So what did the followers of Christ call themselves? In the Acts 11:16 reference mentioned above, they are referred to as “the disciples”. However, this is a non-specific term, as there were certainly many religious and philosophical leaders at that time, all of them with their own disciples. So what did they call themselves?
The epistle to the Romans is addressed “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.” The epistle to the Corinthians is addressed “to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” Ephesians? “[T]o the saints which are at Ephesus”. Philippians? “[T]o all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi”. Colossians? “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse”.
Who were these “saints”? The Catholics have come to convince us that a saint is some sort of super-Christian, but I do not think that this is accurate. I think it is clear that these epistles were not written for the benefit of an elite cadre of especially holy people who stood separate from the main body of believers. Rather, these epistles are quite clearly directed at the Church in general, making no distinction between “elite” believers and “normal” believers. So why are they addressed to the “saints”? This is because a saint, in the biblical sense, is someone who has been “sanctified in Christ Jesus”. That is all. There is no distinction between Christians and super-Christians. There are only those who have accepted Christ’s Atonement and those who have not. The true term for someone who believes in and lives by the Old and New Testaments should therefore be “Saint”.
So, when it is all said and done, I have to say that I think the whole discussion about whether or not Mormons are Christians is technically unimportant, as both of these terms are essentially nicknames given to their respective groups by outside – even belligerent – parties. The real question, then, is this: Are the Latter-day Saints truly the modern version of the saints of biblical times, as their name implies?
I’ve heard it too many times:
“Your church is a cult!”
“Joseph Smith was a cult leader!”
“Cult! Cult! Cult!”
This accusation came to a head when right-wing religious leaders accused Mitt Romney of being a cult member when he was running for POTUS in 2012. One of the clearest examples of this was when the comments of Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress made national news. From his initial comments and clarifications he gave afterward, we can boil down his message to three essential points:
- Mitt Romney is a good man who abides by Christian principles, but he is a cult member and not a Christian.
- Barack Obama is a bad man who does not abide by Christian principles, but he is a Christian and not a cult member.
- Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims…pretty much all other religious groups are cults because they do not teach Christian principles.
The reasoning here is truly staggering. Not only is Jeffress clearly ignorant to the true definition of the word “cult”, but he does not seem to even know what his private definition of the word is, as there is no consistency in its application here. It would seem that he is saying that anyone who does not agree with and believe in his interpretations of Christian doctrine is a cultist, but if that is the case, it makes no sense to say that Barack Obama departs from Christian principles and then say that he is not a cultist.
So what is a cult? According to Dictionary.com, a cult is:
1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
3. the object of such devotion.
4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
7. the members of such a religion or sect.
In pointing the cult stick at others, Jeffress and those like him may encounter the accusation that they are actually being hypocritical, and that they too belong to a cult. So let’s see if these definitions for “cult” apply to Jeffress’s Baptist faith:
1. Yes. Baptists certainly are religious, and they do worship. As for rites and ceremonies, the very name of their denomination is a reference to what could be termed the most important rite or ceremony of Christian worship.
2. Yes. Certainly, Baptists tend to proudly proclaim that they venerate Jesus Christ. (One might also say that, in specific circumstances, they venerate the Bible or various ministers in the same way, though that would be a matter of debate.)
4. Yes. Again: Jesus Christ, the Gospel, etc.
5. Yes. Baptists are clearly bound together by common ideologies (though they still differ substantially from place to place), and they have sacred symbols such as the cross, the “Jesus fish”, WWJD bands, etc.
6. No. Congratulations, Reverend Jeffress: there is one sense in which you could not be termed a cult member.
7. Yes or no, depending on the sense to which we are referring.
For the one sense in which Jeffress’s denomination could not be termed a cult, it is true that Latter-day Saints could be termed a cult. After all, while Baptists are often called “mainstream”, Latter-day Saints and other Restorationists are generally considered to be “unorthodox” or “heterodox” by the general population – that is, in the United States, at least. It seems, then, that Jeffress identifies cults according to the sixth definition. However, that being the case, Jeffress’s claim that Hinduism is a cult is truly confusing, as the 800 million Hindus in India are hardly “living outside of conventional society”. Clearly, the Christians of India would be more cult-like in that sense. The only way around this conclusion would be to say that what the Hindus of India have is not a society, which would be an interesting claim indeed.
But this is all tangential. Back to the central question: Are Latter-day Saints members of a cult?
As a Latter-day Saint, let me answer that question with the utmost clarity: Yes, I am a member of a cult. That cult is the one founded by Jesus Christ, who was widely ridiculed and persecuted for teaching unorthodox principles and establishing a kingdom “not of this world” – that is, outside of conventional society. Just as Jesus Christ’s cult was persecuted by the ecumenical establishment of His day, so is it persecuted today. In such a world as this, I would consider it foolishness, blasphemy, and rebellion against God to be termed orthodox and “mainstream”. Therefore, I am not at all outraged when the sophists, simonists, and pharisees of the world object to my beliefs. Especially when they apparently do not even know how to use a dictionary.
When I was in high school, I started reading the works of Ayn Rand, and her ideas really threw me for a loop and made me rethink everything I had come to assume in life. I liked many of the things she said, but she seemed too extreme, and some of her statements seemed completely upside-down compared to what I felt was evident in the world around me. One of the reasons for this was the fact that, in her criticism of various concepts and constructs, she started by assigning them a private definition. For instance, according to Ayn Rand, sacrifice is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.” Naturally, I do not want to give up something of great value for something of no value, so I should never sacrifice, right? Well, the dictionary definition of sacrifice is “the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.” It is easy to hate something when you give it a definition that is the complete opposite of its actual definition.
In his recent FoxNews opinion piece, professional minister Alex Himaya proclaims that Jesus hates religion. And what is religion? As he says: “Religion, for me, is a man-made path to God. That’s how I define it in my new book.” Certainly, if that were the actual definition of religion, I would hate it as much as Himaya and his fictional Jesus do. However, that is not the definition of religion. Like Ayn Rand, Himaya thinks he can attack concepts that are not easily attacked by simply identifying them as something other than what they are. A description of religion that is truer to the common understanding of the word would be “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional or ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” In stating that he and Jesus both hate religion, Alex Himaya not only ignores the undeniably religious nature of Jesus’ mission and ministry, but he also shows himself to be religious in more ways than he realizes.
Let’s talk about Jesus first. In modern times, anti-establishment spiritualists have tried repeatedly to reinvent Jesus as a cool hippie who never said anything the slightest bit controversial and accepted everyone and everything, never intending to tell people what to do or teach anything that could hurt people’s feelings, such as repentance. However, while it does illustrate a certain side of Jesus’ teachings, this mindset is simply not honest. The Jesus of the New Testament is an undeniably religious figure – and a very controversial one at that. In fact, if we were to judge the religiosity of Jesus’ ministry based on the aforementioned dictionary definition of religion, Jesus and the Gospel would pass on every point with flying colors. Consider the following:
- Cause of the universe: In John 8:58, in a fashion that was undeniably clear to His audience, Jesus claimed to be the very Creator spoken of in the Old Testament.
- Nature of the universe: In 1 Corinthians 15:22, and in many other scriptures, we are taught that this life is a fallen state, and that we are all hopelessly fallen without the help of Jesus Christ.
- Purpose of the universe: In the Book of Revelation, John writes the resurrected Jesus’ words when he is given a glimpse of the fulfillment of the purpose of this world and this mortal life. As Jesus says: “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” The purpose of this life is to give us a chance to grow by overcoming trials and thereby, with God’s help, partake in the fullness of God’s glory.
- Ritual observances: In Matthew 14:22-24, we read of Jesus teaching the ritual of partaking of the bread and wine as an outward expression of acceptance of His Atonement. Baptism is another ritual that He taught by example. As is prayer. He also apparently had great respect for the ritual observances performed in the temple – enough for Him to temporarily abandon His usual calm demeanor, fashion a whip, and violently drive away those who had turned that holy site into a place of commerce. (He actually did this twice.)
- Moral code: Jesus constantly taught people what they should and should not do. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) are the most famous example of this. He also taught people that they should give tithes and offerings, not get divorced, not commit adultery, not be hypocrites, etc. Even Himaya’s new-age rendition of Jesus’ teachings – suspiciously heavy on the “judge not” part and not much else – shows that Jesus did, in fact, give us a strict moral code that is intended to guide our lives. Even after Jesus famously saved the adultress from being stoned, He did not excuse her sins, but actually commanded her to stop sinning.
- Organization: This was not mentioned in the dictionary definition cited above, but many attribute it to religious observance. Some seem to believe that Jesus Christ did not set up any kind of organization, but this is false. For example, He clearly established a church and appointed Peter to lead it in his absence (Matthew 16:18). He also encouraged His followers to gather together in His name (Matthew 18:20).
Jesus was and is a religious figure. Alex Himaya can deny it to his heart’s content, but the truth of the matter is plainly evident to anyone who has actually read the Bible. And Jesus is not the only one. Alex Himaya is most definitely a religious man, too. However he may deny it, it is true. He is a minister! He is clearly aware of the contradiction here. The title of his article, assuming this, was written with the express intent of arousing curiosity. “Why would a minister say that Jesus hates religion?” Things like that get clicks. Where Himaya goes wrong is in defining religion based on a few of its common but unessential properties instead of on its core properties. He might as well say: “Jesus hates government, because government is something that murders people by the millions.” While government has certainly done such things, and while Jesus would certainly disapprove of such actions, I think it would be a mistake to label Jesus an anarchist who hates government.
I will say that, while Jesus did not hate religion, He did hate certain specific manifestations of religion. This became evident in His many run-ins with the Sadducees and Pharisees. His disapproval of their teachings and activities spanned many issues, but Alex Himaya actually touched on the core of it with his very limited definition of religion: Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, the Sadducees and Pharisees sought to build a highway to heaven with their own hands. Theirs was a man-made code of conduct masquerading as something divine. Jesus was right to hate it, of course. And so is Alex Himaya. And yet, despite Himaya’s similarities to Jesus in hating (certain aspects of) religion, he is also painfully similar to the Sadducees and Pharisees in a number of ways. For example:
- Authority: The original apostles received their authority when they were ordained by Jesus (Mark 3:14-15). Matthias – the apostle who replaced Judas Iscariot – received his authority from the other apostles (Acts 1:21-26). These were unlearned men. The Jewish leaders were amazed that they could teach so effectively when they had not attended the proper schools (Acts 4:13). The Sadducees and Pharisees, on the other hand, were quite learned. They had a rigid educational structure in place in which prospective leaders were made to learn the scriptures to great depth. It was common for them to have the Torah completely memorized. And yet, when faced with the Savior and living prophets, the Sadducees and Pharisees failed to recognize them for who they were. If we want to see Himaya’s credentials for telling us about Jesus and religion, we need only to look at the foot of his article: “Himaya received his bachelor’s degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas and his Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. He finished his Doctorate in Church Growth and Evangelism in May 2002.” Did Jesus Christ found the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary? Did the apostles? Did someone who could trace his authority to the apostles? If not, how does this institution have the power to grant someone the authority to speak for God?
- Occupation: Jesus was a carpenter. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. None of these men were preachers or ministers by profession. While they all clearly found ways of studying the scriptures sooner or later, none had gone through the Pharisaic schools. Paul came from this background, but he became what he became because he obeyed when Jesus appeared to him and told him to repent, and not because he was a professional minister. Upon becoming apostles, none of these men became wealthy.
- Courage: Himaya may claim to be different from the Pharisees based on the fact that his teachings are on the opposite end of the spectrum. While the pharisaic dogma was on the far right, the antinomian dogma that Himaya preaches is on the far left. “Nothing we do – our behavior, our beliefs, our best efforts – will ever make us good enough to approach God.” While this statement is true to scripture, like so many ministers preaching an unobtrusive cotton-candy Christianity, in practice, Himaya is merely encouraging people to profess faith in Jesus, and not to actually make the sacrifices needed to undergo the great change of heart that is associated with said faith. Himaya is similar to the Pharisees in the sense that he is more concerned with pleasing the worldly mind than with bringing people closer to God. The Pharisees succeeded in maintaining their paradigm for as long as they did because they gave people a set of easy rules they could follow in order to get to heaven. Himaya does the same. While the Pharisees obsessed over following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law, Himaya essentially throws away the law altogether. In doing so, like the Pharisees, Himaya would seek to build his own road to heaven with his own hands. He is merely paving his road with good intentions instead of lawful deeds. In both cases, God’s expectations of humanity are redefined to please those who think that they should be allowed to transcend into a better world while still hanging onto this one.
Religion is not necessarily good or bad, right or wrong. It can go either way. True religion, however, is quite good, and Jesus Christ paid the dearest price ever to give it to us. To define it as something bad or even as something mostly bad would be to give it an incorrect definition – especially from a Christian perspective. Religion is most clearly characterized not by a judgmental mentality as Himaya says, but by devotion. We all can be devoted to either truth or wickedness, and we all tend to maintain something of a mixture. It is unfortunate that people are hyper-judgmental. It is unfortunate that people obsess over the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. However, it is also unfortunate that some people water religion down to such a point that it has lost all usefulness and efficacy, such that its adherents do not even recognize it as religion anymore.
Despite such unfortunate deeds, though, those who would turn the cross into a cudgel do not make religion intrinsically evil any more than those who would turn it into a doobie. Christ preached true religion, and He gave us salvation that, though unearned, still requires sacrifice. Salvation is free, but it was never easy. (If it were, attendance at Himaya’s congregation at theChurch at Battlecreek™ would be pointless.) Salvation is free, but it will cost you everything you have that is of no value. Salvation is free, but it is not cheap. Salvation is free, so you do not need to buy it from Alex Himaya for $11.02 on Amazon. As the apostle Jeffrey R. Holland once said, “How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him?” If Alex Himaya feels that religion is a man-made path to God, it may very well be that his religion (as everyone has a religion) is just that.
Neither man nor nation can exist without a sublime idea.
Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.
This post is Part 1 in a series regarding the message and the challenge that the Restored Gospel raises against the contemporary political establishment of the United States of America.
In 1820, an uneducated and seemingly unremarkable youth in rural New York by the name of Joseph Smith had a miraculous vision in which he beheld God the Father and Jesus Christ. In the years following that vision, he received a number of heavenly manifestations. He was led by an angel to recover an ancient record and commissioned and empowered by God to translate the same. In 1830, by the power of the priesthood bestowed upon him and Oliver Cowdery by angelic messengers, he oversaw the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ to the world.
One of the reasons for which it took so long to restore Christ’s Church was because the world was simply not ready for it. When the nation of the United States of America was established, there was finally a climate of institutionally protected religious freedom. This made the Restoration possible, as the powers of hell would certainly combine to attempt to drive the Church into the “wilderness” (Rev. 12:6) as had occurred previously. Indeed, the powers of hell did combine against Joseph Smith and the Church: despite the Constitution of the United States of America, detractors printed libel against it while mobs assembled to violently persecute the Saints, with multiple state governments passively and actively supporting said persecution. When Joseph Smith met face-to-face with President Van Buren to plead for help from the federal government, the President responded: “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.” Such persecution led directly to the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and many others. One can only imagine what would have happened if Joseph Smith had been living in a country that did not value religious liberty. Even so, the strength of the message was not lost, and the Church has managed to thrive to this day, becoming a worldwide organization with over 15 million members.
It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favors.
While neither the message nor the Church of Jesus Christ are particularly American in nature, we believe that the Constitution of the United States of America – despite its flaws – was drafted by inspired men, and that the underlying values found in that document and in the U.S. Declaration of Independence are fundamental values in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we believe that the Lord helped to orchestrate the establishment of the United States of America expressly for the purpose of preparing the way for the Restoration of the Gospel, knowing that the resulting religious freedom would allow the Church to take root, and that the Church would also be able to take root in various other countries that would follow the example of the United States by ensuring religious freedom. The inspired nature of the founding of the United States is expressed in no uncertain terms in the revelations published by Joseph Smith and those who came after him.
For this reason, it is exceedingly puzzling to me when some of my faith’s detractors promulgate silly conspiracy theories in which they claim that we want to overthrow the Constitution. Our culture, our political tendencies, and our doctrines clearly show that there is little that is of more concern to us than the protection of the Constitution of the United States and the liberties it affords. Anyone who would study our doctrine would see that fact with the utmost clarity. One of the works that most clearly testifies of this fact is the Book of Mormon, the work of scripture translated by Joseph Smith. This text – compiled, preserved, and brought forth specifically for our time – offers both seminal sermons and stories full of dilemmas and figures that may sometimes appear all too familiar. In the Book of Mormon, we see with remarkable clarity that, as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” In no figure is this message more clear than in the figure of Captain Moroni (“mor-OH-nai”).
Moroni (not to be confused with the man by the same name who helped his father Mormon to compile the records of their people) arises in the Book of Mormon’s narrative at a time of great distress. Established by King Mosiah when all four of his sons chose ministry over the throne, the Nephite Republic was still young. This state, coming into existence somewhere in the Americas while Julius Caesar was beginning his ascent to power in the Old World, stood as a rare early example of liberal, representative governance. As the Greek republics once stood boldly against certain subjugation at the hands of the Persian Empire with its vast armies, so did the people of the fledgling Nephite Republic stand against various groups – collectively referred to as Lamanites – who sought to rob, enslave, and kill them.
When Moroni arose to take command of the Nephite armies at the age of 25, the young republic faced twin threats – one external, and the other internal. At their borders, the Lamanites were again clamoring to cross into Nephite lands and spill their blood. In the Nephite cities and villages, a rising reactionary movement, presumably led by the former nobility, sought to once again establish a monarchical government. It is unclear why Moroni arose to prominence at such a young age. Apparently, his people saw something extraordinary in him – and they were right. As the prophet Alma later wrote of Moroni:
Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men. (Alma 48:17)
Both Moroni’s strength of resolve and his righteousness become evident from the beginning of the Book of Mormon’s account of his time as a military leader. Soon after Moroni arose to take command of the Nephite armies, the Lamanite commander Zerahemnah led an army against the Nephites. As this army approached Nephite lands, Moroni made preparations among his warriors, giving them armor to cover their heads, torsos, and arms. Archaeological evidence shows that these items were probably made of a combination of bronze, leather, and other materials. This was a new thing for this part of the world: when the Lamanite and Nephite armies met in the land of Jershon, despite their numerical advantage, the Lamanites were deterred by the very sight of the Nephites, and they shortly retreated. However, realizing that the Lamanites would surely still be looking for blood, he sent spies to keep an eye on them and see which way they were going. Then, he did something that modern military men might find very peculiar:
Moroni, also, knowing of the prophecies of Alma, sent certain men unto him, desiring him that he should inquire of the Lord whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves against the Lamanites. (Alma 43:23)
That is correct: Moroni made military decisions based upon the prophetic guidance of a religious leader. This certainly would have been ridiculed by the “division of church and state” advocates of today, but Moroni’s faith proved well-founded: Alma correctly predicted the point at which the Lamanites would emerge from the wilderness and again enter Nephite lands. Marching swiftly to that point, Moroni was able to ambush them at a river crossing and rout them. The Lamanites who survived the battle undertook a vow to never take up arms against the Nephites again and were allowed to return to their homes in peace.
Despite the Nephite victory over Zerahemnah’s army, this was anything but the end of strife between the Lamanites and the Nephites. The old hatred remained, and this defeat only contributed to it. The Lamanites remained a constant threat just beyond the border.
Shortly after Moroni defeated Zerahemnah, the monarchist movement among the Nephites gained its full strength. A man named Amalickiah arose with the intent to reinstate a monarchical government, with himself as the king. While the majority of the people were seemingly in favor of the new republican model, they were not organized as part of a specific political movement. Amalickiah, on the other hand, was quite organized, and his efforts were fueled by a full measure of ambition, pride, and intellect.
The Nephite Republic had a much simpler structure than the three-branch model with which we are familiar. Virtually all political power was given to judges, whose authority was organized in a pyramid structure, with the chief judge at the top of that pyramid. Judges were elected to their positions by the voice of the people, and they could be deposed in like manner. A ruling or decree made by a judge carried the force of law unless it was overturned by a higher judge or by a group of lower judges. It was a simple model, but it was one of the first instances in which an entire nation was ruled by a central government in which no one commanded absolute power, and in which the voice of even the lowliest citizen was taken into account.
In his quest to be king, Amalickiah networked with many of the lower judges in the land, promising them higher positions in the new kingdom if they would use their influence to help him. He also flattered various Christian priests with similar promises, convincing them, for the sake of power, not only to abandon their republican and egalitarian ideals, but to abandon their very religion. In this way, a movement that should never have been taken seriously in a nation of representative governance quickly gained momentum. With this new support from the political establishment, Amalickiah and his ilk went about proclaiming the benefits of monarchism to the people. Noting that such a large portion of the educated leaders in their society were part of this movement, it becomes a little easier to understand how Amalickiah managed to convince many of the people to agree to surrender their rights.
Seeing the direction things were going, Moroni realized that something had to be done. He knew that Amalickiah was a petty and power-hungry man, and that he would rule as a tyrant. Moroni also knew that many of the rights that were at that time enjoyed by the Nephites would be abrogated. As a result, he tore off a piece of his clothing and wrote the following passage upon it: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” Calling this banner the Title of Liberty, he fastened it to a pole and went out among the people, dressed for battle.
…he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part, and crying with a loud voice, saying:
Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them.
And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.
And now it came to pass that when Moroni had said these words he went forth, and also sent forth in all the parts of the land where there were dissensions, and gathered together all the people who were desirous to maintain their liberty, to stand against Amalickiah and those who had dissented, who were called Amalickiahites.(Alma 46:19-21, 28)
Answering Moroni’s call, the Nephites came together to resist the powers of tyranny. Seeing that they were outnumbered, and knowing that their cause was not just, most of the people of Amalickiah either surrendered or fled. Those who sought to overthrow the liberties of the people had always been in the minority. Their strength had come from their positions of influence rather than from their numbers, and once the people realized their own strength, the power of Amalickiah evaporated. This was not an end to the young republic’s troubles, however: Amalickiah and some of his followers managed to escape into the lands of the Lamanites, where he was eventually successful in seizing the title of king. Seeking vengeance, he then turned the armies of the Lamanites against his own people. However, with the inner vessel cleansed, the Nephite Republic now had the integrity to withstand this onslaught.
I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of my God, and the freedom and welfare of my country.
-Moroni (Alma 60:36)
The parallels between this story and the story of our own time are all too clear. There are forces similarly pushing for the overthrow of a free society and the consolidation of power among a relatively small group of individuals – using position, fame, and riches to achieve this end. This is not to say that there is a single conspiracy behind all of our problems. In truth, that is most probably not the case: there are, instead, many small conspiracies working toward this end. Sometimes they work together, and sometimes they cancel each other out, but the general direction of the trend makes it something to fear. Those embodying this force cannot be clearly defined as members of a particular political party, organization, religion, or social group – indeed, it is often embodied by various groups that can sometimes be rivals – but the force exists nonetheless.
Some, reading Moroni’s story, would argue that he was actually an overbearing leader – a fascist, even. He did, for instance, put people to death for refusing to take up arms and fight against the Lamanites. However, he only did so after they had already shown themselves to be traitors who had contributed to efforts to subject their country to tyrannical rule. In the case of the Ammonites – former Lamanites who had joined the Nephites and could not take up arms for religious reasons – he made no such demands. (However, the Ammonites did support the Nephites who defended them in every way they could.) Thus, the story of Moroni and the young Nephite Republic is neither an argument for anarchy nor a case of hypocritical statism: the Nephites had a government, and that government did exercise a certain level of authority over the people, but, unlike tyranny in its many forms, the government of the Nephite Republic was strong, consistent, specifically limited, and pragmatically lenient. Conversely, it is certain that the arguments used by Amalickiah and his ilk were similar to those made by statists and cronyists today: You should not trust your neighbor, but you should trust politicians. Give me power, and I will give some of it back to you. You have been marginalized, and it is time for revenge. Your decisions are not the problem: the system is the problem. Others use their power selfishly, so you should give their power to us. Other rulers have been draconian, but we will be considerate. We promise. They invoke a collection of gods with their mantras – Fairness, Stability, Security, Prosperity, etc. – but the core of their dark gospel remains the same: You can only be happy if I rule you.
I believe that Moroni was a real person who actually did these things, and I believe that God saw to it that this story would come forth in our era specifically for our benefit. The message that the story of Moroni and the Title of Liberty is intended to convey is this: It is the duty of the citizens of every nation – especially this one – to stand against the forces of tyranny, and if they have the will to fight and the character to do so with unity and compassion, they will win.
Even if you cannot accept Moroni’s story as fact, I ask you to accept it as truth. I ask this because we need another Moroni. We need another Title of Liberty. We need a people who value liberty so much that they are all willing to pledge their life and wealth to its protection. We need a people who will come running together, whether armed with weapons or with words, upon realizing the precarious situation in which American liberty now stands. We are not yet to the point of violence, and I look to that day with a healthy level of fear and distaste, hoping that I will never need to see it. We have, however, reached the point of action, and believe it or not, the heroes we need are among the people you know.
God is everywhere and nowhere, everything and nothing. God is three people, and yet one person, and yet not a person at all. Even though God cannot be understood, we understand Him. Even though God cannot be defined, we will define Him, and if you have a definition that is different from ours, you obviously believe in a different God and are therefore a heretic and a villain. God cannot be known, and only by knowing God can we be saved.
Is this the language of a rational person?
A university professor once told me a story about his conversion to the Latter-day Saint faith. When he informed his mother that he wanted to convert, she could not understand why he would want to forsake their Catholic faith. He explained to her that there were many Catholic doctrines that he did not believe. She asked him to give her an example. “Well,” he said, “Catholics essentially believe that the Father and the Son are the same Being, so when Jesus prayed to God, Catholics believe He was praying to Himself.” She laughed. “We don’t believe that! That’s ridiculous!” He told her that this actually was Catholic doctrine, but she did not believe him. She decided to ask her priest. The answer that her priest gave surprised her. She soon became a Latter-day Saint as well.
Yes, I have a problem with Trinitarianism. Even though the concept of the Trinitarian God has permeated contemporary Christian belief, the claim that this has always been the fiat and unchallenged definition of God since the time of Christ is contrary to both history and scripture. The identity of God was hotly debated in the centuries following the Apostles, and the Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed came into existence not in celebration of sweeping consensus among Christians, but as an attempt to deal with continuing dissent. Thus, there is nothing intrinsically modern or innovative about Christians believing in a non-Trinitarian God.
Just as the Pharisees of Christ’s time cited their worldly learning as grounds upon which they could claim to speak authoritatively about God, the Christian scholars who framed these creeds did so without one scrap of the divine authority that is required to dictate the correct interpretation of scripture. Instead of appealing to the source of truth by means of revelation, they turned to worldly philosophy to make sense of things. Thus, they sought to find some way of reconciling the Biblical account of God as a living, feeling, thinking, personal being with the pantheistic deism of the Greek philosophers, as Greek culture dominated the scholarly world at that time. Also, seeing the conflicts that had arisen in the Christian world as a result of varying definitions of God, these scholars sought to establish peace. The peace they managed to establish, however, was as cheap and as costly as peace always is when you purchase it with that which is most dear. These scholars did not receive any new revelation to help them establish a firm definition of God. Rather, they cited revelations already received in bygone eras. These were the same revelations that were being cited by their rivals: they just interpreted them differently. In the end, to deal with conflicts arising from differing definitions, these scholars threw out all definitions. That is, they concocted a mystical new definition that was too vague and noncommittal to even be called a definition: “You say that God is A, and you say that God is B. Very well: we say that God is each separately, both together, and neither at all.”
No, the Trinitarian definition of God is not even a definition. This is the kind of answer someone gives when they do not really have an answer but want to appear smart: that is, it is intentionally complicated to the point that, when you do not understand it, the person giving the answer can just say that you are not smart enough, even though the fault actually lies in the inadequacy of the answer. And then, anyone who attempts to restate Trinitarian doctrine in a way that makes sense – by simplifying it with some sort of analogy or comparison – is deemed a heretic. (This rather humorous video illustrates that point beautifully.) This is because the Trinitarian definition of God stipulates that God is beyond understanding, so any analogy that helps us to understand God must therefore be incorrect. Thus, Trinitarianism is fundamentally illogical because it posits itself as something that can only be understood by faith, and not by logic – as if logic and faith were irreconcilable. (It is a classic “emperor’s new clothes” ploy: if you don’t see what everyone else is talking about, you apparently don’t have enough knowledge, faith, refinement, etc.) As a result, those who refuse to bow to the Trinitarian “definition” of God are ostracized and termed “fake Christians.” I am one of these.
Do not think of me as an iconoclast or an ideological aggressor, though. My intent is not to destroy Christian faith, convince Christians to believe in a different God, or direct their faith toward some new and unfamiliar being. Instead, what I aim to do is simply show Christians that, despite what they may say, if they are like the vast majority of Protestants and Catholics I have met in my life, they do not really believe in Trinitarianism at all. I want to show sectarians that we already believe in the same God – not by convincing them that I believe in the Trinitarian deity of the Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed, but by showing them that they actually do not believe in said deity. Catholics and Protestants may say that they worship the Trinitarian God, but I do not believe that the Being to whom most of them direct their prayers fits that description at all. Here are some of my reasons:
I. Jesus Christ’s Baptism
When Christ went to John the Baptist to be baptized, all three members of the Godhead became manifest – separately. (Matt. 3:16-17) Is God the Father pleased in Himself? No; He is pleased in the Son. The Trinitarian interpretation here does not just require us to see three different representations of the same Being; it requires us to believe in a Being that exhibits a serious multiple personality disorder – and a bit of narcissism.
II. The Garden of Gethsemane
In what is perhaps the most important, pivotal moment in all of scripture, Jesus Christ entered the Garden of Gethsemane to pray to the Father and take the sins of the world upon Himself. In His prayer and the events surrounding it, we see the relationship between the Father and the Son manifested as a relationship of two beings with perfect unity of purpose, such that they could figuratively – but not literally – be described as one. This is evident in the following ways:
- Jesus compares His relationship with the Father to our relationship with Him. This is most evident in John 17:20-21. Are Christians meant to literally become a single entity, a single person? Most Trinitarians would resist this idea. And yet, Christ’s greatest desire is “That [Christians] all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” Either both relationships are literal, or both are figurative. Christ’s fervor and specificity do not allow for one to be literal and the other figurative. If Trinitarianism were true, Christ would have been asking for something that was not just highly improbable due to human frailties, but utterly and completely impossible.
- Jesus begs the Father. He is not just about to be beaten and crucified: He is about to take the sins and maladies of all existence upon Himself, which is something that makes the suffering of crucifixion a triviality. He knows what is coming. He understands the infinite pain it will entail. For this reason, He begs the Father to consider another possibility for bringing to pass the salvation of humanity. As we read in Matt. 26:39 (Luke 22:42): “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” He was not afraid of dying, as He knew that He would arise again. He simply feared the suffering that was involved. Some will interpret this as God essentially talking to Himself, but I interpret it as a faithful Son speaking to a loving Father.
- Jesus is comforted by an angel. (Luke 22:43) This simple fact shows us that Jesus, despite His perfection and His close unity with God the Father, was also a man experiencing the frailties of mortal existence. The unknowable, unapproachable, unfathomable God without parts or passions that Trinitarianism gives us does not require the support of a lesser being like an angel. (Also, it is puzzling that we should talk about “the Passion of Christ” with such great fervor if Christ is God and God is “without body, parts, or passions”.)
- Jesus Christ’s explanation of salvation makes either salvation or Trinitarianism impossible. In John 17:3, Christ says: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” We are saved by coming to know God (the Father) and Jesus Christ. And yet, according to the mystical definition of God given by Trinitarian dogma, God is unknowable. Hence, if Trinitarianism is true, and if Jesus Christ spoke the truth, we are all damned.
III. Jesus Christ’s Obeisance to the Father
Time and time again, Christ reiterates that He is secondary to the Father. All such statements directly contradict the Athanasian Creed’s assertion that all three members of the Godhead are “coequal”. Some examples:
- “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” -Mark 10:18 (Luke 18:19; Matt. 19:17)
- “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” -Rev. 3:21 (Again, this shows the relational comparison: Us : Jesus :: Jesus : God the Father.)
- “Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” -John 5:19
- “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” -John 5:30
- “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” -John 20:17
The Father and the Son are not coequal. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit share the title and office of God with the Father only because the Father has decided to make it so. Jesus Christ had the power to command the elements, work miracles, defeat death, and save mankind because that power was given to Him by the Father.
A Better Explanation of Scripture
To some extent, some time after the deaths of the Apostles, the doctrines of the Christian world were hijacked by scholars and philosophers who were adequately described by Paul: “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim. 3:7) Because they could not come to a knowledge of God’s nature, they decreed that God’s nature could not be known. They rationalized this assertion by misinterpreting various scriptures, such as John 10:30, in which Jesus says: “I and my father are one.” They took this verse literally. However, taking this verse literally requires us to take many other verses – such as the ones previously mentioned – figuratively. Either John 10:30 is literal and John 17 is figurative, or John 17 is literal and John 10:30 is figurative. Interpret these verses as you will, but I feel that it is much more rational to believe that the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is figurative than to believe that God speaks to Himself like a madman, is pleased with Himself like a narcissist, fathered Himself, and bows before Himself.
Instead of the mystical and unapproachable Trinitarian Jesus, I give you the Jesus of scripture, who:
- Lived a mortal life – just as you and I do – in which He learned and grew. (Luke 2:52)
- Is literally the Son of God in the physical sense – while we are not. (Hence, Christ is the “Only Begotten”.)
- Is literally a child of God in the spiritual sense, just as we are. (We were all created together spiritually by the Father before the world was.)
- Is figuratively the Father of the human race because He, invested with God the Father’s power, created the physical existence we know. (Ephesians 3:9)
- Is figuratively the Father of the faithful because He, invested with God the Father’s power, brings us back into the family of God after we have become subject to the Fall.
- Is a knowable, sensible, feeling being to whom we can turn for succor because He – rather than being a disembodied blob deity who is here and there and everywhere and nowhere – descended below all things and took upon Himself all of our sins, suffering, and imperfections in a very real and sympathetic manner. (Alma 7:11-13)
Is Jesus God? Yes. But only because God the Father has decided to share His power and authority with Jesus, and not because they share some inexplicable metaphysical mixture of identities that is impossible to understand. When John the Beloved wrote that Jesus Christ was with God and one with God “In the beginning” (John 1:1), he was referring to the beginning of this physical existence, and not to the beginning of the spiritual existence that preceded it.
It is a complex explanation, but it is a consistent and rational one. It takes some thought, but most people can grasp it after thinking about it for a little while. This makes it quite different from the Trinitarian interpretation of scripture, which only becomes less and less rational the more one contemplates it, resisting explanation not because it is too perfect, but because it is flagrantly imperfect. A fundamentally contradictory concept cannot be explained, no matter how intelligent or spiritual you are.
So do I believe that Christian scholars and anchorites have taught a false doctrine of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit for more than a millennium?
Yes. Yes I do. And, chances are, so do you.
Even if you belong to a Trinitarian sect, I doubt you really believe in Trinitarianism. Rather, I think you probably believe in a God who sent His Son – and not a mere appendage or shadow – to make the ultimate sacrifice for all mankind. When you drop to your knees to seek guidance and reprieve during your dark night of the soul, despite whatever Dark Age dogmas your denomination may officially espouse, I think that the God to whom you direct your words is the God I describe. One cannot worship or love an incomprehensible being any more than one can hold an immaterial object.
The primary function of religion is to help us understand the most important truths of human existence. Thus, when a sect cannot give a straight answer on a matter as basic and important as the nature of Deity, is it fulfilling its purpose or simply pretending to do so?