There is an amusing scene in the 1990 film Back to the Future III in which time-traveler Marty McFly, exploring his home town in the year 2015, encounters a holographic projection of a shark as part of the marquee at a theater showing Jaws 19. At first taken by surprise, Marty recovers and comments, “The shark still looks fake.”
I must confess that I have a similar reaction to the latest “sequel” in the long-running debate over whether Mormons are or can be Christians, prompted this time around by the conservative TV talk-show host Glenn Beck. Do we really need to discuss this question again? Apparently we do, given the lack of clarity that continues to characterize much of what is said on the subject.
The Christian blogosphere recently lit up following the comments of World Magazine online columnist Andrée Seu in which she spoke of Beck not just as a Christian, but as “a new creation in Christ” who is “red hot” toward God. “I can say without hesitation that I have not heard the essentials of the gospel more clearly and boldly in any church than on his program.” Seu acknowledged that Beck is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and admitted that Mormon doctrine is problematic, but described Beck as a latter-day Apollos who needs a Priscilla and Aquila to help him with his theology.
Evangelical bloggers were quick to contradict Seu. Justin Taylor, one of the most insightful Christians blogging today, commented on “Andrée Seu’s Tragic Mistake on the Gospel of Glenn Beck.” Taylor warned: “It is easy to be moved by talk of having faith in Jesus, without asking who the person understands Jesus to be…. Despite what mainline evangelicalism has taught for years, the gospel is not ‘I trusted in Jesus and he changed my life.’” Russell Moore, an astute Southern Baptist theologian, argued that evangelical enthusiasm for Beck’s religious rhetoric is a sign that American evangelicals have largely traded the gospel for American civil religion:
“It’s taken us a long time to get here, in this plummet from Francis Schaeffer to Glenn Beck. In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined ‘revival’ and ‘turning America back to God’ that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.”
World Magazine acknowledged Taylor’s blog and offered a retraction, stating, “Our website editing system failed in regard to Andrée’s post about Glenn Beck.” In a separate article, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, echoed Moore’s assessment: “Beck is syncretizing Mormon and Christian understanding in the service of a civil religion, but that’s a radically unequal yoking for reasons WORLD has pointed out before.”
One thing that seems to have been overlooked up to now is that Taylor and Moore offer two fundamentally different—and possibly incompatible—diagnoses of the problem. Both argue that evangelical enthusiasm for Beck reveals a lack of discernment and a shallow understanding of the gospel among American evangelicals. Taylor worries that Beck’s evangelical supporters are under the mistaken impression that anyone who claims that Jesus changed his life has accepted the gospel. Moore contends that those same evangelicals have mistaken American civil religion for the gospel. So which is it? Does Beck represent a personal-transformation gospel focused on Jesus as life-changer or a civil-religion gospel focused on a generic theism as the foundation for a stable society? I suppose it is possible to mix the two messages, and perhaps there are elements of both in Beck, but they don’t mesh naturally.
Mormon doctrine in two minutes
The main objection to viewing Beck as an advocate for the gospel is that the theology of the LDS Church, of which Beck is a member, is radically incompatible with the biblical gospel. The divide between biblical teaching and Mormon doctrine is so wide that from an evangelical perspective Mormonism falls outside the circle of acceptable, authentic expressions of the Christian faith. The crucial problems with LDS doctrine that impinge directly on one’s view of Jesus Christ and the gospel include the following unbiblical claims:
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