May Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) be called “Christian?” To put it another way, is Mormonism part of the Christian tradition? The question may be kicked around in the press in the coming year as the ’08 presidential race gets underway. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, seems to want the Republican nomination. Given the strength of conservative Christians in the GOP, his religion could be an issue. A few years back, Senator Orrin Hatch, a fellow Mormon, expressed dismay that not everyone would recognize him as a Christian. To Senator Hatch it seemed self-evident—he was a Mormon, Mormons are the true Christian Church, so he must be a Christian. After all, the official name is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But, . . .

For a lot of people, including many historians, the issue is settled. Mormons claim to be Christians so they must be Christians. After all, who has the authority to say differently? A group’s self-identification, however, cannot be the final answer for an historian. I had a distant cousin who worked for the Department of Conservation in my home state. While working a deer check-station one year, a novice hunter proudly brought in his “buck.” “That’s a goat,” my cousin told him. The hunter pulled out his guidebook and began to argue, pointing to the tail, the cloven hooves, the spike horns. As I recall, he was impossible to convince otherwise. At issue in the question—May Mormons be called “Christian?”—are identification and classification. Does the Mormon Church have the essential characteristics of Christianity? Another historical issue at hand is that of Continuity/Discontinuity. That is, is a Mormonism a continuation of what has gone before in Christianity? Or, is it a break with the past, something new?

To take the second question first, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to be in discontinuity with the Christianity of his day. Mormons assert that true Christianity had been lost, and was restored in the nineteenth century. It was, therefore, something new in its time. Regarding the first question, essential characteristics, Mormonism fails the test as Christianity. The foundational doctrine of both historic Christianity and Judaism is the assertion that there is one God. The Latter Day Saints teach a potentially infinite number of gods. Historic Christianity asserts that God is eternally God, self-existing. The Latter Day Saints teach that men can become gods. Mormonism is not historic Christianity. What is it? A different religion, which is historically related to Christianity.

Mitt Romney is what he is—a Mormon. He may, or he may not be, a good candidate for president. But I would not call him a Christian.