Mormonism: Made In America

As a proud and dedicated ‘contextual theologian’, I have never been quite sure what to with Mormonism.  As in any field, questions will always come up from concerned listeners about ‘what if we take this too far’ or ‘where do we draw the line’.

In  contextual theology – since it started as a movement within missiology – the thrust has generally been about appropriate translation and inculturation between different nations, languages, and cultures. The move toward contextualization makes perfect sense within a typical framework whether it is inter-cultural or not.

In fact, in recent decades the conversation within contextual theology has moved from the old colonial missions idea of bringing a potted plant and putting it in native soil, to bringing the seed of gospel and planting it in native soil, to a more post-contextual idea of learning from the native people ‘what grows there’ and then partnering with them to integrate and advance a new crop. [for more on this listen to the podcast with Randy Woodley]

But that is a conversation about foreign missions. What do you with those who are not inter-cultural but which arise from within your very culture?

What got me thinking about all of this was a very strange little sentence in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One.

In the middle of his chapter of Christianity he dedicates 3 pages to Mormonism. Among all the regular and expected material about their founder and their practices – which you can find almost anywhere – was this:

 Though long seen as dangerously un-American, Mormons are now widely viewed as quintessentially American.

He then goes on to detail the huge presence of mormons within pop culture (mostly TV).  This was, of course, before Mitt Romney becoming the presidential nominee.

The reason that comment caught my attention is that several years ago I had that exact conversation with a seminary professor. This professor was not a big fan of contextualization and said mormons were the most contextualized form of American christianity. I argued that no, they were actually a cult (as I had been taught this growing up) and he countered that this is what cults are – contextualization taken too far.

In the years since that encounter I have kept an eye on the ‘mormon thing’ and while I have evolved and adapted my views on so many things (including religious pluralism) I am still not quite sure what to do with the fact that Mormonism is truly the most American of religions.

I’m not talking about their unique beliefs or their novel practices – I am thinking more about their history and organization. It seems to me that whatever the conversation about missions and indigenous expressions that Mormonism remains that one group you have to hold out an exception for. They are exceptional in that sense. They don’t fit into neat categorization or wholly lie outside the issue either.

 Mormonism is an anomaly in this sense. They are just enough different than other groups that they can not be accounted for in predictable ways but they are similar enough that they can not be dismissed outright.

Tripp is interviewing an expert on Mormonism today and then we are recording a TNT tonight where Mormonism will be one of the topics.  I thought I would throw this out there today and see if the deacons had any insight to help me process this unique twist in the cultural conversation right now. 

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Gentlemen, please.  We all know Scripture says "You will know them by their systematic theology."


I believe Mormons are facing a crisis (as most Christian communities are) in which they are unsure if they want to exist independently or to be seen as Evangelical. Using a sports metaphor, Notre Dame operates in a similar manner that they enjoy independence with their NBC football contract and nation wide fan base, but they clearly want more connection as seen in their decision to join the ACC.


Bo, I am more like you on my reticence. And, I believe the jury is out.  I'm not exactly sure what to believe whether the Hank Hanegraff anti-Mormon propositions are in fact true or if there is another (probably more accurate) Mormon identity that is less contextualized.  If Salt Lake City makes a declaration on Mormon identity we would all be better for it.


A recent conversation on Mormon Matters that Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle had with Jana Reiss opened my eyes to ways emergence is challenging Mormons to reconsider their stances. Here's the link to that podcast if anyone is interested (


Finally, the 'contextualized to American culture' reference posits some Evangelical communities in the middle of or at least the fringes of a pseudo-cultic identity.  Growing up in Evangelicalism, I scarcely recall many challenges to exploitative capitalism and rampant consumerism (provided the church sanctioned the merchandise being marketed).  Since joining the emergent conversation I've realized how seldom I question American tenets that are counter-Biblical but accepted by the teachings of my childhood faith.

Rob Elliott
Rob Elliott

It's like the American auto industry: it was made here, but the parts came from overseas.