Virtual Voices

Weekend Reads: The state of Mormonism and evangelicalism

Books

Professors J.B. Haws and Calvin Miller have good news and bad news. The former, a devout Mormon who teaches at Brigham Young University, has just released a fascinating study of his co-religionists. The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (Oxford University Press, 2013) begins with faithful Mormon George Romney and his abortive campaign for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. At that time surveys found that 17 percent of the American electorate would not vote for a Mormon. By the time of his son Mitt’s twin campaigns in 2008 and 2012, that number had nearly doubled, though at the same time some pundits declared that the Mormon Church was the real winner in the 2012 election. Obviously, then, the story Haws tells is neither straightforward nor simple, as his 110 pages of endnotes attest. But, at least, as he tells it, one thing stands out: The Mormon church has been continuously growing in numbers, wealth, and social respectability. Mormon influence in American life is increasing.

The late Calvin Miller, who was a prominent evangelical author and seminary professor, tells the opposite story in The Vanishing Evangelical: Saving the Church from Its Own Success by Restoring What Really Matters (2013). Posthumously released by Baker Books, the work contains Miller’s farewell speech to the American church. Though it lacks the scholarly heft of Haws’ work, it also drops any pretense of academic neutrality. Miller loves evangelicalism, and he believes that it is dying. Indeed, I am still not sure what the first half of the subtitle has to do with the book; as Miller sees it, the church needs to be saved from its failure. He recounts decline, especially how the rate of church formation has not kept up with the rate of population growth. Then he savagely attacks the idea that the pendulum is bound to swing the other way: Every major civilization has declined and fallen—and the pendulum has never swung the other way to resuscitate any of them.

Haws’ narrative features many efforts by the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to increase its name recognition with billboards, TV spots, and carefully considered press releases. Yet in its efforts to go mainstream, the Mormon hierarchy remains aware that total assimilation means destruction of its institution. As Haws concludes, to remain viable, any religious movement must be relatable enough to get a fair hearing, but different enough to maintain a separate identity that exists in some tension with the ambient culture. Therefore, the LDS church must refuse to present itself as “some idiosyncratic brand of Protestantism.”

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Miller, in his own way, offers the same lesson. The problem with evangelicalism today is its total assimilation; by refusing to exist in tension, it is ceasing to exist at all. But Miller offers hope for “individual survival,” adding, “I say individual because I hold not the slightest hope for the triumph of the entire faith.” The glory days are over. But individually, if we each focus on our own heart and our walk with Christ, and find one other person to disciple and encourage in the faith, then our Christianity will not be in vain. Christianity began one person at a time, and that is how it will continue. Believe it or not, says Miller, only the basics can save us now. Read your Bible, pray, worship, and believe.

The infinite but material god of Mormonism lacks spiritual power; he cannot save. But the Triune God is spirit, and His Kingdom will conquer. Though Haws and Miller don’t say so, Mormons are momentarily exuberant—but Christians are eternally triumphant.

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb, a graduate of Patrick Henry College, is a Presbyterian rancher from Northern Colorado who loves the quirky, the eccentric, and the true.

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