With Mitt Romney now the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major party, America has reached what many are calling the "Mormon moment." That reality is forcing Christian leaders to get a better grasp of a religion that few understand.
"We're in a 'Mormon moment' so it requires helpful thinking and a clear understanding of Mormonism," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. "More people have been talking about Mormonism in the last six months than in the entirety of my life."
Hoping to help pastors and church leaders, Stetzer led a live webcast on Tuesday to address how Mormon doctrines are vastly different from that of historic Christianity and why labeling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "cult" is unhelpful.
"When compared side by side – what they (Mormons) believe about God and Christ – we have very drastic differences," said Dr. Tal Davis of Market Faith Ministries, who joined the live webcast.
Both Davis and Stetzer pointed out that the LDS Church has recently been trying to downplay differences between itself and Christian churches. The LDS Church is also no longer trumpeting its belief that it is the "one true church" while the rest are apostate.
"In the past, they were strong about their superiority to other faiths," Davis, one of the country's leading evangelical experts on Mormonism, said. "But over past 20 years ... they're trying to present themselves in sort of a mainline sense, downplaying theological differences – at least publicly – and highlighting their similarities."
"They want to present themselves with the best light," Davis observed, "because of the history – people have a notion that Mormonism is strange."
Through the recent "I'm a Mormon" ads, LDS followers have been presenting themselves as regular people. Davis agrees that Mormons are "pretty much like most people" in terms of their behavior and social standing. But where they differ from Christians is their doctrine, he stressed.
Though Mormons may use similar terms as evangelicals and Protestants when it comes to God, Jesus Christ and salvation, the LDS understanding of each of those terms differs greatly from historic Christian teaching, Davis noted.
Christians believe God is the infinite Creator of the entire universe who is always existent. The LDS Church teaches that God was literally a human being who was married and was raised to godhood and therefore created this world and populated it.
To Christians, Jesus Christ is the pre-existent, eternal, infinite God the Son and the second person of the Trinity. Mormons, meanwhile, believe Jesus was the physical firstborn son of God and his wife.
Also, in the LDS Church, putting faith in Jesus Christ is not the main point. Rather, one must "go beyond to grow to being what your heavenly father wants you to be" through obedience, work in Mormon temples and so forth, Davis explained. These are necessary to reach "exaltation."
The LDS Church teaches that there are three levels of heaven. The top tier (celestial) is for LDS members who followed through with all the requirements (including marriage) for exaltation and who have the potential to become a god of their own world. The second level (terrestrial) is for "good" people of all faiths and the lowest level (telestial) is for everybody else.
There is no hell in the Mormon system, essentially, said Davis.
In addition to the Bible, Mormons also teach from the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants. The latter two texts are where much of the LDS Church's theology can be found, according to Davis.
With such differences on basic points of theology, most Christians do not consider Mormons Christian.
A LifeWay Research study shows that 75 percent of Protestant pastors do not consider Mormons to be Christians.
"It's not a denomination but it's a different religion," Stetzer stated.
Still, throwing around the "cult" word is not helpful, Stetzer noted.
A cult is often understood as a religious group with strange beliefs outside of the cultural mainstream, the researcher explained. "What you call Mormons today is what the world is going to call evangelical Christianity tomorrow," he commented, noting that evangelicals are increasingly being viewed as a group with strange beliefs.
He advised pastors to "drop the 'cult' language."
"We don't want to demonize people of other religions," Stetzer said.
Davis offered some advice on engaging with Mormons in dialogue: don't compromise and don't argue. "I've talked to hundreds of Mormons and I've learned something – they don't argue. They tend to be self-assured. That's how we need to be.
"If we're sure of our faith and we know what the Bible teaches, there's really no need for us to engage in an argument."
And "if they're going to be offended if you say they're not Christian, say 'can we agree that there are significant differences?'"