I see the controversy over our (LDS) status as “Christian” to be exactly analogous to the controversy over whether other groups besides the LDS can be considered “Mormon.” There is really no difference.
What do we LDS mean when we claim to be “Christian”? By it we mean to communicate that we have faith in the historical person Jesus Christ. We place Jesus Christ at the center of our theology. That is it. We mean nothing more elaborate than that. And I think it is a perfectly legitimate and justifiable claim. It is a practical way of describing ourselves, and it isn’t concerned with whether or not our faith in Jesus Christ is theologically precise or orthodox. It isn’t even concerned with whether or not we have the truth. We are a part of the large and diverse community that places Jesus Christ at the center of their religion.I’ll call this a socio-historical definition.
But what do Evangelicals mean when they claim to be “Christian”? They mean something different by it than what we mean. By it they mean to communicate that theirs is a saving faith. For them, a “Christian” is equivalent to someone who is “saved”….which requires they believe all the right things about Jesus. This definition is definitely concerned with whether one’s faith in Jesus Christ is theologically precise and orthodox. It is absolutely concerned whether or not one has the truth. I’ve known Evangelicals who deny that the Pope is a Christian, because according to them the Pope is not “saved.” I’ll call this a theological definition (or alternatively a boundary-maintenance definition).
More often than not when a Mormon and an Evangelical are debating whether or not a Mormon is a “Christian” they are talking past each other because each has a different definition of the word “Christian” in mind.
This is exactly analogous to the situation between LDS and (for example) FLDS. In our righteous anger we seek to marginalize other groups who claim a heritage from Joseph Smith. Even though we agree 90+% of the time in our doctrine, we feel compelled to exclude them from the fold of “Mormons” because of the 5-10% of things on which we disagree. This is boundary maintenance. This is a theological definition of the word “Mormon.” By this method we are imposing a strict theological litmus test to determine who is a legitimate Mormon or not. In my view, this theological litmus test is even stricter than the one Evangelicals use.
It is simply not a strong position to set up theological boundaries regarding who is a Christian or who is a Mormon. All it takes is for someone to say, “I disagree.” There is simply no way to prove that one theological litmus test is better than the next one. We could claim that FLDS aren’t Mormons because they reject the authority of the prophet Thomas Monson. They could turn around and claim that we aren’t Mormon because we accept the authority of the apostate Thomas Monson. This kind of theological boundary maintenance simply is a dead end road. We have to be careful, because if we are too strict we might end up designating Emma Smith, the wife of the prophet Joseph Smith, a “non-Mormon”.
I understand that there is a legal element to this. Perhaps in certain legal contexts there are rules that one has to play by. But in common conversation those rules don’t really apply. If they did, we better be grateful no other Church out there has successfully obtained legal rights to the word “Christian”, or for that matter to the word “Mormon” else we LDS would be non-Christian and non-Mormon. Darn.
What about the fact that the term “Mormon” is usually associated in the minds of non-Mormons with the “Utah” church? Well, that isn’t very helpful to us because the term “Christian” is associated in the average mind with Trinitarians. It just isn’t an argument that carries any water.
So how should we distinguish between the various branches of Mormonism? It is really quite easy. We are LDS, they are FLDS. Nobody objects to that.
One final comment. Another analog to this is the ancient church. All of those groups (Ebionites, Marcionites, Gnostics, proto-Orthodox) were Christian groups. It would be absurd to claim otherwise. They fought over theology so stridently precisely because it was a familial fight…between brothers. They were part of the same socio-historical movement that claimed an inheritance from Jesus Christ. Sure, only one could be theologically correct, but they were all Christians. Likewise, all of us who claim a spiritual heritage from Joseph Smith have equal claim to belonging within the umbrella of “Mormonism.”