In the February 6 Salt Lake Tribune, Stuart Reid asserted that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a mistake in the 1990s in emphasizing the Christian nature of the church. He claimed that such a move was simply a public relations strategy that led to a loss of the church’s distinctiveness and a lukewarm membership.
Reid is correct that the church made a fundamental shift about that time. It was seen in moves such as the church logo displaying the name of Jesus Christ more prominently, a new subtitle for the Book of Mormon, and more Christ-oriented missionary discussions. The change was so dramatic that I remember one older church member asking in a church class when we turned our attention away from Joseph Smith and towards Jesus Christ.
However, the shift was more than a public relations strategy. I believe it was the product of revelation to bring church members to a belief in and reliance on Jesus Christ as each member’s personal redeemer. It was an effort to help members understand the role of grace in their lives and find peace in sometimes troubled times.
Perhaps even more than that, it was designed to emphasize what was central to church members rather than simply what was distinctive. It is true that Latter-day Saints have distinctive doctrines and practices from traditional Christianity. But those are not at the core of the church’s beliefs. It is the atonement of Jesus Christ — his role in helping all of God’s children eventually return to God — that is fundamental to the faith.
This cardinal principle of Latter-day Saint beliefs had become somewhat neglected in the past. I remember sitting in a Sunday School class several years ago when the teacher talked about the pillars of the church with Christ being only one of the pillars, not the chief cornerstone. And I had attended many testimony meetings where the only mention of Christ occurred when the testimony was closed. Christ’s mission, teachings and atonement were too infrequently discussed, contemplated and applied.
By the 1990s, church leaders began to move members towards a greater understanding of what was most important in the faith. Increasingly, church members began to comprehend that accepting Jesus Christ as a personal savior, seeking to become Christ’s disciples, and desiring to live a Christ-like life are the main purposes of a Latter-day Saint’s mission in life.
Reid suggests that members who have been attracted to the church, or have remained faithful, due to this focus on Jesus Christ are somehow less devoted. However, he provides no evidence that is the case. It is true that the growth rate of baptisms of new converts has slowed considerably in the past couple of decades. But that phenomenon has been true generally for Christian churches of all stripes.
Moreover, even with the concentration on Jesus Christ, the church is still distinctive and will remain so. Concepts like pre-mortal existence, covenants and modern-day revelation separate the church from mainstream Christianity. Not to mention the use of the Book of Mormon, non-recognition of baptisms outside the faith and celestial marriage. There is no danger of the church losing its unique identity.
Changes at Brigham Young University such as requiring temple recommends or codifying on-campus demonstration rules are not issues related to Christian identity vs. traditional distinctive practices of the church. They have more to do with assuring that church schools don’t become secularized as many religious-sponsored institutions have become. Catholic and Protestant schools have experienced these same tensions and they are part of mainstream Christianity.
The church can be Christ-centered and distinctive at the same time. Indeed, it is now and will remain that way. Church leaders have adopted this theme because it will help members face their trials in the future. No longer will they believe they must work, work, work to gain their salvation, but instead will turn their lives over to a loving God who, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, will forgive them as they repent and enable them to become disciples. There is no more important and reassuring message for Latter-day Saints in the 21st century.
Richard Davis, Orem, is author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”