An Arkansas court has sort of declared that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not qualify as a “protestant” faith. The case in particular comes down to an agreement in the divorce that the children should be raised within the protestant faith. When the father started advocating the LDS Church, the mother took him to court. The court found that the contract was valid and enforceable and it was applicable to this case.
The latter part of the ruling isn’t hugely controversial since the LDS Church itself does not consider itself protestant. It does complicate the notion that Christianity primarily divides into two camps, Catholic and Protestant. Some would argue that the distinction still exists because Mormons (and any other groups) that don’t fall into one of those two categories aren’t actually Christian. Many of these people would use the LDS as an example of this. Others might use the Unity Church, which is vaguely Christian but becomes less so the more you scratch beneath the surface, or the Unitarian-Universalist Church, which used to be Christian but has become less so as time has rolled on. What makes the LDS different from the Uniteers and Unitarians, though, is that while the latter have beliefs that are somewhat vague, new-agey, and open-ended, the LDS is none of these things. Another example of a church of what some would call dubius Christianity but that nonetheless sees itself as Christian are Pentacostals, who are denied the right to call themselves Christians by some because they reject the concept of the Trinity but who are generally (moreso than LDS) considered Christian. Also along these lines are Christian Scientists.
The court case itself needn’t have been decided on theological grounds. The question in the divorce settlement was not whether in the spiritual sense the LDS Church is theologically protestant but more whether the parents, when they signed the agreement, both believed that it was. Only if there was no consensus on the issue do you start asking questions of theology and church history. Since generally neither Mormons nor Protestants consider Mormons to be Protestants that’s an easier question to answer than it would be whether the agreement had said Christian rather than Protestant.
Whether Mormons are in fact Christians is a subject of debate at least within the Christian community. By and large the answer is that they are not and Mormonism is a separate Abrahamic religion that shares much in common with Christianity (as Christianity does with Judaism) without actually being a part of it. On the other hand, Mormons project themselves as being Christian and publicly emphasize the similarities with the general Christian community rather than the differences. On the other hand, when I was in Deseret, the general view seemed to be that these were two different groups rather than being a part of a single community. On the other hand, you get the same sort of things in Catholic areas even though there isn’t much (some, but not much) debate that both fall under the Christian label.
The question does naturally arise as to whether or not self-identification is (a) valid and (b) determinative. Can Mormons be Christians just by saying they are? I would say that they cannot. But they have more than just self-identification to go on. Jesus is a substantial figure in their teachings and the stuff that was added on in the end is positioned as a continuation Christ’s teachings and legacy. One may think that the uniquely Mormon beliefs of what came after Jesus and the Bible are false, but believing something that is incorrect does not get you kicked out of the Christian community in any helpful use of the term. Sure, a lot of denominations think that they are the only ones to get it right (comes with the territory!) and some that they are the only True Christianity and that the others preach False Christianity, but we’re still debating True and False Christianity and brands of Christianity rather than Christianity vs Something Else.
Even using more than self-identification, though, a lot of dubious groups could get themselves under the Christian Tent by the methodology that the Mormons would use. Members of the Unification Church believe that their guy is merely a continuation of the Christian story (and the Muslim Story, and the Buddhist Story, and on and on). Even the Branch Davidians fall into this category.
I don’t see any easy answers to these questions. The easiest answer may be that the courts should never be put in the position of having to decipher theology. I think that this is generally true. I’m not sure that I agree with the court’s ruling that the agreement was valid. It could be on the basis that one parent explaining his or her religion necessarily involves the other spending an eternity in Hell and that could cause trouble or maybe on the basis that it could simply be jarring to a child to hear alternating explanations of our existence and of the supernatural depending on what parent the kid is with.
Maybe it’s because I was raised in the staid Episcopal Church and I was not raised to believe with absolute conviction everything that the Bible or our church leaders say, but I’m not entirely convinced that the children couldn’t process multiple explanations of our existence and whatnot. I’m inherently skeptical of religious systems that are fearful of people being taught alternative religious systems. Children alternating between churches until they can decide which one is right for them is not a thought that particularly troubles me. Naturally, I would be a little concerned that they might make the wrong choice, but I’m inherently uncomfortable with blocking them from coming to that conclusion by depriving them access to contradictory information. I guess this is why I am not a particularly good Believer even if I do believe in believing in God and I do not think that all religions are created equal in thought or in action.