SALT LAKE CITY — If there is any dealbreaker that prevents some people from considering members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as Christian, it is the Mormon view on the Trinity. The differences may seem intractable — Mormons talk about the separate nature of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit while traditional Christians talk about the three divine persons as one indivisible God.
This theological difference causes Mormons to be excluded from Christian gatherings and organizations — and impacts the willingness of people to vote for presidential candidates Mitt Romney or Jon Hunstman, who both belong to the LDS Church.
But a new survey by political pollster Gary C. Lawrence has found some unexpected common ground between one way Mormons describe God's unity and how many Christians describe God's oneness.
Lawrence's firm conducted a poll on multiple subjects for a forthcoming book titled, "Mormons Believe … What?!" One subject was the wedge religious issue of what people really believe about the Trinity.
The poll asked two questions of Christians across the country. Half were asked, "Do you believe that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three separate Beings, or are they three Beings in one body or substance?"
Twenty-seven percent responded similar to the Mormon belief that they are separate beings. Sixty-six percent answered in line with traditional Christian beliefs that they are "three beings in one body or substance."
The other half of Christians surveyed were given a different question about the Trinity: "The New Testament says that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are one. Do you believe that means they are one in purpose or one in body?"
This time the answers went the other direction. Those answering the traditional "one in body" were 31 percent. Those answering "one in purpose" were 58 percent.
Lawrence said that Mormons say the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament is an oneness of purpose. The positive response of Christians to this concept in the second question surprised Lawrence. "I was wondering if there was a difference. I wasn't expecting a flip-flop. But it was. It just shifts from two-to-one one way and almost two-to-one the other way," Lawrence said.
What caused the shift? Lawrence said it is in the way the questions were asked.
The first question focused on contrasting separateness and oneness — "separate beings" versus "three beings in one body or substance."
The second question focused on the meaning of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit's oneness — a physical (or metaphyscial) oneness versus a purpose oneness.
"If it is presented in the way Mormons interpret scripture versus the opposite, they come toward the Mormon view," Lawrence said. "If you focus on physical characteristics, you get another one."
The poll found that women's support for the "one in body" traditional conception of the Trinity drops from 69 percent in the first question to 30 percent in the second question, a swing of 39 points. For men, the drop is 61 percent to 32 percent, a swing of 29 points. The biggest swing, however, was for liberal Christians who went from 75 percent support for the "one in body" concept in the first question to only 28 percent support for it in the second question, a swing of a 47 points.
NOT SO FAST
"It is quite a slippery poll," Dalrymple said. "It doesn't use the classical terms like 'three in person and one in substance.'"
The first question used the terms "one in body or substance" to describe the traditional Christian view, but the second question just used the term "one in body."
Dalrymple thinks the change from "one body or substance" in the first question to "one body" in the second might account for part of the swing. He said traditional Christians just don't think of the Trinity as "one in body."
James E. Faulconer, a professor of philosophy and Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU said, "The results don't surprise me, because religion for most people is more a matter of experience and feeling than it is a matter of rationality."
The debate about the Trinity is often about how we think about religion, Faulconer explained. It is a step away from the actual practice or experience of religion. It is theology. And when average people are asked about theological questions, their answers are coming from their feelings and are more likely to shift depending upon the context of the question.
"Because body and substance are not interchangeable, that makes the question somewhat problematic," Faulconer said. "But, even if you changed it to substance, my guess is that you would get similar results."
Lawrence, however, defended his wording of the questions, "The average American is not a trained theologian in any denomination. And so you have to phrase the question to capture the variable you want in words that the respondent can readily relate to and understand."
To Lawrence, the difference in wording between "one in body" and "one in substance" is "theological minutia" and wouldn't have made a difference. He thinks the real take-away is that Mormons will get more traction with traditional Christians by emphasizing their belief in how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are "one in purpose" than they will by emphasizing they are "separate beings."133 comments on this story
But in the current election year, Dalrymple doesn't think the theological difference should matter politically — even though he thinks the differences are important for salvation. Dalrymple recently became one of the contributors to EvangelicalsForMitt.org, a website supporting Mitt Romney for president.
"I see no problem taking people's religious beliefs and commitments into account when you are assessing a candidate for the presidency," Dalrymple said. "But the question is to what extent these fine theological distinctions matter in the assessment of a presidential candidate. I think these fine distinctions matter for ultimate salvific purposes, but do they matter in the assessment of a candidate? It is hard for me to see how traditional Christian and Mormon understandings of the Trinity would lead people to act in different ways within the office of the presidency."