Mormons, Christians, Mitt and the Trinity

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14 2011 1:00 a.m. MDT

Pollster Gary Lawrence

Gary Lawrence

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

Timothy Dalrymple, the managing editor of the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.com, doesn't agree with Lawrence's interpretation of the poll results.

"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."

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