Science has given evangelical critics a powerful trump card for disputing Mormon faith claims.
Thomas Murphy, an anthropologist at Edmonds Community College in Lynwood, Wash., and also a Mormon, disputes one of the central claims made in the Book of Mormon.
Mormons believe that a group of Hebrews left the Holy Land about 2,600 years ago and wandered into North America. These Hebrew nomads are described in the Book of Mormon as one of the lost tribes of Israel and as “the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”
Murphy has subjected this claim of faith to the cold stare of science, genetics in particular. “So far,” he writes, “DNA research lends no support to traditional Mormon beliefs about the origins of Native Americans.” In other words, if the science is right, then the Book of Mormon is in error.
As might be expected, elements of the evangelical Christian community have seized on this information as a way of discrediting the Mormon religion. Science has given evangelical critics a powerful trump card for disputing Mormon faith claims.
Of course, Christians might want to play that card gingerly. We’ve had our own problems with claims of faith being disputed by science. One of the earliest struggles erupted over the discovery that Earth revolved around the sun. The official church position at the time, based on statements from the Bible, was that the sun and everything else revolved around Earth.
Church leaders were convinced that giving any ground to science would forever discredit the Scriptures. As a result, severe penalties were imposed on anyone who affirmed scientific claims in opposition to biblical teaching. The Italian scientist Galileo spent the last 10 years of his life under house arrest for his scientific beliefs.
In what is likely an apocryphal tale, Galileo, in an effort to defend himself and his claims, urged church leaders to look through his telescope and observe the moons of Jupiter. One churchman reportedly declined, saying, “I may see something there I am not allowed to believe.”
Eventually the church was forced to admit it was in error. The fact that the Bible asserts an Earth-centered universe is simply an indication that biblical writers were human and therefore subject to the limitations of knowledge imposed on all humans. In 1992, the Catholic Church issued a posthumous apology to Galileo.
On other issues, the Christian faithful have not surrendered. A bitter struggle is being waged in this country over evolution. Rather than capitulate, the evangelical faithful have attempted to make science out of Christian dogma. They call this strange hybrid “creationism.”
If Christians turn faith into science, does that mean science wins? That will have to be a topic for another day.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how Mormons conduct their own struggle with science. They may try to discredit DNA findings, or like creationists they may invent some alternative genetic explanation for the absence of any Hebrew genes among Native Americans. Or they might simply assert the truth of the Book of Mormon and continue to embrace the tenets of their faith regardless of what science may say about those beliefs.
Among scientists, creationists and Mormons, it will be interesting to observe 500 years from now who is apologizing to whom.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.