One of the unfortunate consequences of the marginalization of Mormonism in American culture is the persistence of an “us vs. them” attitude that is pervasive throughout Mormon culture. From its beginnings, Mormonism faced tremendous religious criticism (as does any new religious tradition) from mainstream Christianity. This religious criticism subsided (but did not disappear) when the Mormons moved from Illinois to Utah in an effort to exist in relative isolation.
From 1852 through the end of the 19th century, Mormonism faced its biggest challenge from secular forces who were concerned about both the Mormon practice of polygamy and the political influence of Church leaders within the Utah territory.
In the latter half of the 20th century Mormonism again came under significant attack from so-called Christian “counter-cult” movements (Isn’t it ironic that this link takes you to a domain called Religious Tolerance when the site itself promotes nothing but intolerance?). Within popular vernacular the word, cult, has incredibly negative connotations and usually conjures up images of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Evangelical Christians are the most likely to marginalize Mormons by labeling them as “cult members” but there are some areas, in the United States at least, where more mainline Christians Churches have joined in on the “Mormonism is a cult” bandwagon.
It is no wonder then, that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints get defensive when their religious beliefs, the policies of their Church, and the Church itself receive criticism. As a result, Latter-day Saint culture often reflects a black and white worldview that is divided into pro-Mormons and anti-Mormons. Of course I speak in generalities here. Not every Latter-day Saint holds to this view but it is pervasive enough throughout Mormon culture — as a remnant of the Mormon past — that I believe it deserves to be addressed.
I would like to think of myself as living proof that such a black/white dichotomy is at best incomplete, and at worst harmful to members of the LDS Church and others ancillary to it.
I believe there are two major types of LDS critics; those who are critical of particular Church policies and practices, and those who are critical of specific LDS truth claims. If I am to be considered a Mormon critic, I would fit in the former category as I have no real interest in the veracity of Mormon truth claims. Granted, when I get together with my Mormon buddies who find such things interesting, we’ll discuss Mormon doctrine critically — meaning we will analyze specific doctrinal truth claims in an academic, rather than a strictly spiritual way.
Frankly, I have no real interest in criticizing Mormon truth claims, even though there are many I don’t personally find plausible (see below). The same theological and historical criticisms of Mormonism have been around for a long time. I have nothing to add and even if I did, I have no interest in doing so.
So, while I am not a critic of Mormon truth-claims; I am a critic of some LDS Church policies. Namely, I vehemently disagree with the Church’s stance on Same-sex Marriage and I have made my views public on several occasions. Most of my criticism of the Church’s stance came right after the Proposition 8 fallout in 2008. I have many close gay and lesbian friends and one, in particular, who’s Mormon family disowned him after he “came out” in 2008. I want to stress that this is not typical of Mormon families. Most Mormon families with gay or lesbian members struggle with it, but in the end they ultimately accept their son/daughter/sibling despite the fact that Mormon doctrine is clearly opposed to homosexuality. My open criticism of this policy came as a result of my personal relationships with friends who were deeply hurt by this particular Church position.
Having said that, I become extremely frustrated when people try and label Mormons as “homophobic” or “bigots” etc… Its just not that simple. My mother, for example, absolutely adores my gay friend Devan but she supports the Church in its policy. This is not bigotry.
The other Church policy I have been openly critical of is the one-year waiting period required to receive what is known as a temple sealing if they chose to have a civil ceremony first. I understand the origins and intent of the policy but at this point in time I feel it does more harm than good. Additionally, it only applies in the United States (and perhaps Canada). Most countries require a civil wedding ceremony. In those countries the Church does not require a waiting period. To me the current policy is antiquated and counter-productive. I would not be surprised to see this policy change at some point in the next 5-10 years.
Am I an apostate? My own personal views are rather heterodox and some things I enjoy (in terms of the Word of Wisdom etc…) are certainly heteroprax but I think it is completely inappropriate to call me an apostate. I love attending Church and participating in Church activities. Simply put, I like being a Mormon and as I’ve stated above, Mormon truth-claims are really not all that important to me. Serving within my Mormon community is what matters.
Within the online Mormon community there is an intelligent Mormon apologist named William Schryver. In particular, Will is incredibly well versed in the issues surrounding Mormonism’s Book of Abraham. Unfortunately, Will’s style is incredibly confrontational and Will has, on more than a few occasions, discussed those whom he considers to be members of a “fifth column” within the LDS Church. To my knowledge, Will has never identified me as being a member of this (imaginary) “fifth column” but he has been quite vocal about John Dehlin — the founder of Stay LDS and Mormon Stories — being a part of this (imaginary) “fifth column” movement.
John and I have corresponded through email and I know John’s goal is to help people — like me — who decide they don’t accept some or all of Mormonism’s specific truth-claims find ways to stay Mormon and navigate Mormon culture as a non-believer.
My intention here is not to criticize Will in particular. Rather, I am being critical of this attitude that exists within Mormon culture. Quite simply, it can potentially drive people away. For Will, or anyone else, to claim that heterodox Mormons are part of a conspiracy to change, alter, or possibly even “bring down” the Church only serves to make those with different viewpoints feel unwelcome and unloved.
In my Ward here in Manhattan I encountered no such attitude. My Bishop knows and trusts me, as do my ward members. Yes, my views are heterodox, but they are my own. I am no advocate.
In many ways I do consider myself to be a Mormon apologist — or at least a defender who is willing to discredit absurd and idiotic attacks on the LDS Church. Some of my previous blog posts demonstrate this type of apologetic. See here, here and here for example.
Granted, I am not trying to defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the authenticity of the Book of Abraham — I believe both to be apocryphal. However, I will defend Mormonism against offensive and absurd attacks. For example, consider this lovely and insightful commentary which comes to us courtesty of Greg Laden discussing the fact that the State of Utah would like to count Utah residents serving two-year missions overseas or domestically in the 2010 census. The title of Greg’s post is “Utah wants to count Mormon Missionaries in census.” The post itself contains this little nugget:
But they can’t, because they don’t freakin’ live in Utah.
But I wish they did. Hey, has anyone noticed a marked increase in these drones from Utah in South Minneapolis lately? What do they think they are goig to accomplish there?
In Greg’s comment section I stated the following:
“Drones from Utah …”
What insightful commentary. These are young men and women who voluntarily, and at their own expense go out and proselyte, yes , but also engage in countless service projects in communities throughout the world.
So you don’t agree with their religion … when they knock on your door just say “no thanks.”
I served a mission for the LDS Church at my own expense. I spent a large chunk of my mission on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation where we were involved in many service projects ranging from caring for the sick to assisting in larger community activities.
I wonder when the last time Greg gave up two years of his life, at a cost of $400 – 500 per month to provide service to others. Greg, if you are reading these please chime in.
Anyone who criticizes Mormon missionaries is going to get an earful from me. As I told Greg, if you aren’t interested just say “no thanks.” There are a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Subway here in NYC at times, each of them handing out copies of the Watchtower or Awake magazines. A simple and polite “no thanks” does the trick. These Jehovah’s Witnesses have a faithful conviction. I respect them for that.
As far as my academic work on Mormonism is concerned, I have always tried to place Mormon history, theology and practice within its proper context. There have been times when we have made big mistakes but those mistakes must be understood in context to avoid falling into the trap of presentism.
In truth, I believe I am a loyal critic, a heterodox Mormon, and a defender of my faith tradition. If there is a fifth column within Mormonism I have yet to receive my membership card. Maybe it’s time for me to email John Dehlin again…..
On this Mother’s Day I feel compelled to pay tribute to my incredible mother.
My Mother was only 32 when, with five children ranging in age from 2-10, my father (age 36) passed away from a sudden and completely unexpected heart attack. I can only imagine how absolutely terrifying this must have been for my mom – to be left alone to raise five children (4 of which were adopted no less).
Over the years our family faced some significant challenges but my mother always put her children first. She sacrificed her own comfort and desires to provide for the needs of her children. I am the youngest (age 33) of the five children and today, all of my siblings have wonderful families of their own and have become good, kind, and honest human beings – very much as a result of my mother’s sacrifice and her willingness to put our needs above hers.
It is only as I have gotten older that I have realized something else about my mother that is quite extraordinary: her incredible and sincere love for those within the community as well as her absolute commitment to lessening or alleviating the suffering of others.
To this day, my mother actively seeks out those in need of aid and comfort. She is constantly visiting the sick, visiting those in hospice care, or helping young mothers with newborns by caring for their older children or by providing meals.
My mother has consistently extended the hand of fellowship to those who are without friends, to those who feel abandoned, and to those who feel completely alone within this world. There are some who may never have felt love from another human being were it not for my mother’s unconditional acceptance of them and their struggles. My mother cares not about who you are, where you are from, or what mistakes you may have made in this life. She accepts people as they are and lets them know that at the very least, one person sincerely cares for their well-being and recognizes the unique value that exists within them.
My mother is a committed Latter-day Saint and currently serves as president of the Relief Society (Mormonism’s women’s organization) within her local congregation. She has served in this capacity many times over the years. As president, her primary responsibilities are to care for the poor, the sick, and those in need. During the massive flooding in southwest Washington State a few years ago she helped coordinate a massive relief effort that positively impacted literally hundreds of lives by providing the essential needs of shelter and food during this incredibly tumultuous time.
At times I have encouraged my mother to slow down, to relax, and to take time for herself – all, of course, to no avail. I have come to realize that my mother will work to tirelessly serve others until she takes her last breath. That’s just who she is and it is how she will always be.
I believe that the best thing my mother has given — and continues to give – my siblings and me is her example of selfless love and charity. She inspires all of us to be better people, to serve those around us, and to have compassion for those who suffer. Her example and influence will be felt within our family for generations to come.
Mom, on this Mother’s day I want to thank you for who you are, for who you have helped me become, and for the countless hours you have given in service to others. I love you more than you will ever know.