Mormonism has been much on people’s minds and tongues this year. It is quite understandable, with Mitt Romney staggering his way towards the Republican nomination, that Americans should be curious about this minority religion. We here at Dailykos are no exception, with a small but growing stream of diaries and comments about the Mormon faith. Still, I cannot help but hear in this conversation undertones of irrational fear and prejudice, which both distort our understanding of this topic and blow it far out of proportion. On this site, one can see progressive-minded people using derogatory, intolerant, and irrational lines of thinking that would be unheard of in reference to any other religion--where we of all people should do better.
The fear and prejudice to which I refer are often subtle. Kossacks sometimes relate facts or stories that would seem completely innocuous in relation to any other faith group, yet trigger outpourings of suspicion and hostility in connection to Mormonism. (Since it is my understanding that I should not “call out” other diarists, I will refer to a few incidents in general terms.) For example, a couple of days ago, a diarist related an experience from high school: a male schoolmate of the Mormon faith asked her out on a date, and on that date, she mentioned that she was a Catholic. The two did not go out any more after that, and the diarist supposed it was because she did not share his religion and was not interested in converting. This was a perfectly reasonable diary, and the author had every right to relate this experience. Indeed, if the young man in question had been of any other religion, such as Jewish or Catholic, then the story would have been utterly mundane and unremarkable. Yet this diary vaulted to the top of the Community Spotlight list and was followed by dozens of comments, including many hinting that Mormons are cultish, manipulative, or generally weird. Now, some of us may disapprove of religious people seeking romantic partners within their own faith group – but why should Mormons be held guilty for this any more than any other religious endogamists?
Similarly, a few days earlier, a diary appeared in which the author sought to understand why Mitt Romney had been chosen to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. The diarist pointed out that Romney is the scion of a very influential and important Mormon family. The title was something to the effect of “Romney is not just ‘a’ Mormon.” Again, I saw nothing shocking in the revelation that a person with powerful family connections had been given a plum job. Yet this diary hit the top of the Rec list, and was followed by the usual grab-bag of anti-Mormon comments.
These diaries certainly did not reflect any rabid prejudice on the diarists’ part, but their community impact betrays a stratum of unsavory emotions in relation to Mormonism. These incidents only really make sense when you consider their historical context. Bigotry, fear, and hostility have long been directed at the Mormon faith; its founder, Joseph Smith, was killed in prison by an anti-Mormon mob, and ever since then, non-Mormons have repeatedly accused members of the LDS Church of being a “cult,” of being a secretive conspiracy to control the nation, and most importantly, of not being real Christians. This anti-Mormon rhetoric is part of a long tradition of paranoid attacks on supposed impurities in the Protestant body politic; the historian David Brion Davis, in his famous 1960 article, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion,” pointed out the close parallels between anti-Catholicism, anti-Mormonism, and anti-Masonry, dating all the way back to the 1830s. All of these communities have been attacked as somehow subversive, conspiratorial, dangerous, and unfit to be citizens of a Protestant republic; the same invective has also been applied to Communists and most recently, to Muslims.
Now, certainly, some of us here may object that they are not unreasonably anti-Catholic or anti-Muslim—they may contend that their criticism of Mormonism is somehow more enlightened and more justified than the prejudiced ravings of Gilded-Age reactionaries. I would reply to these that the same spirit of paranoia has carried over from the tradition of counter-subversion to modern, liberal anti-Mormonism. Others may point out that they reject religion altogether, and hence that they are not being unfair to Mormons in particular. To these, I would respond that many of us still focus much of our intense negative feelings about religion on the Mormons in particular, and that this is unfair. Because the LDS Church is so little understood and so historically maligned, it is easy for both religious and secular people to join in bashing Mormons. Like anti-Catholicism eighty years ago, the most fervid evangelical and the most stony atheist can agree in their anti-Mormonism. This was demonstrated recently when (as I’ll discuss further later) kossacks excoriated Franklin Graham for his bigoted and partisan comments about the religious beliefs of presidential candidates, yet shockingly, agreed with what he had to say about Mormonism. Ironically, the central anti-Mormon assertion on which the left and the right can agree is the one that is the most freighted with theological baggage: the idea that Mormons are not really Christians.
Before we leap into theology, though, I would like to address the various criticisms directed at Mormons on this site and in the wider progressive community, along with some thoughts of my own. First, I will address the most pervasive and general anti-Mormon notion that I see among progressives, which is also the easiest one to refute:
1. Mormons are WEIRD
Yeah, and who isn’t? Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
I often hear progressives that I admire talk about Mormon practices in the horrified tones of second-graders swapping facts they’ve heard about sex. And no aspect of the Mormon religion is an easier target then their temple garments. A few weeks ago, the rabbi at a synagogue that I frequent brought up some questionable Mormon practices, and ended with the remark, “you know they wear special underwear?” She meant the remark in a spirit of fun, but I still wanted to respond, “yeah, and we’re wearing funny hats!” Every religion has its bizarre myths and rituals, from parting seas and circumcision to resurrection and speaking in tongues. Why should we begrudge Mormons their weird beliefs and practices?
Sometimes people answer this question by saying, “yes, we have weird beliefs, but our religion is OLD—Mormonism is so new.” This answer might be satisfying for a brief moment, but it breaks down under the slightest scrutiny. Is it somehow better to carry on weird beliefs that someone came up with a long time ago? Why should ancient weird beliefs be any more credible or relevant to our lives than newer weird beliefs?
Some people put forward another flimsy argument which is actually just a variation of the last: “But Joseph Smith was so obviously a sheister.” Maybe he was—but was he more so than the founders of other religions? We can look at historical records and formulate opinions about the life and career of Joseph Smith—what if we could do the same for Moses and his burning bush, Saint Paul and his vision on the road to Damascus, or Muhammad and his visitations from the angel Gabriel? Why would we take any of these people any more seriously than Joseph Smith?
All of these things can, of course, be taken as arguments against all forms of religion – which surely some readers will do. As a religious person myself, I tend to conclude that beliefs should be judged based on what they clarify about the universe and the lives that we should live in it, not on the apparent credibility of the person who first put them forward. Either way, the validity of religion in general is a whole other conversation, and not something for which Mormons in particular should be held specially responsible.
2. Mormons Practice Polygamy
This practice has been illegal in the LDS Church since 1890. The vast majority of Mormons have repudiated it for generations. A few fringe fundamentalists do still practice it. It is easy to find extremist fundamentalists who cling to the worst aspects of any religion—whether Orthodox Jews, conservative evangelicals, or Wahhabi Muslims. Mormons are no better or worse in this regard than anyone else.
3. Mormons are Right-Wing and Bigoted
Many diaries here have pointed out the sexism and homophobia that are propagated within the LDS Church; others could easily point out the racism that has been deeply ingrained there for a long time. There are several reasons why I believe this should not be held against Mormons:
A. Once again -- who isn’t? The problems of sexism and homophobia are pervasive in all the Abrahamic religions. Mormons absolutely did not invent sexism or homophobia. (Think of Orthodox Jews, Catholic prelates, and evangelical mega-church preachers.) The particular religious denominations that have totally expunged these prejudices from their doctrines and practices are rare and represent only a tiny fraction of the American population. Furthermore, plenty of atheists are sexist or racist, too.
B. Many Mormons are Progressive. Many Mormon men and women have progressive values, which they see as perfectly in line with their faith. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is Mormon, and has argued that his faith reinforces his social principles. Many of us have not been impressed with Reid’s effectiveness as a Majority Leader, but he does seem to have sincere Democratic values. In addition, I would venture that many members of this site are Mormons.
C. The Conservatism of Mormons is not necessarily linked to their religion. Consider the segment of the American population that the LDS Church occupies: they are overwhelmingly white, affluent residents of the interior West. People in that demographic group are largely conservative and Republican, whether Mormon or not. If one controlled for socio-economic class and region, one would probably find that Mormons are not much more conservative than everybody else.
D. Historically, Mormons have been fairly progressive. This may sound outlandish, but Mormons have generally been pretty forward-looking, especially with regard to women’s rights. Utah was the second territory in the United States to give women the right to vote, in 1870. In 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon, a Mormon physician, became the first woman elected to a state senate, defeating her own husband. These facts may seem to run counter to Mormons’ traditional practice of polygamy—but religious practices do not always correlate in any clear, predictable way to politics.
The fact that the LDS Church is so right-wing today must be understood historically. As Mormons have so often been attacked by American Protestants, they have gradually tried to integrate themselves into the American mainstream by emulating Protestant beliefs and values. In the past forty years, that has meant aligning themselves with the conservative evangelical movement—a Faustian bargain which may gain them credibility in the eyes of some while alienating others. This historical perspective helps to account for the next and most substantive objection to the Mormon church:
4. The Mormon Church Has Helped to Block Gay Rights
As a gay man, I do not take this point lightly. Most notably, the LDS Church helped to pay for the Proposition 8 Campaign. This was both wrong in principle and harmful to many people. Still, I do not allow this to color my view of Mormons or their faith. For one thing, the actions of the “Prophet” and high-ranking leaders of the LDS Church do not necessarily represent the views of most Mormons. Think of the Catholic bishops’ hysteria over birth-control coverage, even as 98% of Catholic women who have had sex affirm that they have used contraception. We might also think of the various terrible uses to which our own government has put our taxpayer dollars. The fact that the leaders of an institution use their funds in a despicable way does not mean that all of its members are equally to blame.
Secondly, it is easy to exaggerate the Mormons’ responsibility in the Prop 8 disaster. The fact is that 52% of Californian voters approved of Prop 8. That includes millions of people from all walks of life who made the wrong choice. They refused to recognize equality for gays and lesbians due to deep-seated and age-old prejudice, not because of a nefarious Mormon conspiracy. LDS money was just one extra factor. The idea that Prop 8 was particularly the Mormons’ fault plays into the age-old notion of the LDS Church as a secretive, conspiratorial puppetmaster subverting our liberties. It is also similar to the impulse that many progressives felt to blame black voters – even though they were only one small segment of the population, and were not uniform. It is easy to blame your failures on groups of people you are already taught to distrust.
5. The Mormons Perform Retroactive Baptisms of Non-Mormons
It is true that some Mormons perform ceremonies that they believe turn deceased persons of other faiths into Mormons retroactively. It is true that the particular Mormons who perform these ceremonies betray a certain contempt or lack of respect for other religions, which is wrong. Perhaps, as a Jewish person, I should be more upset by this, but I am not. I don’t think the ceremonies have any real effect, so what is the harm? It is like when my Jewish mother speculated that my Christian great-grandmother might at some point have surreptitiously sprinkled water on me or my brother. Why shouldn’t she, if she thought it would save our souls? And what about when Muslims say that Abraham was the first Muslim, or Buddhists say that Jesus was a Boddhisatva? Is that kind of retroactive claiming also offensive?
I file this Mormon practice in the folder, “Weird but basically harmless things that some religious people do.”
Still, the controversy over this practice stems in part from lingering doubts about the validity of Mormonism as a religion. Therefore, finally, we should examine a claim about Mormons that some do not consider to be a criticism at all, but which still plays into the old themes of fear and suspicion. It is the main attack that has dogged Mormons for 180 years, and it still shows up today, including on this site. It must be confronted if we are to gain any better understanding of Mormonism and its critics:
6. MORMONS ARE NOT REAL CHRISTIANS
Mormons call themselves Christians—unequivocally. Nonetheless, over the years, both mainline Protestants and evangelicals have measured the Mormons’ Christian-ness and found them wanting. They do not adhere to “correct” doctrine about the nature of God and sin, they add an entire new book to the Bible, and they promise one another the possibility of “becoming gods” (a debatable characterization of Mormon views). Thus, they are outside the pale of legitimate Christianity. This type of attack is to be expected amongst intolerant religious partisans. Strangely, though, more secular-minded people can be seen to reproduce these exact same notions.
A recent diary on Dailykos discussed the appearance of Franklin Graham on “Morning Joe,” in which he cast aspersions on Barack Obama’s faith, and evasively mumbled that “some people” don’t consider Mormons to be truly Christian. Kossacks excoriated Graham’s partisan prostitution of religion—but shockingly, many jumped in to add that he was right or “had a good point” about Mormonism. After all, many said, they had added to the Christian canon—doesn’t this qualify them as a separate religion?
This really gets my goat. My first reaction to these comments is: who appointed you as Grand Inquisitor? What gives you the right to judge who is Christian and who is not? One commenter responded that he was an atheist, and hence had no skin in the game; thus, he was qualified to make the judgment. He did not consider it derogatory to declare Mormonism to be a non-Christian religion; it was just a matter of social fact. To this, I would again point out that Mormons consider and declare themselves to be Christians. One had better have a darn good reason to say that these people are in fact wrong or lying about their own religion. To say so may not impugn their theology, but it does impugn their character and credibility – it plays into the old idea that Mormons are somehow dishonest or dissembling.
Nonetheless, some commenters asserted that it was necessary to draw some lines or boundaries around our definition of “Christian,” and that the Mormons simply cannot fit within it. I am skeptical that it is necessary to make such a definition of “Christian” or “Christianity.” “Christian” is fundamentally a social identity that people use and apply in their lives, not a concrete object like a bicycle. Any supposed definition must take into account the flexibility with which people use the term. How do I feel when someone says that because of my beliefs or practices, I am not really a Jew? If you are an atheist, how would you feel if someone said that, because of some aspect of your beliefs or lifestyle, you are not really an atheist?
As for defining Christianity—how could one go about setting forth a fundamental set of tenets? Who makes that choice? If it is proven impossible to axiomatize such a seemingly simple system as arithmetic, then how could it be possible to axiomatize a religion? If I had to make a descriptive definition, then I think I could not do much better than this: “Christians are monotheists who believe that the one god sent or chose Jesus Christ to be the savior of humankind.” Others even remove the extra theological content and simply say that Christians are “followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ.” Either way, Mormons qualify.
Still, we should take a minute to consider the various spurious arguments that non-Mormons, both religious and secular, put forward to try to remove Mormons from the Christian camp:
A. Mormons added a book to the canon
Many Christian groups have relied on their own special Scriptures and revelations, from the ancient Gnostics to the Shakers and Christian Science. Are these people not Christians either? What about the Marcionites, who embraced the New Testament but rejected the Old? Do they qualify?
Some commenters pointed out that the Mormons' addition of their book to the Bible is analogous to the Christians’ addition of the New Testament to the Hebrew Bible. One asserted, “If Mormons are Christians, then Christians are Jews.” In response, I point out that all the early Christians were Jews. They considered themselves Jews. They practiced Judaism. Modern Jews do not dispute this. How, then, did Christianity become a separate religion?—under the influence of Saint Paul, most Christians came to believe that it was not necessary to be Jewish or to practice Judaism in order to attain salvation through Christ. It became a separate faith when its followers came to define and practice it that way. The same is not true of Mormons in relation to Christianity.
B. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity
This doctrine was cooked up by Tertullian around the beginning of the third century. Christians did not necessarily believe in it before then, and many still do not today. Here is a listof 26 Christian groups that do not subscribe to Trinitarianism.
C. Mormons don’t believe that God created the universe and mankind
The Gnostics and the Cathars did not either. Do you agree with Ireneaus and Bernard of Clairvaux that these people were heretics and not real Christians?
D. Mormons don’t believe in Original Sin
Eastern Orthodox Christians also do not, so I guess you’ll have to take this one up with the Patriarch.
E. Mormons believe that they can “become gods.”
This is one way of describing the doctrine that Mormons themselves call “exaltation.” This doctrine is ambiguous, but basically one can say that Latter-Day Saints are able, after death, to dwell with God and partake in his divine nature. This is more a less a variation of the old Christian idea of theosis, holding that the Saints are not only saved from sin become God-like. The Mormon belief in exaltation is pretty similar to the ideas of theosis of radical antinomian Protestants like John Everard, and support can be found for it in the epistles of Paul, such as his declaration that “Ye are gods.” Still, Mormons affirm that only God is to be worshipped.
One commenter argued that this belief basically makes Mormons polytheists, since all men are gods. This is a bit of an exaggeration; the idea of exaltation might push the edges of monotheism, but so does Catholic veneration of the Saints and, for that matter, the Trinity.
My overall point is that the meaning and beliefs of Christianity are not uniform across time or space. They are constantly in dispute and up for debate. To pretend that there is some set of core axioms of "real" Christianity is to intervene and take sides in those debates, even if unintentionally. The most honest approach, in my view, is to accept variety and ambiguity.
Some of us might question Mormons’ Christian-ness from a secular viewpoint, without having any particular commitment to Christianity—but forgive me if I find this disingenuous. To deny that the Mormons are Christians is still to assert that certain other people are entitled to the label of “Christians” while they in particular are not. To deny that Mormons are Christians is to call into question their integrity and their freedom of belief: in their own interpretation, there is no conflict between belief in Christ’s gospel and belief in the Book of Mormon and the doctrine of exaltation. To deny that Mormons are Christians is not just to categorize them— it is to deny the validity of their beliefs; it is to deny their right to believe what they believe.
The rejection of Mormons’ Christian identity is offensive in itself, and it plays into the old themes of Mormonism as a devious, subversive cult. It helps to carry over the old paranoid and hostile views of Mormons from the religious realm into the secular, and it should be dropped.
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In conclusion, I want to ask: can we please leave these people alone? They are a religious group. They are Christians. They may have weird beliefs and practices, but so does everybody else. They may be mostly conservative, but that is not necessarily connected to their religion. They are NOT an evil conspiracy. They are NOT trying to make you wear funny underwear. Mitt Romney may be a greedy, out-of-touch weasel who should never be allowed to hold office, but he is NOT a secret Mormon mole or Manchurian candidate. Please, let us be a community where all religions are spoken of with respect as well as with curiosity, and where people of all faiths can feel welcome.