Transforming Mormonism?

Noah Feldman has published a fascinating essay in the New York Times Magazine. Feldman focuses especially on Republican anti-Mormon bigotry and wonders how Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency might change Mormonism.

The rise of the religious right posed a tricky political quandary for the LDS church. On the one hand, a vocal movement pressing for conservatism and moral values must have seemed to them like a natural home. After all, they, too, were religious believers who drew upon their faith for their political conservatism. Yet there was a strand of the religious right that could potentially put it at odds with Mormonism — its barely concealed commitment to evangelical Protestant theology.

According to Feldman, Mormonism responded to persecution with secrecy and has thus become unable to formulate its theology clearly:

What is more, what began as a strategy of secrecy to avoid persecution has become over the course of the 20th century a strategy of minimizing discussion of the content of theology in order to avoid being treated as religious pariahs. As a result, Mormons have not developed a series of easily expressed and easily swallowed statements summarizing the content of their theology in ways that might arguably be accepted by mainline Protestants. To put it bluntly, the combination of secret mysteries and resistance in the face of oppression has made it increasingly difficult for Mormons to talk openly and successfully with outsiders about their religious beliefs.

I have not made up my mind about this hypothesis but it certainly goes a long way to explain Romney’s Hinckleyesque approach to message as well as Gordon B. Hinckley’s own approach to public relations. It is also true that Mormon theology is so poorly defined that no one can say with any degree of certainty what constitutes Mormon doctrine.

On the other hand, we all can remember prophets who have been much more forthright and outspoken than the current incumbent. While temple ceremonies have always been secret, I am not ready to agree with Feldman entirely.

Mainstreaming appears to be primarily Gordon B. Hinckley’s priority. His immediate predecessors have been much more open about Mormon beliefs and practices. On the other hand, Gordon Hinckley also exposed himself much more to national and global media than Spencer Kimball, Ezra Benson, and Howard Hunter and is thus under greater pressure to account for an alien and “strange” culture.

If Mormonism were to keep Romney from the nomination, the Mormon Church hierarchy may through continuing revelation and guidance respond by shifting its theology and practices even further in the direction of mainstream Christianity and thereby minimizing its outlier status in the culture. Voices within the LDS fold have for some time sought to minimize the authority of some of Joseph Smith’s more creative and surprising theological messages, like the teaching that God and Jesus were once men. You could imagine Mormonism coming to look more like mainline Protestantism with the additional belief not in principle incompatible with Protestant Scripture that some of the lost tribes of Israel ended up in the Americas, where a few had a vision of Christ’s appearance to them. If this hypothetical picture of a future Mormonism seems unimaginable to the contemporary LDS faithful, as it may, today’s Mormon theology would look almost as different to Brigham Young.

That would be a tragedy. While there are any number of issues that ought to be considered for reform, we do not have an obligation to be like everyone else. The only obligation that the United States and the American people can legitimately impose on us is that we respect the rights of others. Beyond that it is really no one’s business what we believe and what we do.

Mormons have a right to be different. America is about the right to be different.

To me, the lesson of anti-Mormon bigotry is that we remain a vulnerable minority, in similar ways as other minorities such as Jews, Blacks, or gays.

Protestant fundamentalists will never treat us as equal human beings. The ACLU, on the other hand, has a consistent track record of defending Mormons when bigots abuse the power of the state to impose the tyranny of the majority on us and our children.

If actions speak louder than words then the ACLU is our true friend. That does not mean that Mormons have to be liberals. There is nothing wrong with conservatism. Instead of pandering to Protestant fundamentalists, however, we might be better off to embrace the spirituality of a Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mohandas Gandhi.

David O. McKay could invoke that spirit when he defended the Saints in Wales or Juanita Brooks’s freedom to publish her research. McKay was a complex and contradictory person but it seems to me that his approach invoked values that were not only compatible with our self-interest but also that of our neighbors.

Nobody can ask for more.

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19 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    I always find it remarkable how even among those who have spilled much ink in opposition to the LDS Church, and even among those who have left the Church for good, when push comes to shove, they are still “Mormon.”

    It’s a powerful identity that I think you never really get rid of.

    I agree with much of this post. I am a bit leery about the explanation for the unformed nature of LDS doctrine. I don’t think it has as much to do with secrecy as it simply derives from the lack of a professional clergy in our ranks. No one around who is really trained to preserve an orthodoxy.

    Orthodoxy-obsessed traditional Christians take the lack of orthodoxy as a de facto sign of dishonesty. They simply betray their own close-mindedness. All religion must, of course, do things THEIR way. Anything else is a sign of “moral failure.”

    But orthodoxy is not the only path to true religion. Neither does it necessarily follow that God even cares two straws about orthodoxy either.

    Why should God nail down stuff like eternal marriage (polygamous or not?), deification, or Heavenly Mother beyond all doubt? Why not allow humans the opportunity to ponder these things, imagine a bit, dream a bit… all on their own without His interference?

    I’m just not convinced that an airtight orthodoxy is half as important to the Mormon religion as our critics say it is.

  2. john f. says:

    Excellent essay Hellmut. I enjoyed reading this one and agree with you on many of your points.

  3. Hellmut says:

    Thank you very much, John.

    I agree with you about secrecy, Seth, although I did find it enlightening how Feldman connected secrecy and persecution. A culture that emerges from security concerns will certainly place a premium on message control.

    That’s interesting to me because it provides legitimacy to certain behavioral patterns among many legacy Mormons that I previously explained only in terms of intra-Mormon power dynamics.

    In that regard, Feldman’s hypothesis has challenged my mindset. Therefore I am not yet ready to reject his argument.

  4. Wayne says:

    Mormonism looking like mainline Protestants? I think it is interesting that he suggests that if the L.D.S. church dropped some of it’s lesser known doctrines that they would end up looking like rebellious Catholics.

    Wouldn’t the emphasis that Mormons put on personal revelation make them more like evangelicals?


    Your comment about exmormons still being “Mormon” is correct, at least if you are talking about me. It is a lot like being a lapsed Jew, I suspect.

    You can leave the beliefs and doctrines, stop going to church but dropping an identity is difficult.

  5. Hellmut says:

    It is true, of course, that Mormonism has a charismatic epistemology.

    Yet Mormonism shares a number of features with Catholicism. The emphasis on sacraments rather than grace is probably the most important one.

    Sacraments require a priesthood. Protestants typically believe into the priesthood of the believers. By contrast, Catholics and Mormons consider authority the essential feature of the priesthood.

    And until the reformation challenged Catholicism, priests did not need to be educated either.

    In some ways, Joseph Smith actually restored the pre-reformation Roman Catholic Church.

    If one were to fit Mormonism into a typology of western Christianity then it would be a hybrid between Catholicism and charismatic Protestantism.

  6. Seth,

    I agree that orthodoxy is overrated. The problem I see is that there is a de facto orthodoxy in the church. If someone criticizes the LDS church for teaching that there is a Heavenly Mother, for example, then someone might defend the church by saying that the existence of a Heavenly Mother isn’t official doctrine (even though most long-term members believe in her); but if anyone prays to Heavenly Mother publicly, they’re on the fast track to excommunication for heresy.

    That’s what frustrates me the most is that people use “official doctrine” as a defense, as if everyone should be able to learn what official doctrine is. There isn’t a place to refer to for official doctrine. I can’t look it up. Even the LDS canon is an insufficient source because it requires interpretation to deduce what Mormons actually believe. E.g. what does Alma 11:44 say about the godhead again?

    Regarding the response to Feldman’s article that you linked to, he’s right in some respects: baptism for the dead isn’t a secret doctrine and most of the secret doctrines are available publicly in some format. I find it hard to believe, though, that he thinks there is no secrecy surrounding Mormon teachings. There are definitely teachings that are protected from public consumption. These doctrines are rarely mentioned in public and only then in code.

    Exaltation: Eternal life in God’s presence; to become like our Father in Heaven and live in His presence.

    This is going to sound more pejorative than I mean it to be, but those are weasel words. Only those who are clued in to the code know what this means. The uninitiated may gloss over that and think that Exaltation only involves becoming loving or truthful like God, as in becoming Christlike. Stock phrases like “become like our Father in Heaven” are designed to reveal and conceal, milk before meat and all that. As members of the LDS church, we become used to this kind of communication and see nothing wrong with it.

    Speaking plainly would have sounded more like “Exaltation means to live in God’s presence and to become a God or Goddess through Christ’s Atonement, to become a creator and have a Heavenly Children just like God did.” Why don’t Mormons usually speak that way if there is no secrecy surrounding the doctrine (whatever that may be)?

  7. As far as the Mormon church trying to become more mainstream Christian, hasn’t this experiment already been done by the RLDS faith, with diminishing returns?

    I really hope the LDS church doesn’t go any further in distancing itself from its distinctive doctrines. There’s already plenty of terrestrial Christianity out there.

  8. Hellmut says:

    I might be wrong about this, Chris, but my understanding is that the reforms of Community of Christ (RLDS) as well as the Seven-day Adventists led initially to substantial losses of members but reenergized both churches within a couple of years. Supposedly, both organizations have now solid growth, which is more than we can claim.

    Also, the goal of the reforms appears to have been to address the historical inconsistencies of the Joseph Smith Story. In a sense, that’s mainstreaming.

    The reformers, however, might say that they were primarily interested in a more realistic foundation of their faith.

  9. Seth R. says:

    I know Jonathan. I got in a debate with a family member last month over this myself. I was arguing that you couldn’t really consider the Church’s opposition to elective male sterilization to be “real doctrine” because the only people who know about it are those who have access to the Handbook of Instructions (at the ward level, that means Bishops – no one else gets the entire thing as far as I know).

    If no one knows the policy, you can’t really be held to it can you? Of course, now I know about it, but am I to consider it binding on me if my wife and I decide we’re done having kids? What is it supposed to say to me that the Church didn’t even bother to preach the instruction openly? If the General Authorities don’t take the instruction seriously, why should I?

  10. Seth R. says:

    To clarify, the instruction to avoid male sterilization is only found in the Handbook of Instructions these days. It’s not mentioned in General Conference, and it is not a part of the curriculum as far as I can tell. I imagine you might dig up some old materials from the 1970s or even as late as the 1980s, but the Church used to prohibit/discourage? birth control back then too (which they have since backed-off on), so I’m not sure how seriously I should take such sources.

  11. Seth R. says:

    Ross Doubthat at Atlantic Monthly has his own take on the article:

  12. Hellmut says:

    Back in the day, I had a Handbook of Instruction as an executive secretary. So did the ward clerk.

    I suspect that the Handbook is probably the result of a bizarre compromise between respecting those who are in authority and the increasing bureaucratization of Mormonism.

    On one hand, there is the need to train and educate local leaders and to standardize policy. On the other hand, if the Handbook were publicly available then every hobby lawyer in the ward would tell the Bishop what to do.

    For the reasons that Seth explains much better than me, it’s a bizarre policy, somewhat Kafkaesque.

  13. Guy Nior Private Eye says:

    when I read phrases like the title…’Transforming Mormonism’… I always wonder…. Is that a smile, a grimace, or a FROWN on the face of GAs/leaders?
    OTOH, they may have buried their heads in the sand so deeply, so effectively… that they simply (and genuinely) Don’t Care.

  14. Wayne says:

    I know that I have asserted in the past, on other posts, that what the prophet says and the members do are often two different things.

    I assert it again. Members of the Church do what any other normal human would do when faced with a law that is presented as absolute; they see how they can fit it in to their lives and discard what is irrelevant to them.

    I mean, who hasn’t broken a law?….who actually drives 65?

    I think Mormonism, as a doctrinal body, would be transformed if the members had more say.

  15. Seth R. says:

    Kaimi over at Times and Seasons has a post defending Feldman’s article from its Mormon detractors:

    I’d recommend checking out comment #29 by Ryan Bell in particular. I tend to agree with it.

    He concedes that LDS doctrine is hard to pin down (one of Feldman’s points). But he disputes that this is primarily due to the LDS being sneaky for PR purposes.

    For instance, it really is hard for me to make a straight faced argument that the LDS Church has been less than forthcoming about the doctrine of baptism for the dead (one of the doctrines Feldman claims we de-emphasize in an attempt to fit-in). I mean, how can you argue that? It a core teaching that is absolutely laced throughout our entire curriculum. It’s even in the missionary discussions for pity’s sake!

    The other Feldman example was the deification of man. Here, he’s got a much stronger case. Let’s take a news interview with Pres. Hinckley, since I think it illustrates the tough spot the Church is in on this issue quite well:

    SUNDAY INTERVIEW — Musings of the Main Mormon
    Gordon B. Hinckley, `president, prophet, seer and revelator’ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sits at the top of one of the world’s fastest-growing religions

    San Fransisco Chronicle
    Sunday, April 13, 1997
    Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

    Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man?

    A: I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’’ Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.

    Q: So you’re saying the church is still struggling to understand this?

    A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We’re trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can.

    OK. So is Gordon B. Hinckley being evasive here?

    I think so. But is it wrong for him to be so?

    Well… First thing to point out here is that he is correct – we don’t know a heck of a lot about the Lorenzo Snow couplet and what it means. As Pres. Hinckley points out, we are pretty much on board with the idea that we are of the same species as God and on our way to become like him.

    On this point, I actually don’t think the Church is being secretive at all, whatever our critics claim. We are pretty open on what the Mormon ultimate goal is – godhood. This is just as laced throughout our curriculum as Baptism for the dead. And it’s also in the missionary discussions.

    But what about the other part – was God ever a human? What kind of human?

    We – don’t – know.

    And unfortunately, that’s all you can really say about it. We don’t know. Neither is that part of the couplet really embraced by the Church.

    So one might well ask – what was Pres. Hinckley supposed to say in that interview? It was kind of a no-win situation because “I don’t know” is not a very decisive or satisfying answer. And yes, it can easily look “sneaky.”

    But this goes back to a point I’ve made earlier. The evasiveness of the Church on certain doctrinal issues springs more from its lack of trained theologians who can safeguard the orthodoxy than out of any dishonest impulse to hide the ball. It also comes from a modern unwillingness to say more than God has explicitly revealed. In a nutshell, we’re evasive because we really honestly don’t know, not because we’re trying to fool anyone.

  16. C.Biden says:

    “The Truth About Life’s Great Questions Is Now Restored.”

    I guess the answer is “not so much?”

  17. John Hamer says:

    I’ve tried to respond to this fascinating thread, but my answers keep growing into several full-length blog posts of their own. Short answer: it makes less sense to compare RLDS actions to LDS actions than it does to compare Apple and MicroSoft’s marketing plans. Whether or not something works for Apple is irrelevant; MicroSoft can’t use the same tactics as a model because MicroSoft occupies such a completely different market niche.

  18. Guy Nior Private Eye says:

    It’s a dirty rotten shame to compare PR & marketing to LDS strategy..
    Oh wait… hold the phone on that thought…

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