Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


When Theological Disagreement Spills over into Anti-Mormonism

posted by Jana Riess

Anti-Mormonism has improved somewhat in the last century, but not enough.

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen a maelstrom over at Patheos, which published Warren Cole Smith’s article “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church” on May 24. As this follow-up interview makes clear, Smith believes that his words were “taken out of context” and his “positions mischaracterized.” He is not, he asserts, a bigot.

No? Many Mormons would disagree, as this quasi-official response from LDS PR head Michael Otterson suggests. Religion Dispatches blogger Joanna Brooks got Warren Cole Smith on the phone and gave him a chance to explain his views more fully, especially his claim that Mormonism is “dangerous” as well as theologically untrue. Let’s just say I was a lot more impressed with the thoughtful way Joanna Brooks conducted the interview than I was with Smith’s responses, particularly when she followed his assertion that “anything false is dangerous” with cogent questions about whether other religions he would regard as false, such as Judaism, are also dangerous. He prevaricated.

In this week’s episode of “Mormon Matters,” Joanna and I talk about this controversy with evangelical author John Morehead, who specializes in the study of new religions. It was a good discussion and marked by the kind of mutual respect that I hope to always give and receive in my interactions with people of all faiths. The three of us discuss theological differences, including Christology and continuing revelation, and identify areas where our own religious traditions have fallen short of full transparency or have been unloving toward people who hold other beliefs.

One issue that we didn’t discuss, but that I’ve been thinking about since we recorded the interview, is how to discern when critical commentary about another religion crosses that important line between concern about differences and ventures into “anti” territory–anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism.

I’ve had some wonderful and enlightening conversations with evangelicals who don’t share all of my theological views but have treated me like a respected friend and dialogue partner. To me, good interfaith discussions are predicated upon a mutual commitment to try to stand in the other person’s shoes and to be honest about your own tradition. I’m lucky to have had many friendships with open-minded evangelicals who have taught me so much about theology, the Bible, and myself. (Thanks, guys!)

However, anti-Mormonism still exists, and with the Romney campaign taking center stage, it seems to be getting worse. When does genuine theological disagreement devolve into ad hominem attack? Here are five signs to watch for:

1) You claim that a religion is inherently violent or dangerous. We saw this in March when Franklin Graham (who just can’t seem to hold his tongue) had this to say about Islam in America:

The Muslim Brotherhood is very strong and active in our country. It’s infiltrated every level of our government. Right now we have many of these people that are advising the US military and State Department on how to respond in the Middle East, and it’s like asking a fox, like a farmer asking a fox, “How do I protect my henhouse from foxes?” We’ve brought in Muslims to tell us how to make policy toward Muslim countries. And many of these people we’ve brought in, I’m afraid, are under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Here, we see Franklin Graham playing upon people’s fears of conspiracy, of a forceful religious minority silently infiltrating the corridors of power. Warren Cole Smith takes a page from Graham’s book when he emphasizes the danger of mixing Mormonism and the United States presidency. Having a Mormon president would “normalize the false teachings of Mormonism” and create evangelistic opportunities for Mormon missionaries around the world. The danger would therefore spread.

2) You claim that the religion has deviant or illicit sexual practices. This is one element of the five that Smith does not engage in at all. However, this was of course a standard feature of anti-Mormon literature well into the early 20th century, since the LDS practice of polygamy flouted the sexual standards of most Americans.

3) You choose its more esoteric or odd-sounding beliefs to represent the whole tradition. Anti-Mormon literature routinely brings up strange teachings, like the idea that God lives on the planet Kolob or that Jackson County, Missouri is the site of the Garden of Eden–neither of which, as I’ve blogged about before, I happen to believe–in order to make the religion sound as preposterous as possible. Smith chooses to highlight Mormonism’s “highly idiosyncratic” belief that Jesus visited America. Nowhere does he balance that with discussion of more other, more Protestant-compatible LDS beliefs like the centrality of the Bible, the atonement and resurrection of Christ, or the importance of leading a Christ-like life. I can tell you that 85% of what I hear in my Mormon ward is related to those things, not to what Smith would consider to be idiosyncratic. That is not to say that serious theological differences don’t exist between Mormon Christianity and evangelical Christianity, particularly about Christology and the Trinity. But to lead from the margins rather than the center when analyzing another religion is, as John Morehead points out in the podcast interview, patently unfair.

4) You place it outside your culture’s dominant history. This is how Nazis distinguished between “good Aryans” and the “dirty Jews” who had turned everything wrong for Germany in the interwar years; frighteningly enough, this is also how Franklin Graham is trying to turn Americans against Islam right now:

We certainly love the Muslim people [are you feeling the love, Muslims? Cause I missed it… -JKR] But that is not the faith of this country. And that is not the religion that built this nation. The people of the Christian faith and the Jewish faith are the ones who built America, and it is not Islam.

Smith treads on this slope when he emphasizes that the Mormon version of history, because it is theologically different, is dangerous. Suggesting that because the LDS religion teaches continuing revelation, a Romney presidency would have a surreal grasp of American history as an ever-changing story, Smith asks American voters:

Do we want a person who believes that history is something you can “make up as you go along” negotiating the outcomes of conflicts with real histories that go back thousands of years? Conflicts in the Middle East, in Asia, and elsewhere require an understanding of history and human nature that are not fabricated out of whole cloth.

Well, as a historian, I would point out that history is an ever-changing story; it would be easier if it were only about facts and dates and things we could all agree on, but it’s not. Semantics aside, I have never heard Mitt Romney fabricate American history, for all of his waffling on hot-button political issues. (Evangelical Sarah Palin has been known to fabricate American history quite recently, however. This is not the fault of her religion, but her ignorance.)

5) You suggest that its people are less moral than you are, or unfit for full rights in society. At the end of the day, this is perhaps the most damaging of the five. I think it happens to Mormons less often now than it did several decades ago; as Mormons have moved in increasing numbers away from the Wasatch Front and into the general fabric of American life, it has become more difficult for people to exoticize or demonize them. They are your neighbors, classmates, and co-workers. Even Smith admits that he’s had “positive” experiences with Latter-day Saints through the Boys Scout organization.

However, it’s hard to take that as much of a compliment when his original article emphasized how “ If … beliefs are false, then the behavior will eventually—but inevitably—be warped.” In this syllogism, all Mormons hold false beliefs, and beliefs will become apparent in action, so therefore all Mormons are suspect and dangerous.

Smith concludes his screed by asserting that Mitt Romney is “unfit to serve” as President because he holds false and dangerous religious beliefs. Presumably this means that Mormons, because they have different beliefs than Smith, should not run for political office.

In fact, he’d probably rather that Mormons didn’t vote at all, though he doesn’t say so. He’ll be relieved to know that I’m not planning to vote for Mitt Romney, either, though not for any of the reasons he mentions. I’m not going to vote for him because I have other political commitments and ideals. Apparently my Mormonism and Romney’s have led us to quite different understandings of government, an ideological diversity that Smith’s limited caricature of Mormonism cannot account for.

 

 



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Comments read comments(14)
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Cassandra

posted June 14, 2011 at 5:49 pm


Why the irrelevant slap at Palin? Good article otherwise, but that was jarring.



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Larry Ogan

posted June 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm


Thank you Jana. Your post is the kind of intelligent rebuttal we need to counter anti-Mormons like Mr. Smith.

Your Palin “slap” is not irrelevent to me. I find her and her followers mis-informed, self serving and dishonest. I see to many pundits and conservatives giving her a pass on her naive opinion of issues and history. Then, they blame liberals and moderates, if they disagree or snicker as making an evil attack on Saint Sarah.



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Jana

posted June 14, 2011 at 8:07 pm


You’re quite right — that was a cheap shot. I guess the Sarah Palin debacle just got my goat . . . first her inability to simply admit she had made a mistake, then her subsequent insistence that she was right even when faced with irrefutable primary sources from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Why is it so hard for politicians to just say, “Oops, I goofed,” apologize, and move on?



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John W. Morehead

posted June 14, 2011 at 9:59 pm


Jana, thank you for discussing this issue, one that evangelicals and Latter-day Saints, particularly those involved in dialogue, need to consider. I hope this can be the subject of a future edition of Mormon Matters.



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Eric

posted June 15, 2011 at 10:44 am


Closely related to the third point in the original post is framing others’ beliefs in the worst possible or strangest-sounding light. I’m thinking, for example, about statements that Mormons believe that Satan and Jesus are brothers (which sounds out of context like it borders on blasphemy), when a more accurate summary of common LDS belief is that nonhuman spiritual beings are among God’s children (which still isn’t Protestant belief, but at least doesn’t sound offensive). It’s kind of like saying that Christianity in general believes in a God who would throw his own Son off a cliff — in a sense, that’s true enough, but it’s really not what Christianity is about nor the way that Christians would frame their beliefs.

If I were to add a sixth point, it would be setting a standard for the other religion that you don’t set for your own. Smith, for example, criticizes Mormonism because “Mormons have changed their views … on marriage and race” — and Protestants haven’t? (Mormons can be guilty of the same thing when, for example, they make fun of Protestants for having so many ways of interpreting the Bible, when in fact Mormons are far from consistent in their own interpretations of Scripture despite the existence of prophets and correlation.)

Of course, it boils down to the Golden Rule — treating others’ beliefs as we wish they would treat their own.



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Noel

posted June 16, 2011 at 1:12 am


I think it’s all very well to make the comment that you have many evangelical friends with whom you have theological disagreements with. I know a number of cases where Christians politly accepted the offer of the missionaries to come around and chat with them. Afterwards they expressed no interest in proceeding further and were happy with their church. The Mormons dropped their friendship like a hot potatoe. I can associate as a Pentecostal with Catholics, Uniting Church etc without trying to convert them, I accept them as bona fida christians and so we can enjoy each others company at a Emaeus Walk retreat.



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Beth

posted June 16, 2011 at 6:57 pm


Noel, I’m sorry that your friends had that kind of experience. My experience as a member of the LDS church has often been just the opposite. When someone who is investigating our religion decides not to join, in my experience it has been they who severs the friendship. It has been my feeling that they have done so thinking that we don’t want their friendship if they won’t join, or that if we keep having associations with them we will “pressure” them to join. Nothing could be farther from the truth and, honestly, I have been very hurt by the loss of their friendship and their willingness to associate with us. My friendship and love for them had nothing to do with whether or not they decided to join our church.



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Ed

posted June 27, 2011 at 10:00 am


“You’re quite right — that was a cheap shot. I guess the Sarah Palin debacle just got my goat . . . first her inability to simply admit she had made a mistake, then her subsequent insistence that she was right even when faced with irrefutable primary sources from the Massachusetts Historical Society. Why is it so hard for politicians to just say, “Oops, I goofed,” apologize, and move on?”

Are you willing to apply this same reasoning to LDS church leaders? Why is it so hard for top LDS leaders to just say, “Oops, we goofed,” apologize, and move on? Can you show me one instance where they did so (and MMM doesn’t count because IIRC they never admitted guilt).



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Raymond Takashi Swenson

posted June 28, 2011 at 11:12 pm


To Ed: As far as official statements from the LDS Church leadership goes, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are not likely to offer to edit or revise what was said by their deceased predecessors, presuming that they have more insight into what the Brethren were thinking in 1930 than the 1930 Brethren did. And the modern statements are pretty deliberate, with decisions made through consensus rather than a majority vote. You may not like what the 15 leading Church leaders said, but typically they had really thought about it before they said it.

One of the things that people most often want to see the Brethren apologize for is the old racial priesthood ban. But the real question is, other than the satisfaction certain people get form saying”Hah! They were WRONG!” exactly what does that accomplish for anybody? The corrective action was giving the priesthood widely and quickly to all worthy Mormon males of African descent.

Another fact is that the apology that some people want–”We were racist”–is not really true. Blacks were not barred from LDS membership, and they were not segregated. Whatever else created the policy, it was not a history of slavery by Mormons; they were overwhelmingly from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New England, and the UK. And Mormons, contrary to the prejudices of many of their contemporaries, sought to bring American Indians into the Church. By the 1850s, Mormons were making serious efforts to bring Polynesians–many with “darker skins” than many American “blacks”–into the Church, including establishing schools for Hawaiians and Maori, and buildinig the temple in Hawaii in 1911, where the Church president, Joseph F. Smith, had himself served as a missionary in his youth.

LDS efforts to convert Japanese began in 1901, and resumed after World War II. The rapid growth of Mormonism in Latin America fifty years ago led to the modern reality that English is the native language of only half of Mormons. The growth of Mormonism in Brazil, with many people of African descent, was one of the precipitating factors that led to the process that resulted in the unanimous decision by the Brethren to end the ban on ordination of blacks. But 1978 was not the conversion of an all-white Church into a multi-racial Church. It had been multi-racial for over a century. 1978 was simply the overcoming of an anomaly in a Church that had already embraced people of 100 nations.



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Raymond Takashi Swenson

posted June 28, 2011 at 11:41 pm


Jana: Thanks for describing the pathology of Anti-Mormonism (and anti-anything) so clearly.

For me, the primary problem with Anti-Mormonism is not the hurdles it places in the way of LDS missionaries, since I think the ridiculous lengths that anti-Mormons go to tend to send as many people to see the missionaries as it deters, but the impact it has on the political rights and freedoms of Mormons. It was the cause of the deprivation of basic property and civil rights in Missourri, and again in Illinois. It was the cause of President Buchanan’s ill-considered military campaign against Utah, which we now know developed into a fever dream that he could chase the Mormons into Mexico and use it as an excuse for an invasion. It was the cause of the formal denial to Mormons of basic civil rights like voting, running for office and serving on juries, done by both Congress and the Idaho legislature. It led to the denial of Mormon representation in Congress by Reed Smoot for three years. It was a factor in Mitt Romney losing the Senate race to Kennedy years ago. It is a factor in denial of zoning permits for construction of Mormon temples. And it causes ostracism of Mormons from all sorts of multi-denominational associations and events.

Denial to Mormons of the equal protection of the law, treating them like pre-1964 blacks, who can be casually and even self-righteously discriminated against in the name of God, is a threat to the civil rights of millions of Americans. As the song in “South Pacific” declares, prejudice is not something children naturally feel; instead “You have to be carefully taught” that people who are different from you can be treated as less than fully human. And once that notion is developed, it can be aimed at anyone, as was amply demonstrated by the multiple bigotries of the Ku Klux Klan.

Anti-Mormonism is not just evil because it injures Mormons in their political aspirations (both as candidates and as supporters). It is evil because it nurtures the habit of division and class and bias. It is evil because it betrays the founding principle of America, which was reiterated by Lincoln at Gettysburg: That all men (and women) are created equal.

Those like Mr. Smith who embrace religious bias are dishonoring all the dead Union soldiers at Gettysburg, and the dead American soldiers from Concord to Yorktown, and the dead Japanese-Americans of the 442 Regimental Combat Team who volunteered, out of prison camps, to fight for America in Europe. They all died in support of that earth-shaking declaration that God’s will is the equal civil rights of all Americans. Mr. Smith has declared war on the God of the American Revolution. He has announced his intent to overthrow Article VI and the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.



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Ross Burton

posted June 30, 2011 at 4:28 pm


Thank you Jana,

I see and feel the propaganda being spread about Islam, the “us versus them” game being played. I worry that maybe it isn’t just propaganda. Do you have any resources that counter the propaganda?



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