Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

What We Can Take from “The Mormon Moment”

Today’s “Talk of the Nation” broadcast will be devoted to Mormonism: what it is, what it’s not, and why so many non-Mormons are afraid of it.

I don’t know who all the guests are, but I’m thrilled that one of them will be Joanna Brooks of Religion Dispatches. I find her writing to be both honest and faithful, which is an important (and all too rare) combination. She will represent Mormonism well.

Last night Joanna asked her Facebook friends, many of whom are Mormon, what they most wanted America to know about their religion. Among the various responses were several versions of “We’re not monolithic,” “Mormonism is a big umbrella,” and “Not all Mormons think alike.” Amen to that.


In 2002, Mormonism saw an unprecedented amount of media coverage before and during the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In 2008, the first time Mitt Romney ran for president, the religion garnered still more press, much of it unflattering. The 2011-12 presidential election is shaping up to feature even more of a spotlight on the LDS faith, what with two Mormons running for president, the Book of Mormon musical the toast of Broadway, and the Bloggernacle exploding with individual Mormons’ sites and musings.

I’ve just written a fall piece for The Christian Century about this “Mormon Moment.” It’s impossible to capture full nuance and complexity in 2500 words, but one of the key points I have been pondering lately is the “big umbrella” concept that Joanna’s Facebook friends highlighted.


What fascinates me is that two very different groups consistently want to downplay the ideological diversity that exists within Mormonism: conservative true-blue Latter-day Saints, who want to point to the party line, claim that 14 million members stand behind the prophet in all things, and shove any serious problems under the rug; and Mormonism’s evangelical detractors, who focus solely on the problems and sometimes tend to caricature the faith to drive home their point that the religion is a theological heresy. Both groups stake a claim on the fallacy that Mormonism is monolithic and that all Latter-day Saints believe the same things in the same way.

I hope that today’s radio program showcases the fact that this perceived monolith simply doesn’t exist. It is a straw man, carefully erected to serve larger purposes: to shore up Mormon truth claims (in the case of conservative LDS) or to tear them down (in the case of anti-Mormon activists). One of the interesting trends in this year’s media coverage of the Republican contenders is that some people are finally seeing that surprising diversity can exist even among the two candidates for President. As Matt Bowman recently pointed out in this outstanding article for The New Republic, Romney and Huntsman understand their faith so differently that they represent a full generation gap in the religion.


So here’s to diversity. And here’s to you. Here’s to the many Mormons who have contacted me through this blog (or my defunct one) to tell me to either shut the hell up because I don’t represent the Church or to please, please keep writing because they feel they have discovered a kindred spirit.

Mormonism needs–and has–many different kinds of voices, and I find it beautiful that they are being heard.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment shawn

    I think conservative LDS is a loaded term. I am conservative and I am LDS but I am not what Jan would describe as a conservative LDS; I believe that LDS is a big tent and not monolithic (at least as she describes it). Conservative LDS implies that Liberal LDS are somehow in the right and also you can’t be a political conservative and a big tent guy at the same time. Don’ like that misnomer. It’s unfair. also, I’m not ashamed to say I stand behind the prophet in all things. And at the same time, I don’t shove the difficult questions under the rug. Let’s agree that generalizations, in all their forms, are bad.

  • http://OpenEyes Chip

    I appreciate these thoughts. I am often labeled as borderline heretical within my evangelical Christianity (a label I hate) circles. We have such a broad spectrum of theological views and positions. But I have never allowed Mormons that. I have just grouped them under one heading. That is, at best, ignorant, and at worst, hypocritical & judgemental. Thanks for helping open my eyes to a broader reality.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Britt

    Please keep writing!! I don’t comment enough on your articles, but please know they are appreciated by those of us who feel like we can’t fully express ourselves to our family and friends because we’ll be considered BAD. It’s nice to read some like-minded writing :)

  • Brad Stone

    Something else to consider on the world stage is Yeah Samake, a Mormon, who is running for President of Mali, West Africa, a 90 percent Muslim country. His main ticket is fighting corrupt government. He has growing support from his people.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rob

    I don’t always agree with myself so how millions of people could be in complete agreement on anything is beyond me. That is never to be believed whether they are liberal conservative or in between variety is unavoidable and always has been. I am always surprised that this seems to be a new concept in any setting. Still it is a very important one. It is also important to recognize that a different perspective doesn’t mean disagreement either. We can be headed in the same direction withoutseeing things the same way.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I would suggest that, in addition to diversity of opinions and viewpoints on faith, the rest of the world needs to better understand the diversity of Mormons as to our national origins, ethnicity and language. The misconception that Mormons are all blond haired, blue eyed “white” people living just in Utah is employed every time someone comments on the prior limitation on priesthood ordination for people of African ancestry. Even many of the Mormons who respond to such comments in various fora forget that there has always been a much larger context of multi-racial Mormonism and positive efforts by the Church to include people of different nations and “races” into the Church.

    There were obviously some of the efforts to convert American Indians, which became more earnest once the Mormons were living near them out in the West in the 1850s. Perhaps one of the most important non-European missionary efforts was among the Hawaiians and other Polynesians, most visibly manifested in the creation of the Laie community, the elementary school, the temple in 1915, dedicated by Joseph F. Smith, who had served years as a missionary there, and then the Church College of Hawaii/BYU-Hawaii. Any Mormon ward in Hawaii demonstrates the racial and ethnic diversity of Mormons.

    Earnest efforts to convert people in Japan and Latin America got rolling after 1900, and began to bear significant fruit in the 1950s. The opening of Spain and italy to missionaries in the early 1970s was a milestone, reaching into Catholic Europe. The 1978 revelation initiated the expansion in Africa. And the end of the Soviet Union circa 1989 took Mormons into eastern Europe, Siberia and Mongolia. The handoff of Hong Kong to China meant that there were significant Mormon congregations and a temple within the official borders of that Communist nation.

    I would want Americans to understand that Mormons have been reaching out to people of different “races” and ethnicities for 150 years, and that among those “white” Mormons in Utah there are many who lived for two years among people of all the races of mankind, learning their languages and customs, and bringing their understanding and love of those people into the mainstream of the Church. The delay in taking the full blessings of the Gospel to blacks was the anomaly in what was otherwise a conscious and determined effort to expand the membership of the Church into every land and people.

    People in the 21st Century don’t appreciate the fact that, back in the 1800s, Swedish and Norwegian converts who immigrated to Utah were thought of as a different “race”, just as the Irish were looked down upon by many white Protestants. Some of the anti-Mormon propaganda of the time talked about Mormons as a different “race” incorporating the undesirable physical and mental characteristics of Scandinavians. Even in that era, Mormons were more broadminded about ethnic diversity than many American Protestants.

    Many Americans also forget that racial bias was still actively practiced by many Americans in 1978, barely a decade after passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, including members of Jimmy Carter’s own Baptist congregation in 1976. Mike Huckabee bragged that, as a new Baptist minister in Arkansas, he integrated his congregation by adding a single black college student in 1980. It is still most likely that Black and white Protestants of the same denomination in the same city will worship in separate congregations, something that does not happen in Mormon geographic wards. School districts outside the South were still being forcibly integrated under court supervision right into the 1980s, which was the case where we lived in Prince Georges County, Maryland, just outside the District of Columbia.

    By contrast, institutionalized racial bias in Utah was less significant in Utah than in other Northern states. There were no racially segregated schools or buses or drinking fountains. Few 19th Century Mormon converts came from the South. Most were from the North and from Europe, and had no experience with American slavery and no economic stake in it. There were no poll taxes or efforts to discourage blacks from registering or voting. And there were always a small number of black Mormons, until the 1978 change enabled more extensive missionary efforts on a par with those long-standing efforts in Latin america, Asia, Europe and Polynesia.

    When critics of the Church try to place continuing blame on the Church for a policy that was jettisoned over 30 years ago, the question that comes to minid is, What could we possibly do to satisfy you? We have black Mormons by the hundreds of thousands, who run their own congregations and temples and send out their own missionaries, some of them to the US. Non-Mormons are not entitled to an apology, since they never believed in the reality of the LDS priesthood and thus were never deprived of anything of importance. Black Mormons are given the same opportunities to serve in the Church (for no pay) as any other member. They were not deprived of significant opportunities for wealth or power, since no Mormon gets that. And Mormons, uniquely among Christians, believe that all of the people who were faithful black Mormons in the past are being given all the blessings now that they lacked then. Unlike most standard Christian doctrine, Mormons know that the nations that have been Christian for centuries past have no superior claim on God’s grace in the hereafter over the late inhabitants of China, Gambia or Indonesia.

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