Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What I Have Against Mormons

I am not going to vote for Mitt Romney, but I’m not going to vote for him because of his policies, not because of his religion. The U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits offering a religious test for office. In fact, prior to Kennedy Presidents were supposed to just be nominally religious. Reagan professed some sort of Christianity, but never doing the basic thing that Christians do – attend worship. Still, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what sort of faith, if any the President has.

I am not anti-Mormon. On a personal level I’ve known a number of Mormons, and they’ve all been good people. Intellectually, the Smith narrative, while it has essential problems with credibility, is a compelling narrative. The image of the colony’s members, the bee hive, an image of a busy and constructive vision of the American work ethic.

What I have against Mormonism is not the theology. I don’t know Mormon theology, but what I have heard makes it seem to me to be a kind of American works righteousness theology. It seems like a Calvinism with costumes and Indians. It’s a bit odd, but so is the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence.

What I have against Mormonism is the implicit notion that no other religion is either right or adequate for an ordinary human’s needs. I think that the impulse comes from Joseph Smith’s anxieties in the burnt over district. As I recall from my American Church history courses, Smith looked at the competing revivalist impulses and felt that they couldn’t all be right, and he wanted to be right.

This conviction that their way of being faithful is The Right way to be faithful leads to sending largely untrained young men out for two year cycle tours in which they attempt to convert people regardless of their current spiritual connections or life vulnerabilities. This conviction that they are right and we are wrong leads Mormons to baptize the dead, so that they have a chance to decide to be Mormons in the next life.

My experience with Mormon proselytizing goes back many years. I was pastor of a small congregation outside Charleston, SC. One of the girlfriends of one of the teenagers came to our congregation and in the first year I was pastor, actually joined the congregation. She broke with the boyfriend, but remained active in the life of the church. She was bright, thoughtful, well read, wanting to discuss ideas, and strangely vulnerable. Her senior year in high school she came to me for counseling. She was, she said, pregnant and wanted an abortion. We talked about alternatives. She thought that her parents would respond punitively if she told them of her pregnancy or carried the baby to term. Would I drive her to Columbia for an abortion?

I agreed, and on a Saturday morning I drove her to Columbia, SC. I waited and took her home. She said very little on the way home. She said that she was convinced that this was the right thing, but I felt that there was still a need for support. But I was in my third year in the parish and I didn’t know how to support her, much less how to bring some sort of reconciliation between herself and her parents.

She disappeared from the congregation’s life for a while. When next I saw her she told me that she had decided to convert to Mormonism. She’d been visited by missionaries. They read the Book of Mormon with her. They asked her to pray over it; was it the true word of god, was it right? The prayer convinced her, she said, in a somewhat faltering voice that seemed to me to be filled with doubts, vulnerabilities, and regret. Yet she was convinced that she should be a Mormon, had told the missionaries that she would convert, was scheduled for baptism and planning to go to BYU in the fall.

While I said to her, “If you feel that’s best, then I’ll support you,” I was seething on the inside. I thought very quickly of my one ex-Mormon member. She was afraid that the missionaries might find her. What she thought they’d do, I have no idea, but she was genuinely fearful of the consequences of leaving the Mormon faith.

What this boils down to is that it seems to me that Mormonism lacks the epistemological modesty that is useful for civility in contemporary civilization. They’d like to be considered just another Christian denomination, but don’t actually consider the rest of us as equals. We are the gentiles to their true religion. I find that annoying.


Mike said...

The "baptize your ancestors" theology has always seemed bizarre to me, potentially making ones salvation dependent on the actions (or not) of far removed decedents.

I find that morally repugnant, and would not want to be part of a universe which operated that way :-) TMC

A said...

this article seems to put the mormon faith as a group caring more about getting more members than getting to god. Although some mormons do want more in numbers you cannot label a whole faith upon the actions of a few people. And to baptized the dead isn't as "bizarre" as the rituals as every other church. Its giving anyone the chance to hear the LDS word, but you know that. Im just saying if you pray, and it fills right it doesnt matter how "vulnrable" you are, its what you feel. Anyways maybe before you type an article take a look at different religions in a less bias way

Carl Isaacson said...

Well, A, it seems to me that your comment illustrates the problem. While we might disagree on the "bizarreness" of ritual in any particular religion, baptism for the dead, so that the dead have "the chance to hear the LDS word . . ." is just arrogant

Mormons want to be considered a Christian denomination, but don't seem to give any branch of the Christian faith credit for having any truth. We are all Gentiles and outsiders. Yet Mormons, like Mitt Romney, want to be considered as insiders.

Jews object to the arrogance of having their ancestors "Mormonized." So do I. Leave us alone. The Gospel we heard from Paul is good enough, adequate for salvation. said...

A.. did you actually read the article? If so, can you tell me how you got that "getting more members than getting to god" is the issue. Well, unless Carl is correct and you assume that the only way someone dead who was NOT Mormon can get to G-d is if you baptist them. Which would, of course, prove his point.

In truth, I do think many religious sects, not just Mormons, think the are the only right ones. But when you assume you are so right that people who are DEAD and not Mormon should be disrespected by forcing your religious baptism on them is appalling.

I, unlike Carl, have studied the LDS in my much younger days. Yeah, all religions have some strangeness, but LDS got in line multiple times for additional servings. And for the record, I have studied world religions, I am Jewish but don't really believe G-d cares what "religion" we follow as much as how holy we are in our dealings with each other. And you bet Judaism has some honking strange traditions and rituals. But we don't pick people to "baptize" after they are dead and declare them our own, for crying out loud. Heck, we turn them away 3 times before we let them convert when they are ALIVE. :)

Gene Bales said...

Carl, I think your comments are thoughtful and interesting. I am not certain all Mormons are quite as conservative, but certainly many are. Denominations other than Mormonism have their inclusivist tendencies (as a Catholic I know this well). But Mormons carry on like they are an endangered sect. Maybe their growing popularity will change that.

ED351 Instructional Technology said...

Year ago I dated a Mormon. He wanted me to convert to Mormonism if the relationship kept moving toward marriage. We went to the Temple in L.A. to visit. Two things stood out to me during that visit: one was his comment that we could baptize my father who died in 1967. I knew my father well enough to know he would vehemently despise that action! Secondly I asked how many women and people of color were prophets. And how could I become a prophet? I was told the other white, male prophets would have to approve that after receiving a sign from God. I didn't believe - right or wrong - that this would ever happen. The relationship ended when he could see, and I could see, that the issue of a common religion would forever divide us.

Carl Isaacson said...

You're the best! I laughed outloud.