An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

This week’s Religion and Ethics program on PBS featured an analysis of Pope Francis’s stirring speeches in Brazil. Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ was asked if the Pope’s focus on concern for the poor might be a result of the large number of Catholics in Latin America converting to Evangelical faiths. He answered affirmatively: “We[’ve tended] to teach people the catechism instead of teaching about Jesus and the gospel message of compassion, love, and justice.”

Like their Catholic cousins, Mormon leaders tend to emphasize a catechism of Mormon doctrine rather than the gospel of Jesus. A glance at the 2012 manual of 24 lessons for Priesthood/Relief Society classes shows three lessons focused on Jesus’s teachings: “Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself,” “The Power of Kindness,” and “Of You It Is Required to Forgive.” Four lessons are devoted to sharing the Mormon gospel. The remaining lessons are about doctrines such as priesthood and living Mormon teachings such as sustaining leaders and doing temple work. The 2013 manual has as few lessons on Jesus’s teachings, less emphasis on missionary work, and more emphasis on the next life.  

Conference addresses show a similar pattern. Of the 58 topics listed for the April 2013 General Conference, only 17 dealt with basic teachings of Jesus: Peace, faith, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, humility, discipleship, and love. I hoped to find integrity and honesty in the three addresses listed under morality, but all three were basically about chastity.

A few years ago, the threefold mission of the Church, Proclaim the Gospel, Perfect the Saints, and Redeem the Dead, was expanded to include a fourth mandate, Care for the Poor. Nobody listening to General Conference or attending Church meetings in 2013 would be aware of that. The April General Conference had six addresses about missionary work, one about genealogy and four about temples. Perfecting the Saints appears to be mostly about urging members to be active Mormons. Clearly, proclaiming the gospel and redeeming the dead are more important than caring for the poor, a topic missing from the lists.

Mormon leaders concerned about the significant dropout rate of Mormon members might do well to listen to the Pope.  Activation will not be resolved by fellowshipping alone—and certainly not for members who dropped out to seek basic Christian values elsewhere.

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh lists the Five Remembrances which the Buddha recommends reciting everyday:

1)    I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

2)    I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.

3)    I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4)    All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

5)    My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Facing the reality of mortality is not easy. We all want to be young, healthy, and alive forever. We want to believe people who assure us that, if we are good enough, God will bless us with life, health and vitality for ourselves and our loved ones.

When I was a younger and more devout Mormon, I interpreted the Last Days rhetoric of the Church and D&C 43:32 and 63:51 to conclude that the Second Coming would be in my lifetime. I would be changed from mortality to immortality in the twinkling of an eye. What a comfort to believe I would not have to undergo impaired old age and painful death. I was not alone in this belief.

I no longer cling to this idea. Experience has taught me that God seldom intervenes when even very good people who receive priesthood blessings and ward fasts and prayers become ill and die.

George and I have been married for many years, and we’ve both changed a great deal. Our children have grown and changed their religious views. I could make myself miserable if I believed my eternal reward was based on all of us maintaining the faith of our childhood.

A measure of Buddhist philosophy might help aging Mormons and those with loved ones who no longer accept the family faith to cope with reality.

Inter-Connectedness

I live in a Utah suburban community that provides irrigation water at a flat rate charge to residents. We recently received a notice from our water board that, because of the drought, we must either conserve water or risk running out. The notice particularly addressed residents who drench their lawns daily for fear they are not getting their fair share of the water if they don’t. We’ve been told since spring about the water shortage, but I still see neighbors unwilling to curb their own usage for the good of the community.

I thought about them last night, when I attended a town hall meeting in a nearby city. Residents there are trying to force a medical waste incinerator to curb emissions of toxins including dioxin which is linked to autism in children, other birth defects, cancers—and which concentrates in breast milk.

The spokesperson for the incinerator company protected her job with a glib presentation. She obviously  failed to connect with the young families in attendance. Few people outside this city attended to support their neighbors or to protect their own health. Apparently, residents of other communities are unaware that air pollution does not respect municipal boundaries.

Air pollution is a good example of the Buddhist teaching that all living and non-living things are interconnected. What affects one affects us all.

Mormons have a history of community-mindedness—including the Law of Consecration and the United Order. We still have institutional programs to help the unfortunate—fast offerings, the welfare program, and humanitarian aid. But we seem to have lost the spirit of cooperation—even sacrifice of personal interest—in order to benefit others. What we have, in too many cases, is the attitude that people outside our own group don’t count.

I hear older Mormons complain about being taxed to pay for schools when they have no children who will benefit. Others think it’s unfair to pay for public transportation and recreation facilities they don’t use. Some Mormons advocate abolishing all government social programs. In their view, the poor—including children and the incapacitated—should care for themselves. Granted, all social welfare programs—including those of the LDS Church—could use improvement, but abolishing them to let the needy fend for themselves lacks compassion.

Decades of conference addresses and lesson manuals warning us of the wickedness of the world may be creating Mormon insensitivity to suffering and needs outside our own small group. Maybe it’s time for General Conference addresses to focus less on chastity, sharing the gospel, and the danger of slipping into Satan’s power, and to preach the gospel of love instead. Maybe it’s time to extend Mormon family values to include all of God’s children—even those we may not admire and those who will likely never accept our faith.

Surprise Convert

My brother Dooby developed contempt for Mormonism from his childhood experience with active Mormons including our stepmother, who indulged a grudge against him, and our dad, who was blind to the pain his son suffered. Dooby extended his feelings about Mormonism to all religions and enjoyed making atheist statements which shocked our relatives. His first marriage to a devout Mormon ended in divorce, and Doob vowed to do everything possible to undermine the Mormon beliefs of his children.

Dooby’s influence with his daughters’ belief system was minimal. Eventually, he married Kato, a practicing Buddhist, began practicing meditation and yoga, and spoke against religion less frequently.  Despite his mellowing, I never expected Dooby to become a believing Christian.

Maybe, I should have seen it coming. A few years ago Dooby decided he needed a Bible since literature is so full of biblical illusions. Then he began advocating for Intelligent Design to be taught in public school science classes. I believed his interest in the issue was mostly political and found it odd to be arguing against Intelligent Design with a confirmed agnostic. Still, Doob surprised me when he said he was taking instruction in Catholicism.

“I’ve been looking for a church for awhile. I knew I couldn’t attend one that had cars with Obama stickers in the parking lot, so the Unitarians were out. I checked out the parking lot at St. Olaf’s, saw no bumper stickers, and went in.”

After a year of instruction, Dooby was baptized. “They made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. When they said I would be forgiven for all my sins, for every bad thing I’ve ever done, and go to Heaven when I died, I was in. I did think about getting a load of Viagra and committing a bunch more sins first, but Kato said with a load of Viagra I might not live long enough to get baptized.”

Dooby didn’t rush into his baptism decision. After a year of instruction, he understands the doctrine and traditions to which he has committed. Catholicism seems to be working for Dooby. He likes and respects his priest and the parishioners he has met. He is currently dealing with his recent cancer diagnosis and treatment with reasonable serenity.

I suspect the early teaching in religion Dooby received from our mother and from Jr. Sunday School and Primary kicked in. I rather think God is pleased that Doob is receiving peace from the Catholic fold. Surely, an all-knowing God knows that not all people respond to the same faith tradition.

My brother Dooby and I found our dad’s will while snooping through his closet a couple of years after our mother died. We learned that Dad had willed us to Uncle Duemore and Aunt Prudence. Uncle Duemore was Dad’s responsible older brother and business partner—and even less fun-loving than our dad. Their family never went on vacations. Our cousins spent Saturday mornings and all summer vacation doing household chores. Not a life we cared to share.

 As an adult I understand Dad’s logic. His parents were too old and ill to raise grandkids in the event of his demise. On our mother’s side of the family, Grandma Gryper lived with Aunt Loosey and crippled Aunt Arta. Aunt Loosey was a single mom with no job who eked out a living by milking cows on what was left of the family farm. She and Grandma lacked even the most rudimentary housekeeping skills and had no money sense. We would have had love, but lacked such necessities as clean clothes and regular meals. It would have been fun while it lasted, but they would have blown through Dad’s financial assets within a year.

Dooby and I thought Dad should have left us to Aunt Charity and Uncle Happy. They took their kids on vacations to California or Yellowstone every year and went camping every weekend. Living with them would be a vast improvement over life with our workaholic dad. As kids, we didn’t realize that Aunt Charity’s health was too poor to take on a larger family—and that their camp trailer didn’t have room for three extra kids.

Fortunately, Dad did not die and leave us orphaned. Throughout my kids’ childhood I fear what might happen to them should we die. George’s parents were deceased. My stepmother disliked me and my children. None of our siblings was in a position to take care of our kids.

I’m sure I never spoke to my kids about this fear, but our daughter Lolly inherited it. She and Doc decided to appoint guardians for their four kids in the event of accidental death. Doc’s parents were in poor health, so he wanted his brother and sister-in-law, who had four kids of their own, to take on the job. Being a man, Doc has no idea that few women would be delighted to double the size of her family with kids not her own. Lolly was more realistic and asked my opinion.

Neither George nor I are spring chickens, but I said that in the event of a tragedy, we could move close to one of her sisters and care for the kids jointly. A mother’s sister with no children is more likely to give kids the love they need than a sister-in-law with her own family. Lolly hesitated. She knew the kids would be taken to church every Sunday with her in-laws. Our daughters and we are freethinkers, but would not undermine their parents’ wishes.

In my book, love is more essential to a child’s well-being than regular church attendance. I’ve never dared ask about Lolly and Doc’s final decision. I just pray for their health and well-being.

Crisis Religion

On a recent PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program about the perceived lessening of Buddhist faith in Thailand, Justin McDaniel, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, made the following statement: “I’ve never heard any professional religious person, rabbi, monk, priest, imam ever say everything is fine. You know, it’s always we’re in a state of crisis, and we’re in a state of crisis so you should be coming more, and you should be giving more money, you should be becoming a monk or you should be reading more books.”

It might have comforted me to know that Mormons aren’t alone in hearing fear talk from the pulpit. Instead, I thought—No wonder so many churches are losing membership.

The world is often a worrisome place. Who wants to hear about more problems on Sunday? Well, some people—the kind who eat up the Sunday morning TV talk shows—enjoy fear talk. Crisis rhetoric succeeds by presenting a single, simplistic alternative: “Vote my party into office and the country will be safe and prosperous.” “Join my church and God will bless you.”

I have heard about the world’s escalating wickedness and the need to prepare for the Second Coming my whole church-going life. I am weary of the message. I no longer believe the world will be a better place if I invite non-member friends to hear the missionary discussions.

Currently, I find a church which urges members to care for our earth and suits their actions to their words—as the Unitarians have done by moving investments away from fossil fuel companies—more inspiring than one that tells me how dangerous the world is, how actively Satan tries to lead people astray, and how the solution is to spend more time in Church meetings. I prefer groups such as Zen Buddhists, that encourage meditation and introspection rather than blind obedience.

I don’t tune into Sunday morning talk shows that rev up anger and fear in order to increase their ratings and I don’t participate in churches that do the same.

Michael J. Stevens has a great article, “Passive-aggression Among the Latter-day Saints,” in the current Sunstone issue. Stevens, a professor of management and business administration at Weber State University, has used a survey which shows a person’s preferred way of resolving conflict with his college students in the Midwest, in Texas, and in Utah. He found that Mormon students raised along the Wasatch Front choose avoidance as their preferred style of conflict resolution. Their score for avoidance  was more than two standard deviations higher than those of his students from other regions. Avoidance was the least popular choice for students from other areas:

Avoidance of conflict falls into the label of passive-aggressiveness. I’ve not been offended when a few associates have given me that label. I figure it’s better to avoid unpleasant people and situations than to waste energy in fights I’m not going to win.  However, Stevens points out that passive-aggressiveness has a darker side. It can also manifest as contempt. He lists other negatives:

. . . hiding one’s true thoughts, feelings, or emotions; suppressing, setting aside, or ignoring issues that otherwise should be addressed; postponing or ignoring decisions; resisting change and otherwise championing the status quo; citing rules, policies, procedures, or higher authority as both a defensive and offensive tactic; and providing little meaningful or worthwhile feedback.

Stevens attributes the high incidence of passive-aggressive conflict resolution to three things in Mormon culture: equating disagreement with contention, emphasis on obedience, and extreme deference to Church leaders.

Stevens’ study raises some interesting questions about how passive-aggressiveness affects Mormon life. Does it create harmony within families—or does it create tension from living with unresolved problems? How does avoidance of conflict influence Utah culture? Is Utah a more pleasant, peaceful place than the rest of the country—or do negatives such as resistance to change, relying on authority, and contempt for other points of view prevail?

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