An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

At First Unitarian Church this Sunday, Pastor Tom Goldsmith began his remarks by alluding to the terrible events of the past week—the murder of the U.S. Ambassador and guards in Libya, the anti-American uprisings throughout the Middle-east. I thought, “Wow! There’s not a Mormon congregation hearing any reference to current events this morning.” Even on the Sunday following 9/11 and the Sunday following the assassination of JFK, Mormon congregations heard the same standard talks and lessons on the same, standard topics.

Pastor Goldsmith segued his comments on the current outburst of intolerance and violence into a sermon on freedom—freedom from—and freedom for. He used the Vatican’s condemnation of Sister Margaret Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Social Ethics, as an example of the constraints which more conservative religions place upon members. Then, he turned the barb to Unitarians who pride themselves on being “creedless.”

Unitarians, Episcopalians, and other liberal denominations have been losing members for decades. “The problem is not that we don’t have freedom,” said Goldsmith. “The problem is we haven’t decided what our freedom is for. We haven’t defined our vision of a moral society.”

Goldsmith gave no “call to arms.” He provided no solution for his congregation. How could such an immense problem be resolved in one brief sermon? What he did accomplish was to leave his flock with an important issue upon which to ponder—to think—to work on their own visions of a moral society and the best way to achieve it.

Mormons, and probably members of other fundamentalist faiths, are uncomfortable with open-ended questions and problems without black and white answers. Mormons are used to top-down answers and directives. That is why Mormon bishops failed to offer comfort to their congregations on the Sunday following JFK’s assassination as well as the 9/11 attack. Mormon local leaders generally wait for authority from headquarters before deviating from the standard script for meetings.

I know the intent of top-level control over Mormon meetings is to keep false doctrine from being taught. However, I do think Church leaders would do well to consider:  a) Is it working? I still hear plenty of spurious stories told over my ward pulpit. b) What are the effects of no spontaneity, no reference to current life situations in meetings? Does it cause members to feel the Church lacks relevance to their own lives? c) What kind of people are attracted to an organization which values cut-and-dried answers over thinking and problem solving—and are these the members that will most benefit the Church?

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