An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for February, 2013

Change of Heart

Images of people with rage-distorted faces chanting slogans and holding up signs with mottos like, “God hates fags,” and “Obama’s a baby killer” have damaged the evangelical movement in the eyes of many Americans. My sons and their families are evangelicals, so I know that hatred of those with different opinions and lifestyles is not typical of evangelicals—nor is it limited to them.

I was happy to see, on a recent Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program that Focus on Family, one of the more strident evangelical groups, is working to incorporate more Christian behavior into the defense of that they consider key moral issues.

Leaders of Focus on Family are now talking to gay rights and pro-choice groups in their Colorado Springs community. With their history of animosity, the process is difficult, but both sides feel it is worthwhile to meet together to seek common ground. Some mmbers of the FOF group, energized by previous leader James Dobson’s denouncement of liberals, feminists, and gay activists, accuse current leader, Jim Daly, of surrendering to the enemy.

It will be interesting to see how the change of leadership in FOF plays out. It’s much easier to lead a group by revving up fear and anger than by encouraging rational thought. And it’s human nature to prefer limiting our friends and associates to those who agree with us. Daly admits the harsh rhetoric and partisanship of the past have alienated young people. Will he be able to lead his group into a stance that keeps their moral values without hatefully opposing those who differ?

I think Mormon leaders have a similar situation to that of Daly. General Authorities have softened their stance on gay rights. They have come out for humane treatment of illegal immigrants. They espouse political neutrality. Still, with all the rules about what may and may not be used as source material for Church lessons and talks, far-out quotes from past leaders are often heard in talks, lessons, and discussions. It’s easier to rev people up against “so-called intellectuals,” gays, and feminists, than to put the genie back in the bottle and get members to exhibit more Christian behavior.

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Fear or Love?

A stake president in Sandy, Utah gave an address to conclude his stake conference on February 3 this year that was more blatantly political than any I’ve heard over the pulpit since Ezra Taft Benson’s heyday during the John Birch Society era. DeVisser claimed his remarks were inspired by the Holy Ghost which might motivate some General Conference addresses on how to recognize the source of perceived revelation.

The good stake president’s goal was worthy. He wanted to motivate members of his stake to live closer to Jesus, to spend more time reading the Book of Mormon, praying, examining their own spirituality and repenting, to increase fast offerings, and to get out of debt. He chose a standard Mormon motivator: fear. The pres invoked the usual rhetoric of the wickedness of the last days and quoted warnings from past and present prophets of gloom and doom (Mormons sustain apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators). Besides Benson, he quoted Boyd K. Packer, Neal Maxwell, David A. Bednar, and, oddly enough, Heber C. Kimball, who predicted the Civil War would bring down the U.S. government and usher in the return of the Savior.

My understanding of fear as a motivator is that it has dramatic short term effects, but little long-lasting benefits. Fear stirs the basic emotion of self-preservation, but the horrors of calamity are too unpleasant to dwell on. At its worst, fear motivates hasty, unwise decisions. At best, it forms unrealistic resolutions that will not be carried through.

I believe President DeVisser is a good man who cares about the problems he sees in his stake: violence, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and immorality. I doubt fear will motivate his members to make the changes in their lives that will overcome these problems. These are complex issues for which the government is not necessarily to blame. They are also individual problems in the lives of the people afflicted. Paying more fast offerings, praying, reading the Book of Mormon, and repenting may be part of the solution for some, but others will need professional help.

Unfortunately, DeVisser followed the pattern too often presented as the cure-all by Mormon leaders. Stir up the members with fear talk and give them a checklist of commandments to keep. That approach not only doesn’t help people resolve personal problems, it drives young people away.

As I said, DeVisser’s talk was more blatantly political than any I’ve heard over the pulpit in stake conference, but that kind of rhetoric is common in sacrament meetings and auxiliary classes in wards I’ve attended. I hope the negative fallout from this talk will motivate General Authorities to tone down the fear mongering in their own discourses. For my money, love of God and gratitude for blessings is a far better motivator than fear to encourage Christ-like behavior.

City Creek–11 Months Later

I don’t agree with critics who say the Mormon Church should have used the one or two billion dollars spent on the City Creek Mall to aid the poor. While I do think the Church should use more of its resources to aid the needy, I think the Church’s tax-paying business entities have a right to make investments where they will get a good return. Unfortunately, City Creek Mall may not do that for them.

I dislike shopping for anything except food, books, and plants, so I’ve only made one trip to the mall. On a summer day, I found many people in the mall, but none were carrying bags from any of the stores. Apparently, my friends and I were not the only people looking instead of buying. While the food court was filled at lunch time with workers from the downtown office buildings, fast food places cannot sustain City Creek.

Recently, my friend, Ruth, took an out-of-state visitor, who is in property management, to City Creek for dinner at Kneaders. The mall was virtually empty. “Whoever built this mall did not do their homework,” the visitor said. “There is nothing here to bring people downtown. Nobody comes home from work nowadays and decides to go downtown and shop. People shop online and have items delivered to their doorstep. People will go downtown for entertainment—for theaters, nice restaurants, clubs—but there is none of that here.”

Essentially, City Creek was designed to appeal to upper-middle-income-Mormons (UMIMs) who appreciate family-friendly restaurants without liquor licenses and can afford high-end shopping. I’m not sure the city has enough UMIMs to keep City Center afloat.

 I do hope the management can find a way to make City Creek profitable. A mall of closed stores will do nothing for the city’s image or tax base.

Hooray for the Pope

I admire Pope Benedict XVI for resigning his office due to his ill health. This decision put the well-being of his church above personal desire for power and influence. I hope his example will inspire other elderly people in responsible positions to recognize that their organization may be better served by a younger, healthier, more energetic person.

According to the Center for Disease Control, almost 75% of people aged 80 and older have a disability. An Australian study showed that 88% of people over 90 have a disability.

Sure, a small percentage of elderly people are free from disabilities. And jobs do exist which people with decreased levels of energy and some physical and cognitive disabilities can perform—but not at leadership levels. I suspect the reason for the flat, possibly negative Mormon Church growth in recent years is connected to the longevity of leaders. 

Life in the 21st century is fast paced. Changes in technology, available information, world governments, and the global economy are almost constant. Even people not slowed by limitations of age have trouble keeping up. Trying to solve current problems with yesterday’s wisdom no longer works.

I think Church leaders recognize that even lesser disabilities than total dementia limit a person’s ability to fully carry out the responsibilities of their office. For many years now, general authorities below the rank of apostle have been given an emeritus position.

Unfortunately, a similar policy has not been instituted for apostles or for the prophet. Currently, seven members of the quorum are over 80. Only three are younger than 70. I don’t know how many of these men have age-related disabilities, but it’s fair to assume that most do.  

My hope is that the Pope’s example will motivate apostles and members of the first presidency to honestly assess their own state of health. When they recognize they can no longer perform adequately, I hope they will put personal feelings aside and resign for the benefit of the Church. And I hope Church culture will allow them to do so.

Divorce or Work It Out?

Callie and Bret were married at age 17, not because they were in love, but because she was pregnant. Seventeen years and three additional children later, they are divorcing. Their finances are a mess. Callie’s health is poor. Some of the children are in therapy, and Bret is trying to make up for missing out on his carefree teen years. Pregnancy is not a good reason for marriage, and staying together for years of desperate unhappiness serves no one well.

Callie and Bret are only one of several couples I know who have divorced after years of unhappiness. Geniel waited until the last of her six children was grown before leaving her husband. Years of living in a household of sniper warfare has divided the children into two camps. Geniel sacrificed to keep her children in a two-parent home, but three of her children side with their father and have cut her out of their lives.

Bibi and Bill met the Mormon marriage pattern—BYU students from good families who marry in the temple following his mission. Apparently, Bibi and Bill’s courtship didn’t include discussing details such as how many children they wanted, where they would live, who would make decisions, and what kind of help each was willing to do to keep a family afloat. Eight years of counseling did not help them resolve differences.

After 20 years of bickering and blaming, an explosive argument ended their marriage. Bibi married a man who is paying child support for his six children. They uprooted her children from schools, neighborhood, and grandparents to move to his city. I fear the ruptured family, the move, and possible conflict with a stepparent make her kids vulnerable to negative influences outside the home.

Fasting, praying, attending the temple, and reading scriptures don’t always resolve marital differences—nor do they protect children from the harm of a warzone home life. Of course, divorce should not be undertaken lightly. It hurts children—but so does living in a home with perpetual conflict between parents. Is it wise to counsel desperately unhappy couples to stay together and add children to a family that will likely split apart?

Church Activism

In his book, Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh gives the following principle for social harmony:

Do not use the religious community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice, and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

Hanh’s first point, not using the religious community for personal gain is a no-brainer. The second, not transforming the community into a political party, has become common in the past two decades. I disagree with the old saying: “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t hurt the manure, but it sure makes a mess of the ice cream.” Religious involvement in politics has made such a mess it’s hard to distinguish between the manure and ice cream.

Hanh’s recommendation for religious communities to take stands against oppression and injustice requires some thought. Churches need to distinguish between policies of oppression and injustice and policies which simply fail to align with their doctrine. The question is whether a law or policy causes actual harm.

 In my youth, Sunday closing laws were a big issue in Utah. The Mormon Church was on the side of Sunday closing. Obviously, good Mormons should be in church rather than shopping on Sundays. I’m not opposed to church attendance or to resting on Sunday, but I don’t see that allowing businesses to operate on Sunday causes harm to others. To me this is clearly an issue where churches can admonish members to obey their interpretation of the Bible, but should not lobby for laws which force others to conform to their beliefs.

Abortion is a tougher issue. Clearly, a fetus is harmed by the procedure, yet desperate women can die from unsafe, illegal procedures. I doubt anyone really favors abortion—it’s generally a question of which is the greater harm. This is certainly an area where churches differ. Most denominations permit abortion in order to save a mother’s life or health, in cases of rape or incest, or for a severely deformed fetus, but some oppose abortion for any reason. Churches certainly have the right to make rules for their own members, but should they promote laws to force people of different beliefs to obey their rules?

Gay marriage is opposed by many churches, yet none, to my knowledge, has provided evidence that gay marriage weakens traditional marriage or creates other harm. The fact that gay marriage is not something a church condones doesn’t seem like a valid reason to oppose it. Mormons don’t drink tea and coffee, but they don’t try to pass laws outlawing the sale of these beverages. Seventh-day Adventists and some Eastern religions don’t eat meat, but they don’t lobby for laws prohibiting butcher shops.

What should churches actively oppose? Oppression and injustice, according to Hanh. The Jim Crow laws in many states were clearly unjust and oppressive to African Americans. Many churches (unfortunately, not my own) rightfully joined the Civil Rights Movement to oppose those laws.

Besides opposing oppression and injustice, I believe religious groups have a responsibility to promote safe, healthy communities. Differences of opinion exist on how to achieve this. Perhaps the best role for churches to take in these areas is to simply encourage members to work within community organizations rather than to organize what may become divisive, partisan efforts.  

Of Little Faith?

Yesterday’s Salt Lake Tribune ran a piece about Utahns, primarily Mormons, who enroll their children in parochial schools of various faiths. According to the article, about 20% of students at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper are Mormon. Since many—sometimes a majority—of students in Utah parochial schools are not members of the sponsoring faith, religious and values education at these schools is inclusive. “Our goal is to help a family make a student more faith-filled in whatever faith they happen to practice,” the principal of Juan Diego stated.

Interviewed parents offer traditional reasons for choosing parochial schools for their children, academics, values—and diversity. Diversity puzzled me. Most Mormons find diversity about as appealing as root canal work. Non-Mormon Utahns often complain that Mormon children in the neighborhood aren’t allowed to play with their children. A chief reason I’ve heard from home-schooling parents is that they want to protect their children from “false” ideas. It was refreshing to read the statement of a Presbyterian father with children enrolled in a Lutheran school. He said, “I basically just wanted to have my kids hear and see something other than what I spew at them every day.”

It’s great that some Mormon parents see the need to prepare their children for real life by making them acquainted with people of other religions. Too many Mormons consider “the world” so evil and frightening, that they prefer to limit their circle of friendship to members of their own faith. When Mormons do reach out to those of other faiths, it’s usually with the idea of conversion. Non-Mormons are invited to enroll their sons in the Church Scouting program, but it’s seldom with the idea of making the troop more diverse. The hope is generally that the boy and his family will become “Golden Contacts” and accept baptism.

I realize that the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches have not always been inclusive, either. Maybe in a few hundred more years, Mormonism will have the maturity and confidence to embrace those of other faiths without fearing they may weaken the institution.

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