An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormon doctrine’

Follow Which Prophet?

A recent blog by mmiles at By Common Consent compares an article in the April 2013 Ensign stating that equality in marriage is God’s plan with a Feb. 1973 Ensign piece claiming that patriarchal rule in marriage is God’s plan. Both pieces proved their arguments with quotes from scriptures and Church leaders. Since the Ensign is an official Church publication and does not print pieces disagreeing with Church positions, one can only assume that the Church position on marriage has evolved during the past 40 years.

My first reaction to reading this blog was that it’s evidence of the fluidity of Mormon doctrine. Continuous revelation means the current prophet takes precedence over past prophets—a benefit to the Church in a rapidly changing world. Patriarchal authority in marriage is about as popular in the 21st century as polygamy was in the 19th and 20th centuries. A church embracing either is likely to shrink to the size of the Shakers who insist that celibacy is God’s plan.

My second reaction to this blog was, “What about the Proclamation on the Family?” Will the phrase, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families . . .” be quietly erased from the text—or will the word “preside” be redefined in Mormon rhetoric to mean equal representation?

My final reaction to the 180 degree switch on marriage roles from the tenure of Spencer W. Kimball to that of Thomas S. Monson is that it demonstrates the need for Mormons to make our own decisions rather than to blindly follow the leaders. The author of this blog ends his piece with the statement, “The eternal truths of today might not be the eternal truths of tomorrow.” An interesting thought for Mormons who are conditioned since Primary to “Follow the Prophet.”

How would it feel to be a woman who has endured a patriarchal marriage with an overbearing husband for 40 years to pick up her current Ensign and read that equal partnership is now God’s plan? Church leaders, including the prophet, are not infallible. Individuals are entitled to their own inspiration in making life decisions. If eternal truths do exist, they are in the realm of principles such as integrity and human dignity rather than positions on social issues.

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Why Don’t They Like Us?

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, closed his interview on PBS’s Religion and Ethics   by stating  that Christians have an obligation to convert non-Christians—specifically Muslims, Jews, and Mormons. He repeated the often-heard assertion that “Mormonism is at the very least another religion. It’s not the Christian faith.”

I suppose any group is free to define its terms and decide who does and who does not belong. Certainly, mainstream Mormons bristle when polygamous splinter groups are referred to as Mormon, although these groups accept Joseph Smith, the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants—at least through the 132nd section.

I do think Land is right that the church Joseph Smith founded was different enough from mainstream Christianity to be considered an entirely new religion. Joseph Smith introduced some radically new doctrines to American religion. His First Vision account of seeing the Father and Son as individual personages conflicted with the Christian notion of the trinity. Identifying Missouri as the location of the Garden of Eden and of Adam-Ondi-Ahman—the place where Adam shall return to bless his people—was certainly an innovation with no biblical source . Eternal progression, via plural marriage, enabling men to become as gods through obeying the principles and ordinances of the restored gospel was also extra-biblical. Even the emphasis on knowledge as a key to salvation was closer to ancient Gnosticism than to Christianity.

Current Church rhetoric avoids most of these non-mainstream topics. I haven’t heard a conference address or a Gospel Doctrine lesson about Adam and Eve residing in Missouri for many years. Likewise, polygamy has been officially repudiated—although temple sealings to more than one woman still occur if a previous wife has died. Eternal progression is no longer a standard part of Mormon rhetoric. And like most Christian faiths, Mormonism now emphasizes faith and obedience to gospel principles and ordinances rather than knowledge as key requirements for salvation.

Except for the concept of God as three individuals working as one rather than three aspects of one being, few Mormon doctrines now differ radically from those of mainstream Christianity. So, why do evangelicals refuse to regard Mormons as fellow Christians? Possibly, since the Church hasn’t officially renounced any prior teachings other than polygamy, some may believe LDS leaders plan to reinstate some of these previous teachings.

I suspect, however, that it is not Mormon doctrine that troubles evangelical leaders so much as Mormon proselytizing. Most Christian faiths restrict their missionary work to those outside the Christian fold. Mormons overstep that boundary and frequently draw members away from their previous Christian faith. Because Mormon and evangelical cultures have common elements, they are likely competing for the same group of people. It’s not easy to love a competitor.

The Stone Cut Without Hands

From the beginning, Mormon Doctrine has interpreted the stone “cut out without hands” described in Daniel 2 as the restored gospel going forth to fill the whole earth (D&C 65:2) The rapid growth of the Church for the first 1 ½ centuries after its 1830 beginning with six members confirmed this belief.

A strange thing happened in the latter decades of the 20th century—and unexpected and unheralded thing. Mormon Church growth slowed. It stagnated—possibly even declined. In Utah and other areas in the U.S., wards began combining rather than dividing. George and I lived in two different stakes in Salt Lake County where wards with dwindling enrollment were disbanded and boundaries redrawn to include members with other wards. Friends in Seattle had their ward incorporated into other wards as happened to our daughter and son-in-law’s ward in upper New York State.

The closing of wards wasn’t disconcerting to most Utahns because state growth continued, so the overall Mormon population probably increased. Outside Utah, the effects were more problematic. Converts who had based part of their testimony on the rapid growth of the Church were shaken.

I know that official Church statistics continue to show growth, but the reliability of those numbers has been questioned particularly outside the U.S.    

Few Mormons who leave the Church bother to have their names removed from the records and are counted as members until 110 years after their date of birth. More realistic estimates of Church growth are made by comparing the number of wards and stakes from year to year.  Obviously, wards and stakes are not created for non-existent members.

 The Church’s count shows membership increased from 13,824,854 in 2009 to 14,441,346—an increase of 309,879 members. Since Earth’s population increased from 6.8 billion in 2009 to over 7 billion in  2011—an increase of over 200 million people, it is pretty obvious the Mormon percentage of world population decreases each year.

Given these circumstances, I speculate that the Church will drop references to Daniel 2 from future rhetoric and within a few years will deny it was ever a doctrine—unless, of course, some miraculous way of converting hundreds of millions of people each year occurs.

Eating the Bread of the Laborer Part 2

Continuing my thoughts on D&C 42 :42:  “He that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.”

As I stated in Part 1, many Mormons interpret this passage as God’s decree against government welfare. Modern American Mormons are red, white, and blue patriotsyet most are leery of government social programs. Mormons believe people should work for what they receive. They believe government programs encourage idleness.

I previously made the case that the majority of social benefits from our government go to idle retirees rather than to idle welfare moms. I’d like to address another group of idlers. According to the census bureau, the top .12 % of Americans (that’s point 12 %, not 12 %) average $1,600,000 annually.

Now, except for a few CEOs and sports or entertainment stars, most people in the top .12% are not wage earners. They live off investments. Since they don’t work, I suspect they meet the D&C definition of idlers. And they definitely receive government help through our current tax rates.

Our son Wort has been politically conservative for years. This year he is supporting Obama for president. When I asked why, he said:

 “I switched parties when Gingrich forced Mitt Romney to release his tax records. Romney made $20.9 million from investments last year and was taxed at a rate of 15.4% because his personal income is taxed as capital gains.  Gingrich paid a tax rate of 31 ½% because most of his money is earned income. That’s about what I pay. It’s totally unfair that someone who works hard to support his family is taxed at twice the income rate of someone like Mitt Romney who is not working. Why should I vote for someone who wants to keep this unfairness going?”

So, are those living off investments eating the bread of the laborer? Obviously, businesses need investment capital in order to function and provide jobs. But, investors also need laborers in order to reap their dividends. Whether or not investors are taking advantage of those laborers probably depends on how well the laborers are compensated. Growing rates of income inequality in the US indicate a problem in this area.

The issue is complex, but trying to understand God’s message in D&C 42:42 surely deserves more consideration than simply dismissing the word “idle” as a term used only to describe the poor.

More Everything Give Me

A popular Mormon hymn, More Holiness Give Me, begins each of 30 phrases with the word, “more.” Granted, most of the requests are for spiritual gifts such as more faith, patience, gratitude, and purity. Each desire correlates with Joseph Smith’s definition of the word “mormon” as meaning “more good.”*

The Doctrine of More is very much part of current LDS teaching: More life—an eternity. More family—for all eternity. More sex—eternal procreation. More work—creating worlds. More power—becoming as God.

These “mores,” directed towards the next life, give Mormons greater purpose in this life. None of these is a bad thing to want more of. In fact, all of these Desires-for-More correspond to human nature. Of course, contemporary American Mormons, like their gentile counterparts, extend “more” to coveting more material goodies in this life. That too is human nature.

With a philosophy nearly opposite that of 21st century American values, it seems odd that Buddhist practice is growing in the US. Buddhism emphasizes “less”—less attachment to material goods, less attachment to past and future, less attachment to body, to ego. The Buddhist philosophy of acceptance may be more realistic than the Mormon tradition of striving for perfection. It is certainly more peaceful. Still, I suspect it has less appeal to our human nature which is bent on acquiring and keeping.

Which belief system will flourish in a century that, so far, promises constant turmoil? Maybe neither.

*(See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 300 for this unusual etymology).

Free Agency and Other Myths

I lost my testimony at Utah State Prison—no, I wasn’t an inmate. I taught at USP for five memorable years and met too many guys like Vince—a depressed, suicidal 24-year-old when I began working with him in one of the maximum security units. As a first grader, Vince had been introduced to drugs by his dealer brother. By 4th grade, Vince was a habitual user. Naturally, he resorted to theft to pay for his habit and was in and out of detention through his teens and in prison once he turned 18.

In prison Vince got off drugs, but upon release had no place to go except to a dealer friend’s house. Vince saw old school friends with jobs, cars, wives, kids, houses—while he had nothing. Even a chimpanzee could have predicted Vince would soon be back on drugs and in prison.

Where was Vince’s agency in all this? He didn’t ask to be born into a family where he’d be introduced to drugs before he lost his baby teeth. The deck was stacked against him before he was even born. Where was the God who notices even the passing of a sparrow when Vince needed him?

The idea that Heavenly Father sends us to earth to be tested with exams rigged against many examinees defies reason. And an atonement which forgives those getting the short end of the stick for failing is neither merciful nor just.

Culture or Creed?

“Are you a cultural Mormon—one who doesn’t believe the
doctrine but values the social aspects of the Mormon Church?” a friend asked
Ken recently. “No, I’m the complete opposite—I love the doctrine and hate the
culture,” Ken replied—then admitted he finds attending meetings difficult
because of culture often being emphasized in place of theology.

Ken’s statement reminds me of Ron and Milly, Catholic
friends, who love the sacraments and mysteries of their religion, but disagree
with the handling of the sex abuse scandal as well as the insistence on
celibacy for priests. Audrey, a divorced and remarried Catholic friend,
maintains belief in the basic teachings of her church, but no longer attends because
“Cafeteria Catholics” are criticized and she no longer feels part of her church
community.

The percentage of Cultural Mormons—those doubters who
appreciate the programs for children and youth, the sense of community, the
opportunities to serve others—remains a mystery. They are generally
silent—knowing that open criticism of the belief system would jeopardize their
full participation in the community they value.

Doctrinal Mormons may eventually leave on their own accord
or be exxed when crucial (for them) points of doctrine are eliminated or
neglected. Once outside the main church, these ex-Mormons often form groups of
their own.

I don’t know how churches retain either group of
dissatisfied members. Loosening up on cultural conformity such as dress
standards, eliminating  gender inequality,
and opening to divergent political views would satisfy many Cultural Mormons.
Of course, as the Community of Christ found when they extended priesthood to
women, some of the devout will walk away from a major change in church policy.

More emphasis on the core teachings of Joseph Smith and less
emphasis on opinions of more recent prophets (“only one pair of earrings for
women, none for men”) might help—if leaders and members could agree on the core
teachings. Polygamy might be a match in the gas tank for this kind of reform.

Retaining members is a key problem for both Mormon and
Catholic hierarchies. Leading a church into 21st century relevance is
a job for young, connected thinkers—as evidenced by the rapid growth of mega
churches led by innovative young people. Unfortunately, both the Mormon and
Catholic churches are run by men close to the end of life. Heaven could help,
but apparently remains silent about changing either culture or creed.

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