An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Perceptions of Mormons’

How Wide the Divide

“How many hours a week do you spend on your Church calling?” the Gospel Doctrine teacher asked the visiting stake president. Brother Stake President thought for a moment. “I don’t know—probably I average 20 hours a week.”  “And how much do you get paid—what is your salary for this job?” “Nothing. I serve without pay.” Brother GD Teacher beamed:  “Brothers and Sisters, that proves the gospel is true! Nobody would donate that much time without pay if the gospel were not true.”

Of course, what this really proved is that the stake president believes the gospel is true.

Devout Mormons sacrifice time, money, and personal convenience to serve in the Church because they believe they are serving God and doing His will. This fact baffles non-Mormons who tend to believe Church leaders see through the accounts of Heavenly messengers to Joseph Smith and divine revelation to subsequent prophets. They view the Church as a less than honest organization which cons unsophisticated members into supporting leaders in affluence. The vast wealth of the Church and lack of transparency about its finances play into this perception.

The Church does not disclose salaries of general authorities. Estimates of about $50,000 a year plus full health and retirement benefits have been made. Some full time leaders live on a higher plane than this income would support because of acquiring personal wealth from lucrative careers before being called to full time Church service. Others supplement their salary by writing books for the LDS market. To sustain his large family, Elder Marlin Jensen continued his law practice part time on his one free day a week.

Plenty of people would be willing to investigate and publish unusual signs of affluence by Church leaders, but no evidence has been brought to light suggesting lavish incomes. All evidence supports the belief that Church salaries are moderate.

Non-Mormons who see flaws in the account of Joseph Smith’s first vision and the Book of Mormon cannot believe any intelligent person can possibly take Mormonism seriously. I’m not sure why Mormons are singled out for their belief in the miraculous. No one suggests that the Pope is only in it for the money or questions his belief in the virgin birth. I haven’t heard anyone call Jewish Joe Lieberman deluded because he walks to the Capitol when his vote is needed after sundown on Friday evenings. Jimmy Carter’s firm belief in Jesus as his personal savior goes unquestioned even though New Testament accounts of the resurrection cannot be documented elsewhere. Only the Chinese government suggests the Dalai Lama really knows he’s not the incarnation of a previous lama and is only interested in raking in money from his followers. Are Mormon miracles that much less credible than beliefs from other religions?

Non-Mormons can tolerate Mormons, but most are incapable of understanding how sincerely Church doctrine and history are believed by leaders and members alike.

On the flip side, devout Mormons cannot believe that all good people of other faiths or of no faith are not seeking the “true” religion. How can teachings which are so plain to Mormons not be accepted and believed by any righteous person? Mormons call the gospel “The Plan of Happiness.” Since they believe their own lives would be sad and empty without their Church membership, they extend this belief to those outside the Mormon fold. The only way gentiles can be truly happy and gain salvation is to become Mormons. God expects Mormons to share the gospel with His other children.

Church leaders drive this belief with routine Stake and General Conference addresses. During the October 2012 General Conference, Elder Russell M. Nelson devoted his entire sermon to missionary work.  He told a faith-promoting story of missionaries being lead to a suicidal single mother whose life was changed by learning the gospel.  In the Priesthood Session of that conference, President Monson related a story of a successful missionary who saw potential Latter-day Saints in unlikely sources. Mormons are frequently warned that in the next life they may meet nonmember friends and neighbors who will  condemn them for not having shared the gospel during mortality.

Lack of respect for the religious views of others can be bridged. Non-Mormons could extend the courtesy to Mormons which they extend to members of other groups.  Mormons could move away from the black and white thinking that only sin and Satan’s influence keep nonmembers from diving into the nearest stake baptismal font.

Religious beliefs are not values. They cannot be proven to be right or wrong anymore than we can prove that a giant teapot does or does not orbit the sun. We don’t have to accept the beliefs of others in order to find common ground and share important values. We can cross the divide rather than barricade ourselves behind it.

My Brothers and Sisters–and All the Rest of You

When did Mormons begin using “Brother” and “Sister” as titles for Church members? I grew up in Utah during the ‘50s and always heard adults call each other “Mr.” and “Mrs.” if they weren’t on first-name basis. In her 1945 journal, Aunt Cozy referred to her visiting teachers as Mrs. Hansen and Mrs. Taylor. Our bishop was Bishop Stagg, but his counselors were Mr. Taylor and Mr. Moore. Seminary teachers referred to themselves as Brother, but everybody knew seminary teachers were zealots.

At BYU in the ‘60s, most of the professors used the egalitarian title “Brother” rather than “Professor” or “Dr.” After graduation and a move to Wyoming, I found ward members there using the “Brother/Sister” titles and fell in with the practice. Maybe my wards in Provo and Lindon had just been anomalies—or maybe the change had been occurring gradually and I hadn’t noticed until moving.

“Brother” and “Sister,” followed by a surname, lend a tone of inclusiveness and formality to relationships. They are particularly helpful for dealing with persons older than oneself for which first names are too familiar, but Mr. or Mrs. seems too cold.

 I sometimes wonder if part of the reason for the formality of using “Brother or “Sister” instead of first names for contemporaries is to maintain a distance between the sexes. Are YM and YW presidents working together on activities less likely to become romantically involved if they refer to each other as Brother Pratt and Sister Swensen instead of Jeff and Tiffany?

For years I’ve gone along with the practice without giving it much thought. Yesterday we attended our grandson’s soccer match in a Wyoming town that is about 25% Mormon. Our son-in-law referred to the coach of the opposing team as Sister Welling and I wondered: Does using church titles outside of church contribute to the perception of Mormon clannishness?

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