An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘religious tolerance’

Christmas Message

After watching the PBS presentation of From Jesus to Christ , George said, “That show really does a number on religious belief.” Then he thought a minute and said, “No, what it does is give people a different way to think about Christianity.”

George is right. While modern scholarship has never supported the supernatural claims of Christianity—or any other religion—historical research does not destroy the basic message of Jesus. Scholarly analysis may actually help those who can’t wrap their heads around supernatural events but can still appreciate the life and teachings of an historic person.

From my perspective, the major benefits of religion are not the hope for an existence beyond this life. What I value is the way religion can teach us reverence for what we can’t explain. Religion can teach us that we are part of something greater than ourselves—that we are connected to each other, to the earth which nurtures us, and to all its inhabitants. This realization is the beginning of true humility.

Some Christians believe in the virgin birth and in a literal atonement and resurrection. Some do not. Most of us can appreciate the symbolism of love, peace, and hope which the Christmas story gives. For me the life of Jesus is more important than the birth. I value the compassion which he exemplified and taught. I marvel at the calmness with which he answered accusers threatened by his message of social justice—and the peace with which he faced his unjust death.

We are free to believe as much or as little of the Christmas story as we want. What we cannot do, and still honor Jesus, is to criticize those who don’t interpret his life and message exactly the same way we do.

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.

The Bible Is Like a Software License

Kyle at By Common Consent has a great post on missionary Bible bashing–and I don’t think missionaries are alone in this kind of thinking–or non-thinking. Find it here.

Returning to a Different Fold

In his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray quotes statistics demonstrating the loss of religiosity in American life. This surprised me because I’m always reading surveys showing American church attendance is higher than that in European countries. And during an election year, it seems like every voter in the country is more interested in a candidate’s religious views than in his economic or foreign policies.

While the U.S. may be more devout than Europe, surveys tracking regular church attendance over the past half century show a steep decline, one that is tied to economic and educational status. Where church attendance of the top 20% of Americans declined from 65% to 55% in that time period, the decline in the bottom 30% was from 55% to 45%. In some lower income neighborhoods, church attendance is now below 40% of the population.

I would have expected these statistics to be reversed with wealthy people spending their Sundays sailing on their yachts or schmoozing at the country club. Maybe my perception of lower class religiosity is because I associate fundamentalist churches with the less affluent. Murray’s statistics show that only 34% of the new lower class belong to fundamentalist churches. Apparently, their political influence is out of proportion to their numbers.

Murray sees the decline in religious activity in the new lower class as a social problem because churches play key roles in a community. Churches teach values and promote social stability through youth programs and other community activities. They also sponsor community improvement projects as well as charity work. If too few people attend, churches have no one to teach Sunday School, raise funds for charity, take youth groups on outings, or keep a multitude of other activities going. (Contrary to popular Mormon belief, other denominations do have many jobs for volunteers. The minister does not do everything singled-handedly.)

Having lived and taught in the heart of Zion for most of my adult life, I have noticed that the majority of dysfunctional families appear to be cut off from any kind of religious support in their lives. Certainly, members of my extended family who have experienced divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and a skid into poverty no longer attend the Mormon services in which they were raised, despite parental efforts to bring them back to the fold.

My cousin mourns that their daughter who has been an inactive member her entire adult life won’t start going to church and force her grown sons to get jobs and marry the girlfriends who share their bedrooms or kick them all out. While I see the need for religious values for this family, I can’t imagine a family as dysfunctional as this daughter’s ever feeling comfortable in a Mormon meeting. The bar is too high. They wouldn’t even have the right clothes to attend.

And what would they hear in the talks and lessons? Admonitions to honor the priesthood and follow Church leaders, hold Family Home Evenings, go to the temple, share the gospel. They would hear warnings about immorality that would convince them they could never be as good as people who had not transgressed. Unless they’re in an exceptional ward, they wouldn’t hear much about God loving and forgiving them or of the opportunity to start over.

Our oldest son and his family are members of Mars Hill, a Calvinist denomination in Seattle. This rapidly growing church offers music that rocks, casual dress, and short, punchy sermons laced with humor. It’s an easy place for those turned off by more traditional churches to attend.  Doctrine is strict and standards of conduct are high, but our son knows many young men who have cleaned up their lives after hearing straight talk from the head pastor, Mark Driscoll : “Yes, Jesus loves you. Now, be a man. Get a job. Get married and raise a family—that’s what gives life meaning.”

This kind of church might give my cousin’s daughter and her sons better direction in their lives. Unfortunately, my cousin would be distraught if they made that kind of choice. I don’t expect the Mormon Church to change any time soon. Why should it, if it’s meeting the needs of most members? But, it obviously doesn’t fulfill the needs of all. Maybe it’s time Mormons stopped judging other denominations as being deficient and respect the fact they are a force for good in the lives of many people.


Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake has extended the sold-out run of Eric Samuelson’s play, Borderlands until April 17. For those interested in exploring religion, honesty, and tolerance, this play is well worth your time and money.

The inhabitants of Borderlands are four Mormons of varying degrees of faith and activity expressing hidden doubts and fears within the security of an “honesty car” on a used car lot. In the powerful concluding scene, the gay teen gives a blessing to a distraught, dying woman who has grievously injured him.  Assisted by a woman and an excommunicated Mormon, the boy voices a heartfelt and painfully honest prayer. By this act of faith and love, the characters redeem themselves.

Maybe the reason I found this scene so moving is that I have a hard time believing anyone else can redeem us. I think everyone must atone for his or her own sins—most likely by learning not to be attached to the self that is so willing to sacrifice others in order to achieve its own ends.

Since I saw this play Sunday afternoon during the final General Conference session, the audience presumably was not made up of devout Mormons. At the QA session with director, playwright and cast, no anti-Mormon rhetoric was expressed. Several people thought the topics of doubt, hypocrisy, and intolerance applied to any religion.

This play offers a window through which audience members can examine the depths of their own religious and moral commitment. I hope Eric Samuelson takes care of his health and continues to write plays that look beneath the surface of Mormonism. I’m glad Plan B Theatre exists to produce these kinds of plays.

We Need More Worlds Than This

Turning on the news this past winter and early spring has required a stiff drink or prescription tranquilizer as Mother Nature rampaged: First with blizzards that limited travel to snowmobile or dog sled through the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. for days on end—then Australia suffered devastating floods; mud slides tore out hill side housing in Rio de Janeiro; earthquakes struck New Zealand. Finally, an 8.9 earthquake in Japan sent a tsunami soaring over sea walls, destroying entire cities, and wiping out power for the cooling system in four nuclear plants causing (so far) a partial meltdown and radiating deadly contamination to earth, air, and water.

With Nature battering us, we humans hardly needed to stir up trouble on our own. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop us. Human caused disasters this past season include: Ongoing war in Afghanistan, suicide bombers in Iraq, Pakistan and Israel, Middle-Eastern dictatorships from Libya to Yemen to  Syria firing upon their own people who had the audacity to demonstrate peacefully for democratic reforms. In our own country, state workers in Wisconsin staged a prolonged demonstration against their governor. Throw in personal problems like job loss, illness, and sour family relationships and there isn’t enough Xanax in the world to help us cope. We need someone to be in charge, someone to care. John Updike sums up our needs in the following poem:

              Religious Consolation 

One size fits all. The shape or coloration                                                                                                                                 

Of the god or high heaven matters less                                                                                                                      

than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing                                                                                                                                                                         

the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite                                                                                                                                                                                                  

the widow brings to the temple, A child                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

alone with horrid verities cries out                                                                                                                                                                              

for there to be a limit, a warm wall                                                                                                                                                                                         

whose stones give back an answer, however faint.                                          

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs

those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints

whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,

those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books

Moroni etched in tedious detail?

We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

Updike, like the author of Ecclesiastes, knew, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  When this world fails us—as it too often does, we need something to clutch, something to offer comfort, explanations. Even if they do nothing else, religions—including those we find exotic or strange—provide hope for their believers.

Have we the right to tell others their belief system is wrong and ours is right? Sharing our faith with those who are happy with their own is an unwelcome gift—worse than the hand-painted ceramics I feel obliged to display whenever Aunt Handi visits. At least Aunt Handi’s white elephant gifts do not come with the built-in criticism intrinsic to the uninvited sharing of religious beliefs—“My faith is better than yours. You’d be a better person if you adopted my religious practice.”

Comfort and hope are in short supply in this world that fails so many of its inhabitants. Let us not attack faith traditions which sustain their believers.

Social Mormon–An Oxymoron

Our home teacher, Brother Bleever, called for the first time in six months to make an appointment for a visit this week. I don’t fault our home teachers for their sporadic visits. Both have demanding jobs and large families. I know their limited spare time can be better spent with families needing assistance or at least with families more likely to attend meetings. But these home teachers have been fun and we’ve enjoyed their visits. Unfortunately, Brother Bleever’s fun-loving partner, Brother Lightheart, has been re-assigned and Brother Bleever’s new partner is his 16-year-old son, Earnest.

Earnest is the kind of Mormon boy who marks the days on his calendar until he can turn in his mission papers. He sat in our living room, not with the suffering face of a kid roped into going home teaching with dad, but with the resolute face of a missionary-in-training. Brother Bleever set it up for Earnest by asking why we didn’t attend church. I tried to pass it off with a flippant remark about having other things to do on Sundays. “Like what?” Earnest demanded. “I like staying home. I also attend the Zen Center quite often and sometimes the Unitarian Church.” They stared at me. “I’m ecumenical,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

“Why do you attend other churches? What are you looking for?” Brother Bleever asked. “I’ve pretty well mined the teachings of Mormonism,” I said. “I find new thoughts in other places.” George chimed in, “I’ve always been taught that the Mormon Church accepts all truth.” That let us in for an Earnest lecture and testimony on the LDS Church as the source of all truth. Then Earnest waved his Ensign preparatory to reading the lesson. “Do you take the Ensign?” he asked. “No.” “Why not?” “Since I wouldn’t read it, I like to save the trees.” “Heavenly Father gave us the trees for a purpose.”

Had Earnest been an adult, I might have given him explicit reasons why I’m no longer into Mormon theology, but I am not willing to undermine even an obnoxious young person’s testimony. The lesson finally ended. We shut the door on our departing guests and looked at each other. What do we do if they want to come back next month?

When we moved into this ward two years ago, I thought we could be “social” Mormons—attending social events, helping with service projects, visiting teaching—and be accepted as friends and neighbors. But Mormons make substantial sacrifices of time and money for their faith. Naturally, they can’t accept the notion that people who don’t make the same sacrifices can lead good and happy lives. I’m afraid that for us, attending three hours of tedious meetings each Sunday is too great a price to pay for acceptance in our neighborhood.

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