There’s Something About Mormonism

Today I’m going to tackle the sensitive and topical subject of Mormonism. In contrast to my usual style, I will attempt to do so without sarcasm and snark. I’m going to attempt to be serious.

Note: Within the context of this post, for convenience, the term “Mormonism” will be used interchangeably with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Why think about Mormonism? Why now? I think, mostly, the answer to that is Mitt Romney. He’s a serious candidate for president and, like every candidate before him, his religious views get put under a microscope and become a topic for discussion.

A quick check of recent headlines can show what I mean. I just went to Google News, searched for the word “Mormon” and these are the top 10 headlines (unedited) at the time I wrote this and in the order they originally appeared:

  • How do Mormons answer ‘not Christian’ claims?
  • Republican Candidates Dismiss Criticism of Romney as Mormon
  • Anti-Mormonism: ‘the prejudice of our age’
  • Gregg: Anti-Mormon comments are ‘hate language’
  • Huntsman dismisses Mormon controversy as “ridiculous sideshow”
  • Mormonism may not be a cult, but it is a major heresy
  • Double Take ‘Toons: Romney Pastorized?
  • A Look At Mormons And The GOP
  • Mormons: One may serve as president soon
  • Mormonism talking point ahead of GOP debate at Dartmouth

Can a Mormon be elected president? A 2008 study by BYU suggests that a Mormon faith may be one of the largest voter prejudices:

Poll question: “If you thought he or she was otherwise well qualified, would you vote for any of the following who was running for President of the United States?”

14% said they would not vote for a “black person.”
15% said they would not vote for a “Baptist.”
16% said they would not vote for a “woman.”
31% said they would not vote for a “Mormon.”

Source: BYU (link opens PDF file)

Before proceeding further, a bit of self-disclosure. I’m an atheist. As such, the religious beliefs of presidential candidates are of lesser concern to me than other factors like how their positions on various issues align with my personal beliefs. I grew up as an altar boy in the Episcopal church, but at the age of 16, I completed the process of becoming a Mormon including a peculiar form of confession, but I was never baptized. I was a minor at the time and my mother refused to give me permission.

To me, being a devout Mormon is no more strange than someone like George W. Bush praying to God for insight regarding a particular course of action.

Unfortunately, the BYU study mentioned above didn’t look at atheism. The Deseret News (owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) may call anti-Mormonism the “prejudice of our age” but other studies suggest that atheism would do even worse. There has never been an atheist president, at least not one openly so.

The religious affiliations of Presidents of the United States can affect their electability, shape their visions of society and how they want to lead it, and shape their stances on policy matters. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and William Howard Taft were accused of being atheists during election campaigns, while others to hold the office used faith as a defining aspect of their campaigns and tenure.

Throughout much of American history, the religion of past American presidents has been the subject of contentious debate. Some devout Christian Americans have been disinclined to believe that there may have been non-religious or even non-Christian presidents, especially amongst the Founding Fathers of the United States. As a result, apocryphal stories of a religious nature have appeared over the years about particularly beloved presidents such as Washington and Lincoln.

Almost all of the presidents can be characterized as Christian, at least by formal membership. Some were Unitarian or unaffiliated with a specific religious body. Some are thought to have been deists, or irreligious. No president thus far has been an Atheist, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sikh or an adherent of any other specifically non-Christian religion.

Source: Wikipedia

If you want to be the President of the United States, the evidence is clear: You had better declare your Christianity for all to see. If you don’t, history says you cannot win.

Thus, a declaration that Mormonism is not “Christian” or that it is a “cult” is a very serious matter to the electability of someone like Romney.

Is Mormonism a cult? To answer that, you have to define the word “cult” and then apply that definition to Mormonism. Unfortunately, there is no obvious right or wrong answer. Perhaps you could identify a list of twenty characteristics that are common to “cults.” In my opinion, Mormonism would have some of those characteristics but not all. Many of them would be debatable.

For example, one trait that most would accept as cult-like would be giving all of your money to your church. And even selling your worldly goods to give that money, too. Most of us would accept that giving all is a clear sign of a cult. In the church I was raised, we were not taught to tithe. We gave what we could and it was not measured, kept track of, or required. Mormonism requires something that falls in between those two extremes, specifically 10 percent of gross income and that it is “mandatory.” I actually think this is quite clever. If it was too much more than 10 percent the “cult” accusation would have a lot of traction.

Are Mormons “Christians?” Again, this is a controversial and highly debatable question. A Google search finds many possible answers. Some say that Mormons are not “Biblical Christians.” Some say the Bible itself warns against other gospels being preached, but Mormons have another book they say adds more to the story of Jesus Christ. (That he visited the Americas, etc.)

A lot of this stuff, to me, falls into the category of, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Is God one entity or three distinct ones? As an atheist, such matters of distinction don’t matter much to me. I don’t believe in any of them. However, the question regarding the “Christianity” of Mormons is an important one when it comes to presidential politics.

Screenshot of videos found on the Mormon.org YouTube channel.

What do Mormons believe? That can be a tricky area. In my opinion they are not up front about it. The Head of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says that if you want to know more about Mormonism you should go visit mormon.org. On that site you’ll find a series of videos that tell the stories of individual Mormons. For a long time I saw videos like these also on YouTube, usually with a title like, “I am a Mormon.”

What do these videos have to say?

Take a look at the screenshot on the left and you’ll begin to get the idea. The videos focus on the people who are Mormons. If we apply a bit of critical thought it becomes obvious what is not featured in the videos.

What is Mormonism about? What do Mormons believe?

These commercials for Mormonism fail to illuminate about the product. Instead, they feature happy customers.

Thinking back to my youth and when I was being taught about Mormonism during a series of meetings, I remember distinctly that the controversial stuff was left out.

I can’t argue that Mormons are not nice people. My firsthand empirical observations is that Mormons are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They are quick to lend a helping hand, very friendly and even good listeners. Mostly. On the other hand, I’ve known a couple (like my boss) who don’t always measure up to that. (Let’s just say he is ethically-challenged.)

So Mormons are just like the rest of us. Some nice, some not, although it does seem like they are more nice than not. So an advertising campaign telling me that Mormons are nice, interesting people isn’t really that meaningful, I think.

If you want to know more about what Mormons believe, sometimes you are told to simply ask. I tried that regarding some of the more controversial type of stuff I’d seen and heard on the internet. The response I got was not a denial. I was actually told, “Just like you are private about some of your affairs, well so are we.” In essence I was told: “We can’t share certain things with you until you are one of us.”

I was a little stunned about this. It begs the obvious response, “How can someone make an informed decision about joining without knowing what the beliefs are?” It seems a bit like buying a car without knowing what the payment will be. How many of us would be fine with, “Don’t worry. We’ll let you know.”

One question I asked was, “Is tithing mandatory? Is there anything reserved from those who do not tithe?” The person I asked admitted that while you do not have to tithe, a member who does not will not partake in everything the church has to offer.

Here’s a list I found on the internet regarding 10 “bizarre” Mormon beliefs. I have no idea about how accurate or truthful these may be. For some strange reason, it is extremely difficult to get straight answers and information about what Mormons really believe.

  • Tithing
  • Pleasure in Life
  • Spirits
  • Modern Revelation
  • Jesus visited the Americas
  • The Nature of God
  • Priesthood
  • Multiple Heavens
  • Forgiveness
  • Multiple Worlds and Multiple Gods

For more detail about these items, including foundational scripture references, the list can be found here on an anti-Mormon website.

I read a blog entry by a Mormon that took umbrage about the assertion that Mormons can become Gods. The blog started by criticizing those kinds of “attacks” and concluded with the argument (paraphrased), “Forever is a really long time. With that much eternity is it really so far-fetched that we would continue to grow?” In other words, the author was offended by the statement but basically concluded that it accurately reflected his belief. To me, that is illustrative about the difficulty to getting straight answers to simple questions about what Mormons really believe.

Lastly, the Mormon church claims over 14 million members worldwide and clearly has an eye on growth. This is witnessed by their aggressive missionary program, attitudes towards procreation (God’s spirit children) and public relations media campaigns.

Will Mitt Romney be president? I don’t know. I consider it doubtful. Either way, the fact that he is a Mormon may or may not have something to do with the outcome. Should it? What do you think? Should religion affect presidential elections? Is Mormonism a cult? Are Mormons “Christian?” Are these the most important questions that we face as a nation?

No, this is not a scene from Star Wars. This is the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. All of the untaxed money collected via tithing has to go somewhere. Click image to enlarge. Source: Wikipedia.

21 responses

  1. I appreciate the balance and honesty in this post. Mormonism may be no stranger than some aspects of Christianity – and is certainly not stranger than beliefs from parts of the Book of Revelation or parts of the Old Testament, but I would have thought the wierdest belief claims are from the beginnings of Mormonism. For example the Book of Abraham and the Pearl of Great Price were translated by Joseph Smith from fragments of Egyptian Papyrii (which at the time were accepted because they were not able to be translated by anyone else) Since the orginals were kept (and have been photocopied), when years later, scholars were able to translate hieroglyphs the Church leaders asked the Egyptian scholars to retranslate them to confirm Joseph Smith’s inspired ability – and they turned out to be instructions for laying out the dead. An acquaintance of mine (a Mormon Bishop) asked some questions about this and was excommunicated!

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    1. Hi there and thanks for the comment! I did make an effort to be balanced and honest. It pleases me that you noticed that.

      I recently heard about the Egyptian scrolls that were “translated” by Joseph Smith, too. If Joseph Smith was nothing more than a con man, he was a successful one as witnessed by the claimed 14.1 million Mormons. That’s not to say that the religion isn’t populated by true believers. I’m sure most of them are. If the religion’s beliefs aren’t true then I personally find that quite sad.

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  2. Really good post.

    I have to say that I’ve reached a point in my life where if someone is very vocal about their religious beliefs that actually strikes as a count against them. Strict adherence to a certain theological dogma seems to me to be the hallmark of someone that has no capacity for critical thought, which is something that I’d prefer in a candidate. I wish a candidate could get up there and say, “I was raised Christian, and I believe in God, but I find myself questioning those beliefs all the time…”

    As for Mormonism, I imagine that its early tenets are probably no wackier than Christianity’s were in its first couple of centuries. The Mormons have been done a disservice because they started their religion during a time from which we have a much richer historical record. I mean really — is an angel showing Joseph Smith the Golden Plates on a hill in upstate NY substantially any different God appearing to Moses as a Burning Bush and issuing the Ten Commandment on the slopes of Mt. Sinai?

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    1. Thanks!

      As an atheist, I’m almost never offended when someone takes an interest in the fate of my eternal soul. I take that as a thoughtful gesture. Most people I’ve met are happy enough to make their case, listen to what I have to say, then agree to disagree. I’m very happy when it turns out like that, although they may secretly be saying to themselves, “That dude is going to Hell for sure.”

      The thing with Mormonism and Christianity, too, is how much tweaking has been done along the way. I was reading about the Nicene Creed while researching this post. They actually held conferences on that topic that I feel were held to decide on things like interpretation which then led to doctrine. Why would stuff like that be necessary if God simply imparted his will? Why is God’s law subject to so damn much human interpretation.

      Perhaps it’s because of how I raised, but some of the Mormon stuff seems a bit more strange than what I learned during my Episcopalian youth.

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  3. Read ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ by Jon Krakauer [http://www.amazon.com/dp/1400032806/] for an unbiased history of the church. It also includes a fair summation of what the Mormon church preaches as part of its core dogma, and the more extreme beliefs of various sects, such as Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_jeffs] (which is almost certainly a cult).

    There is nothing about Mormonism that is any more ridiculous than any other religion.

    Like other religions, Mormons are always on about the need for acceptance and religious tolerance. However, where they have achieved positions of political power, Latter Day Saints have generally made it their business to exclude and persecute other religions.

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    1. You know what? I have a copy of “Into Thin Air” sitting here in my office just begging to be read. Lately, it seems that Jon Krakauer’s name keeps getting mentioned to me. I may have to take that as a sign and check out his other stuff.

      I’d love to know more about the history of the Mormon church and their beliefs, but the net is filled with so much information and disinformation. It leaves me feeling unsure about what to believe.

      I am very skeptical that if God exists he would wait almost two millennium from the time of Jesus Christ to reveal the one true religion.

      I agree with you. I personally felt there was a note of hypocrisy in the cry that anti-Mormonism is the prejudice of our age.

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      1. I can give big recommendations for both “Into Thin Air” and “Under The Banner of Heaven” — great books, and I’m not a huge non-fiction reader.

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  4. Nice post, you definitely worked on it! I’m with Steve. People who profess “too much” about how religious they are put me off.

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    1. Thanks! I had a day off and decided to spend some extra time. More time = more words, but not necessarily better ones.

      I have another post on the back burner about religion, atheism and faith. Hopefully soon.

      I think you just said a mouthful. We all have differing opinions and points of view. Anyone who thinks they are more insightful about the human experience than anyone else is probably not.

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  5. I know quite a few Mormons. I have them for neighbors. I’ve studied their religion enough to know everything you’ve posted about them already. Frankly, the only thing that concerns me is the social agenda. From that perspective they’re purely conservative, which has always been my issue. I don’t mind conservative economic viewpoints, but I dislike conservative social viewpoints. And Mormons are completely inline with conservative Christians on almost all those issues.

    Out of the current lineup in the fruit loop category though, I’d pick Romney. I don’t give a shit about his religion. Now, if he were a Scientologist, I might feel different. But why? That’s a good question. I guess I’d see a Scientologist as more likely to accept weird BS as fact than a Mormon. But is that really a correct assessment?

    Given a choice between a Scientologist and a Mormon, which would you pick?

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    1. In a posting entitled “Let there be light!” on LDS.org in Nov. 2010, Elder Cook wrote:

      As Church leaders, we have met with leaders of other faiths and have found that there is a common moral foundation that transcends theological differences and unites us in our aspirations for a better society.

      In our increasingly unrighteous world, it is essential that values based on religious belief be part of the public discourse. Moral positions informed by a religious conscience must be accorded equal access to the public square. Under the constitutions of most countries, a religious conscience may not be given preference, but neither should it be disregarded.

      Source: LDS.org

      So yes, it is quite clear that they expect a seat at the table of public policy making. I agree that they are very interested in their social agenda. The LDS church claimed to stay out of politics but their position on Prop. 8 in California seemed to me to be very much one of “plausible deniability.” Perhaps I’d be less worried about their motives if they were just up front about it. But the approach of “have our cake and eat it too” concerns me. I think if churches decide to dabble in politics then they should lose their tax-exempt status.

      I did a post about Romney and his chameleon-like history that concerns me and that had nothing to do with his religious beliefs. But, all things being equal, I’d vote for the Mormon over the Scientologist.

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  6. What religion doesn’t have cult-like qualities? But, yeah, unless a candidate intends on forcing his dogma on public policy, then it really shouldn’t matter what his religion is.

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    1. I’ve been reading up on Mormons. Some of their stuff is really wacky. Maybe that’s just unfamiliarity. For some strange reason the stuff I grew up with seems more “normal,” but perhaps that is just some sort of familiarity bias.

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  7. Very good post. Being somewhat curious about religion in general I was feeling guilty that I knew nothing about Mormonism. Thank you for confirming my belief that they are somewhat secretive. To me, that’s not such a great thing. Romney does seem like a nice guy – I live in Massachusetts and we have many Jehova’s Witnesses too. They are above-and-beyond nice. They raise their children to pick up after themselves; they drive polietly, and they’re even against pollution and breeding in captivity, which blew my mind. All good. Of course you have the usual downfall that they argue for ID against evolution, which kind of dismisses them as a decent religion. Nice folks, though.

    The problem is that having lived under Romney’s rule, no one should mistake him as a benevolent guy. He tried to wiretap mosques, use an old racist law to prohibit gay marriage, and he is responsible for mandatory health care in Massachusetts. Which people nationally seem to think is fine except that MassHealth (for poor people) has denied many for insurance even though they clearly qualify. That means that poor people have to forfeit their refund. If you make enough money to owe, you’re not penalized. No one should mistake this man for kind or benevolent. He is just as evil as the rest of them.

    Good questions you posed though, I don’t think these religions are cults; they’re more akin to political parties at this point.

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    1. Yes, they are secretive. Their culture is not to discuss some things, even with other Mormons, unless they are in the privacy of a temple. That’s another indicator in favor of “cult,” methinks.

      They also view themselves as the only true religion yet decry the critical opinions of others as “prejudice.” I’ve always found that sort of thing awfully convenient, although it isn’t strictly reserved to Mormons.

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  8. It strikes me that this controversy got started at “The values voters summit”. Prejudice is a value? Conservative Christian values are the only values? By definition, other values are not values at all, I guess.

    Auuuuuuuugh!

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    1. Make no mistake about it. Pushing their values is very much on the agenda. Collectively all religions want a seat at that policy-making table.

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  9. Deborah the Closet Monster | Reply

    I know some Mormons who are very good, very loving people, but Mormonism troubles me for some of the same reasons Scientology does–aggressive growth campaigning and ostracizing of departed members principally. The latter is one of the hallmarks of a cult to me: “You must belong and do our bidding or we will make you hurt.”

    My mom was born into a family that had been Mormon for many generations. She decided very early on that she wasn’t interested in a religion that only granted her access to heaven if her husband called her there. She was more interested in gaining access to heaven through her own acts.

    Despite the torment she faced for this choice, she stuck with it: she was emphatically not Mormon.

    She was cut out of family members’ lives unless she returned to the fold, so that when I told her that one of her aunts had actually said she wanted to be in touch with me whether I was Mormon or not, she was surprised. “She’s growing, then,” my mom said.

    Later, I had a chance to meet my mom’s cousin. I said I’d be delighted to maintain a relationship as long as it was proselytizing-free. I was suspicious that it wouldn’t last, and I was right.

    When I sent the 30th birthday letter I’ll be posting on my site in a couple of weeks, I included a bullet about converting to Judaism. In response, my mom’s cousin said I needed spirituality to be a good medical practitioner. Answer: read the Book of Mormon.

    My response to him was less than scathing, but far from kind. We haven’t exchanged emails since his inflammatory reply about my being “defensive.”

    When my mom was dying, I emailed her aunt and asked the aunt to convey to my mom’s siblings that they were welcome to call me and say their farewells provided those farewells were both anger and drama-free. We got both proselytizing and drama, but the end result was that my mom knew the peace of saying goodbye to her siblings before she died.

    I would’ve dealt with a thousand hours of proselytizing for that. Worth it.

    Her siblings then reached out and told me and my siblings that we should mend fences. I wrote back on behalf of all my siblings saying that we would be forever grateful they eased mom’s last days with their farewells, but that fences cannot be mended if they didn’t exist in the first place.

    In the wake of that, my youngest sister tried contacting my uncle for our cousins’ contact info.

    The answer? “Not until you’re Mormon.”

    . . .

    Yeah, because that approach worked so well with my mom.

    Whenever people try to control and dominate others for their desired end result, you will find me further resolved to never give in. A lot of people called my mom a bad mom, but as in many cases, this is one area in which I resolve to forever be like my mom.

    This is the truth as I know it. The things that are concealed and those that are revealed are irrelevant to the fact I have met too many Mormon refugees with stories like my mom’s to call it one family’s failure to practice the word.

    So now, I hate to say, when someone identifies as a Mormon, I realize that while many will be kind because they are kind people, others will be kind to me only until the moment I say equivocally I will never, ever consider converting. That is all the moreso after reading the Book of Mormon, and parenting a biracial child.

    Like you said above, I believe someone can be both Mormon and wonderful, but a lifetime of witnessing some really unbelievable encounters means instantaneous wariness I have to actually work to overcome. And work I do, when it is warranted.

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    1. I never properly acknowledged this wonderful comment. Sorry about that. I fully intended to work hard on a worthy reply and never got to it. For that, I apologize. Thanks for sharing and adding so much to the discussion!

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  10. I think you showed great restraint writing about Mormonism, since it SO lends itself to snark. I can safely say this on your blog since my Mormon in-laws are too busy sending out mass mailings 24/7 that Obama is a Muslim. You get the picture. Yes, I married a Mormon (now a happy ex-Mormon, though they never really take you out of their celestial database.). They are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Critical thinkers is not a term that comes to mind though when I think of Mormons.

    It’s interesting that a number of the young people in my son’s generation (20s) have left the church though my in-laws would never admit to this. One came to this realization while on his mission in El Salvador. He was confounded by how impoverished so many of the people were, but they were happy. It occurred to him that he was basically selling snake oil.

    As an atheist (as is my husband also), my favorite joke is about the group of people who had died and were being given a tour of Heaven. They finally asked why everyone was whispering. They were told, “It’s because we don’t want the Mormons to hear us. They think they’re the only ones here.”

    Also, Under the Banner of Heaven is an excellent book. Probably made even better because the LDS Church fought so hard to suppress it.

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    1. If Mormons are nice people, then ex-Mormons have to be a quantum leap in niceness! 🙂 Lucky you.

      I do agree there seems to be a bit of a double standard from Mormons. “Be open-minded about us,” they say. It seems very important to them to be viewed as Christian and mainstream. No doubt this is to support their dreams of “exponential” membership growth. Yet even though they desire open minds about their faith, they seem to offer very little of the same in return.

      My boss’ wife has been married twice. She was “sealed” in the Temple with her first husband. He then turned out to be a flaming douchebag. Ooops. That’s the wrong person to be “sealed” with for all eternity. Luckily, the process of “sealing” – even though it implies permanence – is easily reversible. Today you are sealed for all eternity with your loved one in the kingdom of heaven. Now just a bit of paperwork and, “Viola!” You are no longer attached to that person for eternity and are free to go out and do it again with someone else. Indeed, the paperwork inside the Mormon church really has a lot of power.

      I really will have to check out that book!

      Like

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