Is the LDS Church in Decline in Europe?

June 30, 2008

A further sign that all is not well for the LDS church in Europe is the latest administrative consolidation. Ten years ago, Europe was divided into three administrative “areas” (West, Central, and East) each presided over by three General Authorities or Area Authorities. With the church’s announcement, the number of areas now stands at one.

As a friend of mine noted, “Growing businesses don’t consolidate their structures. Businesses in trouble do.” It’s been well-known that the church’s growth rates in Europe have been flatlining or in decline for several years. This has to be particularly galling, considering that twenty years ago only Western Europe was open for missionary work. The fall of the Iron Curtain was widely expected to bring about major growth for the church in previously untapped countries. Instead, the church has a miniscule presence in Eastern Europe and has been stagnating in Western Europe.

Nevertheless, the First Presidency tries to sound upbeat and positive: “As we have prayerfully considered the matter of how to more effectively establish the Church in all the world as required by the revelations, we have felt impressed to reduce the current number of areas and to place upon Area Presidencies an increased responsibility for the operation of the Church.”

I read this as a possible warning that more consolidation is coming in the future. The church is not going to go away anytime soon, but it’s clear that the salad days of rapid growth are long over.

Saturday at Temple Square

June 29, 2008

I had some time to kill on a miserably hot Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City, so for whatever reason, I headed over to Temple Square, where I had planned on finding a shady spot and reading. I pulled my car into the underground parking lot on West Temple and parked next to an SUV with California license plates and two bumper stickers: “Families Are Forever” and “Marriage = Husband + Wife.” I need not point out the irony of the second one.

I got out of my car and walked up a stairwell into the massive Conference Center and out into a courtyard bordering North Temple. Up close, I noticed that the walkways and courtyard were a dark pink granite that stood out oddly from the light gray granite walls; incidentally, at least one-third to one-half of the granite tiles of the facade appear to have been patched fairly recently, as if they are having trouble keeping their integrity.

Crossing the street, I entered the north gate of Temple Square. For some reason, they have police-style barricades blocking off the approaches to the North Visitors’ Center so that people can enter only through a strait and narrow passageway. I must have looked a sight–I was badly sunburned (long story) and wearing an old t-shirt and jeans–because a smiling, dark-haired sister missionary approached with some literature and then turned away wordlessly to rejoin her companion.

Inside the visitors’ center not a whole lot has change since the last time I was there several years ago, except for a large video screen playing a short presentation about eternal families. Downstairs in a glass case were two mannequins portraying Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which I had not seen before.

Near the restroom a white-haired docent was talking to a balding white guy with several hispanic children in tow. I didn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but I did catch this: “I know his parents wouldn’t approve, and I don’t want to be devious or go behind their backs, but is there some private room where we could take him without having to let them know about it?” The docent said she was sure they could find a place.

Back outside I walked around to the Nauvoo Bell, where the descriptive sign I wrote so long ago still stands (pretty fine writing, if you ask me). I passed several bronze statues depicting events in Joseph Smith’s life and the small stone platform where Orson Pratt had used his telescope, and then I sat on a bench just south and east of the temple, where several wedding parties were having their pictures taken. I thought of the cloudy and windy July day 21 years ago when my wife and I had stood on those same steps, about to begin our married life. Tears came as I grieved for the naive young man of so long ago and for the absolute faith I had once had.

Soon I was brought back to reality by a tour group going by, a sister missionary with a Latina accent and a wireless headset explaining about the difference between a marriage and a sealing. A kinky-haired, elderly woman in a tank top and sunglasses leaned close to her husband to say, “It says that gold thing on top is an angel. His name is Moroney.”

I ventured across to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, again oddly proud of having worked on all the “signage” in the building. Two statues of the Prophet Joseph Smith watch over the ornate lobby, which is kind of beautiful in an over-the-top baroque sort of way. People were milling about, but you can hardly hear anything in there over the roar of two large air-conditioning vents near the front windows.

Back I walked through Temple Square, once again unmolested by the sisters, until I found a spot outside the north gate under a tree on the grass strip between sidewalk and curb, where I opened a book and began reading. Just east was the entrance to the temple, and just as they were fifteen years ago, homeless people stood outside panhandling, apparently in the belief that people coming out of the temple would be in a charitable mood. It wasn’t long before one of them, who looked to be about my age or younger, asked me if I had some spare change. I gave him what was in my pocket (maybe a dollar and a half), and he thanked me and went back to his post.

A few minutes later, one of the other panhandlers approached, a man with bad teeth wearing a filthy blue t-shirt. Just as I was about to tell him I had no more money, he handed me a Sam’s Club water bottle and said, “Somebody gave me more of these than I need. You look like you could use this.” I didn’t know what to say except, “Thank you,” and he smiled and walked back to resume panhandling.

As I sat reading and drinking the water, I thought of the Good Samaritan display downstairs. Of all the people I saw that day, the one man I least expected showed me kindness and empathy. It’s those small moments that are so meaningful in life, and I was deeply moved by this one. I don’t know who that man is or what his situation is, but he reminded me of the human capacity for kindness and charity.

The Human Cost of Doctrine

June 27, 2008

This is from a former mission president:

The phone rang late one night. My wife answered it and shook me with some urgency, something about one of the elders really needs you. Rising from the fog of sleep and forcing myself to pass into consciousness I mumbled a groggy hello.

“President, it’s over. I can’t I just can’t …… I think you need to send me home”, he nearly yelled into the phone. His despair quite apparent.

“What’s wrong elder, what has happened”, I was suddenly very much awake.

“President, I’m GAY ok? I’m GAY! I thought Heavenly Father would fix me if I was a good missionary. I’ve done everything I can, but it’s just getting worse. Why am I like this? What did I do? It’s not fair. I need to go home”.

“Elder, bring your companion and catch the early express train. It get’s here about 9:00 AM. I’ll send your comp with one of my AP’s and we’ll go have breakfast. Don’t worry elder, don’t panic, it will be ok”, I said.

He started to cry and agreed to meet me. He was a great missionary, one of my best., and a wonderful person. My heart ached, I never fell back into sleep that night.

Over breakfast in a quiet European sidewalk café he told me he’d known from a very early age that he had an attraction to the same sex. He’d never acted on it, in fact had gone out of his way to date young women, and yet there it was. Constantly gnawing at his desire, men catching his attention. We talked into the afternoon. I helped him to understand that this was not something he had chosen, Neither was it punishment for some sin. It simply is the way it is. He did have a choice though, His choice was whom or what would have his allegiance. He could be true to himself, or he could be true to his religion. I didn’t see how he could do both. Although Mormonism has made some progress, it has not arrived at the point of embracing it’s sexually active homosexual members. The two concepts are mutually exclusive. I didn’t at the time know which choice was best. Both choices seemed to have their pros and cons. He began to sob, his body convulsing.

I put my arms around him and held him until he regained his composure. I told him I loved him. I felt his tears soak through the fabric of my shirt and onto my shoulder, the tenseness of his body ridged with pain. He cried and with each tear he seemed to release years of pain, of hiding, of shame and self loathing. He’d endured a lot to cover his secret. Why? It made me angry that he or anyone should have to endure such meaningless anguish. It was then and there at that very moment that I finally and forever understood bigotry and it’s power to destroy.

What kinds of gods do people create, so often full of hatred, anger and bigotry? Members of the LDS faith were once persecuted, hated and driven from their homes, in part by other religious zealots repulsed by unconventional “marriages.” Now, come full circle, the once-bullied have joined themselves with the bullies in the voice of bigotry as they battle their boogeymen.

American youths and innocent civilians continue to die in an unjustifiable war. Greed leads to gas prices climbing into the stratosphere. Millions of innocents die of still uncured viruses. Religion- and ethnic-induced hatreds rage worldwide. Poverty runs amok and the poor starve. Yet when the Mormon God speaks, he speaks out against two people who love each other and want to express that love in a committed formal way.

I imagine a day will come when the LDS Church will regret lending its support to a failed president and a failed constitutional amendment that did nothing more than divide a nation and rally bigoted and frightened people to the ballot box. The attempt to amend the constitution of the United States failed, Utah and it’s Mormon theocracy would still march forward, reaching out to hate someone. Mormon legislators in the Utah State Government continue even today in the crusade against the rights and pursuit of happiness of those they fear and misunderstand.

There is a parallel with the way the LDS Church today marginalizes the gay community much as it once marginalized the black community. To previous generations of Mormons, blacks were descendants of Cain and less valiant in their pre-mortal days, a lower class. I wonder what future prophet will become enlightened as to the fact that all are equal in the eyes of a just creator? Who or whatever that may be.

All the time I hear LDS church members dismissing homosexuals as “perverts” who are just dealing with a temptation to sin in a specific way. The reasoning is that the “natural man is an enemy to God” and that homosexuals just need to conquer their natural desires, and everything will be fine.

Frankly, the idea that there are two “yous” inside of you, the good spirit and the evil “natural man” of the flesh, is one of the most pernicious teachings of Mormonism. This doctrine puts people at war with themselves and forces them to deny their true selves. As the writer puts it, “He could be true to himself, or he could be true to his religion.” That’s a really awful choice to have to make.

Thomas Monson has often repeated Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” But Polonius, obsequious hypocrite that he was, didn’t really mean it. And neither do the Mormons.

The Book of Mormon Proves Itself False

June 26, 2008

From my good friend Chris Smith:

Parley Pratt wrote in 1838 that the Book of Mormon

set the time for the overthrow of our government and all other Gentile governments on the American continent, but the way and means of this utter destruction are clearly foretold, namely the remnant of Jacob [the Indians] will go through among the Gentiles and tear them to pieces, like a lion among the flocks of sheep.…This destruction includes an utter overthrow, and desolation of all our cities, Forts, and Strong Holds—an entire annihilation of our race, except such as embrace the covenant, and are numbered among Israel.

Pratt also added,

I will state as a prophecy, that there will not be an unbelieving Gentile upon this continent 50 years hence; and if they are not greatly scourged, and in a great measure overthrown, within five or ten years of this date, then the Book of Mormon will have proved itself false.

It would appear that according to this early Mormon apostle, the case is closed. The Book of Mormon is false; game over.

Good night, everybody!

The Price of Fear

June 26, 2008

Last night I must have been really bored, as I sat with my daughter and watched a show called Britain’s Worst Teeth on BBC America.

Essentially, they followed four people, all in their twenties, who out of fear had avoided the dentist for many years, even though they had serious dental problems. One woman had severe damage from bulimia, her teeth smoothly worn stumps from acid burn. Another woman, a self-confessed sugar addict, had pervasive decay in her mouth. But the worst were two siblings, a brother and sister, who both suffered from an irrational fear of the dentist.

Both siblings were so terrified of the dentist that they underwent hynotherapy just to get them calm enough to travel to the dentist’s office. Outside the office, the sister began shaking and vomited several times, until the hynotherapist calmed her down enough to get into the office. Once there, the brother got the treatment he needed (though he had to be sedated), whereas the sister never got past just a basic cleaning (and I learned that watching a dentist pick large chunks of plaque is quite nauseating).

I watched this poor girl suffer (even eating soft foods is painful for her) and thought how, even with a mouth full of rotten teeth, the treatment is nowhere near as bad as living like that. But her fears had become so overwhelming she just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t get the help she needed. The contrast between her brother, who was thrilled with his new life, and her pain and reclusiveness was heartbreaking.

It reminded me that we all have our irrational fears that keep us from growing and learning, whether it’s our fear that our religious beliefs might not be true, or it’s our fear of trying something daring or new.

I used to have this crippling fear of embarrassing myself in public. I would avoid public speaking like the plague, and I had trouble even talking to cashiers and salespeople in stores. As I mentioned in another post, I’m grateful that my church experience helped me overcome that fear.

I’ve also had a problem with confidence in my writing abilities. When I finished my master’s thesis, my first thought was, “This really sucks.” But blogging and writing here have helped me overcome that fear of failure, and I’m writing a book now.

So, what are your fears? What are they holding you back from? And what have you overcome?

Don’t Trust Smart People

June 25, 2008

One of Joseph Smith’s geniuses was his ability to anticipate and deal with objections to his movement. One can only stand in awe of the way he waved off inevitable skepticism of his tall tales.

Joseph had to have known that most intelligent, educated people, even in his day, would reject fantastic tales of Israelites traveling to the New World in submarines. He appears to have anticipated widespread rejection of his claims with this passage early in the Book of Mormon:

26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.

27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.

28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost. (1 Nephi 8:26-28.)

This is really brilliant in that it accomplishes two objectives: it labels all skepticism as mocking and scoffing by proud and worldly (and evil, of course) people, and it tells us that church members who come to disbelieve are really just giving in to pride, shame, and peer pressure.

Indeed, throughout LDS scriptures, we are warned that education and intelligence are not to be trusted:

O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. (2 Nephi 9:28.)

Similarly, Joseph Smith anticipated that educated people would reject the evidence for his scripture. He sent Martin Harris to show a copy of some alleged Book of Mormon “caractors” to one Professor Charles Anthon. After Anthon rejected the transcript, Joseph made sure to include this in the Book of Mormon:

14 Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God!
15 But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them.
16 And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God.
17 And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed.
18 Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it.
19 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned.
20 Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.

Again, this is pretty brilliant. Essentially, Joseph Smith tells us that anyone who rejects the evidence does so “because of the glory of the world and to get gain.” Rather than put any faith in someone who could actually analyze the claims Joseph Smith made, we are to put our trust in a small group of handpicked “witnesses” who tell us an angel showed them the plates.

Thus, the contrast is always between the learned and prideful who expect real evidence before taking a known grifter at his word and those who humble themselves before God and accept things at face value.

It’s not surprising that the positives (faith, humility, steadfastness) lead toward believing Joseph Smith and the negatives (pride, mocking, worldliness) lead us toward healthy skepticism.

I’ve been told I have “intellectualized” Mormonism. Apparently, that’s a worse sin than, say, bedding teenagers and married women.

What’s weird about this is that Mormonism emphasizes education as a means of personal growth and as a way to support your family. But there’s this curious disconnect that derides education and intellect when they are pointed at Mormonism.

But what do I know? I’m one of those prideful folks pointing fingers from the great and spacious building.

Polygamy and Port-a-potties

June 24, 2008

In an illustration of just how silly things can get in the competition between religions, the worlds of Mormons and Evangelicals collided last weekend at the Miracle Pageant outside the LDS temple in Manti, Utah. I’ve never been to one of these events, but I understand it’s kind of a cheesy, glitzy musical production having something to do with Mormonism.

Anyhow, whenever there is a Mormon gathering of more than, say, 100 people, there is sure to be a contingent of Evangelicals protesting loudly that Mormonism is leading its followers down the slip-n-slide to hell. Sometimes they wave temple garments or drag LDS scriptures on the ground (both tasteless and reprehensible acts, I need not say), but usually they are just loud and obnoxious, and they try to egg on the Mormon onlookers (usually someone takes the bait).

This year, however, they did something that I have to say was quite clever. They had 34 women dress in period costumes, each wearing a label identifying them as one of Joseph Smith’s wives (with the age and, I think, the marital status). They didn’t cause a fuss; they apparently just stood there in front of a lot of confused Mormons.

Standing outside for hours on end, they at some point needed to use the rest room facilities. An indignant protester tells us,

Okay, so here’s the latest I know. One night, Friday, the Mormons with police and security said that Christians couldn’t use the bathrooms. Now, from what I understand the bathrooms were on private property. But, they were open to the public. So, everyone was using them. No big deal.

What apparently started the problem were the 34 women dressed sequentially, 1, 2, 3, 4…., as Joseph Smith’s MANY wives. They had signs around their necks saying which of the wives they were portraying. They were standing in a line, polite, smiling, talking, doing NOTHING other than that.

We “heard” that THAT is what upset the mormons. Why? I don’t know. Anyway, they forbade those women from using the bathrooms, which were about 100 feet away. They also forbade other Christians from the bathrooms as well. Apparently, they had ID’d who the “anti’s” were and were segregating which people could use the bathrooms.

Now… was it the Mormon’s right to say who could and couldn’t use the restrooms which were just off of a public street? I don’t know. But, let’s say they did. So………. how galant of them. How loving it was to do that.

So, the next night, I drank only a little water, “held my own” and endured about 3.5 hours of heat, talking, and complete misrepresentation by the Mormons of what Christianity was. But, I have to say that I didn’t see any security blocking the entrance to the bathrooms last night (Saturday).

Would I have given ANY Mormon some water? yep! Would I have let ANY Mormon use “my” bathroom if the situation were different? You betcha! Would I have blessed those who were “persecuting” me? Absolutely!

I’m sorry, but this is hysterically funny. On the one hand, you have people out there protesting and insulting Mormons, and then waxing righteously indignant that the people they insulted won’t let them use the bathrooms.

And on the other hand, it is sort of petty to deny someone the use of a bathroom.

So, if I have to choose between two competing displays of pettiness, I’d say the Mormons are more in the right (but only slightly).

Of course, it goes without saying that I’m being really petty in mocking both sides.

In praise of civility

June 24, 2008

I’m always amazed at what minor things can set people off into a rage. Today I stated the obvious, that the LDS church as an institution (and most of its members) stood on the sidelines of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. This would seem pretty noncontroversial. While Martin Luther King was being beaten and jailed, the LDS church was defending its exclusion of black men from the priesthood and warning that King and his movement were Communist-directed troublemakers.

But for saying that the church and most members were uninvolved in the movement, I was told that I have a “jaundiced worldview and bigoted agenda against all things Mormon,” among other similar expressions of hate.

I never have understood people getting so angry about religion. Any disagreement is seen as an attack, and even the most inocuous statement is seen as a vile distortion of all that is true and good.

This little exchange reminded me of how much I appreciate civil dialogue, even when the two sides are far apart. It’s certainly possible, but I find that the more time I spend around certain people, the less agreeable and charitable they become.

But I guess that with the openly hostile, you know what you’re getting.

Anyway, thanks to the posters here who have managed to discuss things with kindness and civility.

Religion Is Bullshit

June 23, 2008

I’m really going to miss George Carlin.

What if no one showed up?

June 23, 2008

A good friend of mine is an elders quorum president here in Utah, and he was talking to me about an idea he had for an “object” lesson in church: have people arrive for sacrament meeting to find that nothing is prepared; no speakers, no sacrament prepared, no chorister or organist. Nothing. Then he said he would let people sit awkwardly for 15 minutes or so and then talk about how the ward requires the participation of its members to function.

What spurred this lesson idea? My friend is frustrated at the lack of commitment and participation among members of his ward. Roughly ten years ago when I was in his shoes as a young elders quorum president, I noticed that the same small group of people were doing everything in the ward. If I asked for help in a service project, the same people always showed up. We used to joke that ward council was just musical chairs because the same people traded callings every few years.

To me, this problem is a sign of waning commitment and faith within Mormonism. I suspect that the experience of these two elders quorum presidents is pretty standard. As my friend put it, “Too many people are sitting in the foyer.” They are in the church but not of it. They attend their meetings and go to the activities, but they aren’t dedicated enough to sacrifice for their religion.

Of course, there are millions of dedicated and faithful Mormons around the world, but if our experience is at all representative, they are in the minority. And if the trend is toward less commitment, the future doesn’t look good for Mormonism, a religion that demands commitment if there ever were one. Oddly enough, many of the former Mormons I know are the type of people who were extremely dedicated (I know I was), whereas a lot of the active Mormons I know are the ones telling me that they don’t take their religion seriously and neither should I.

So, how is the church going to increase dedication and participation? I would submit that their current efforts aren’t working very well. What they seem to be doing is having more meetings and more guilt-tripping. If you are or ever were actively involved in Mormonism, you have sat through countless priesthood, leadership, and training meetings designed to help you be more effective and committed in your church work. The problem is that these meetings are by and large mind-numbingly boring and devoid of anything that would help you commit more of yourself.

I think this lack of dedication is what’s behind the current fad of “pioneer trek re-enactments” wherein teenagers spend a few days discovering just how miserable the handcart experience was for our pioneer ancestors. My two oldest children spent four days in Oklahoma for their trek, and both came home exhausted, sick, and sunburned. Neither described it as a faith-promoting experience, and in fact my son came home feeling like “miracles” are based on deception.

I don’t know what the church can do to fix things, but my guess is that if they keep on doing what they’re doing, more people will be in the foyers, and more will be gone entirely.