Who Are You Calling Fatso? Critics as Fundamentalists

January 28, 2010

Recently, it has become common for certain Mormon apologists to dismiss critics and ex-Mormons as having a “rigid, fundamentalist” view of the world. Apparently, the label “fundamentalist” is used pejoratively to link critics to ignorant Bible-thumpers, as one writer waves critics off as “skilled iconoclast[s]” who merely want to appear “scholarly looking” (Reynolds). Indeed, apologists are reassured that they, not the critics, are the true “liberals” and “intellectuals” in their approach to Mormonism.

I first became aware of this mantra a few years ago, and for a time I actually adopted it. We Mormons, I told myself, were less wedded to rigid interpretation of text, less enamored of objective scientific proof than were our critics, and thus we held a more solid position. But where does this notion come from, and does it have merit?

Perhaps we should define what fundamentalism is. Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes that, although fundamentalism is most often used as “one of those derogatory terms that only other people use about you, like ‘fatso,'” it has specific meaning, being a self-description of believers in the early twentieth century.

The first of the seven fundamentals was a belief in the literal truth of the Bible; and this is probably the best definition of fundamentalism there is. It is basically a textual affair. Fundamentalists are those who believe that our linguistic currency is trustworthy only if it is backed by the gold standard of the Word of Words. They see God as copperfastening human meaning. Fundamentalism means sticking strictly to the script, which in turn means being deeply fearful of the improvised, ambiguous or indeterminate.

This “copperfastening” of meaning and symbol is the sense in which the word is being used to describe critics of Mormonism. Juliann Reynolds writes that “for the critic to convincingly dispute LDS doctrine or practice it is imperative that scripture be treated as inerrant and that Mormons accept targeted statements from religious leaders as infallible. Contradictions and inconsistencies can then be used as “proof” that Mormons do not seek ‘truth.’ Their predictable conclusion that Mormonism is wrong or false or misled rests upon the fundamental and conservative position that “God is truth, God is the source of Scripture, and therefore Scripture must also be truth. If God, the author of Scripture, cannot lie, then neither can Scripture.”

For Reynolds, the critics juxtapose their inerrantist view of God with a similar view of science, as if these were two competing approaches to “truth.” The critics, forced to choose, pick science, but this is a mistake rooted, again, in fundamentalist assumptions. Non-LDS scholar Massimo Introvigne notes:

Unlike many Protestant modernists-Latter-day Saint liberals are persuaded that, thanks to Enlightenment rationalism, an objective concept of “science” and “truth” may allow them to reach factual, empirical, “scientific” conclusions on the Book of Mormon and its origins…

On the other hand, the late modernist and postmodernist position that knowledge is by no means objective and that “true,” universally valid historical conclusions could never be reached, is held by Latter-day Saint conservatives.

Thus it is the conservative LDS apologist who ironically occupies the more open view of truth and more realistic notion that facts and proof are never forthcoming, whereas critics are mired in the black-and-white world of absolutes. Introvigne lays out his thesis in summarizing the work of George Marsden:

Evangelicalism and fundamentalism had, according to George M. Marsden, “a love affair with Enlightenment science” and hailed “objective scientific thought . . . as the best friend of the Christian faith and of Christian culture generally.” As there was only one “true” science (needless to say, not including evolution theories), so—the fundamentalists reasoned—there could be only one objective “truth” about the Bible: that it was the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Marsden has proved that hostility to science was originally foreign to fundamentalism and emerged as a later development, when science started to be secularized and to change its own paradigm. Fundamentalism, as a consequence, has been particularly hostile to late modernist and postmodernist assumptions that there is no “one science,” but that science could be a collection of conflicting points of view, often selected for practical purposes without necessarily implying that one is more “true” than the other. Paradoxically, fundamentalism maintained the objectivity of “scientific truth” when this claim was no longer made by mainline science itself.

The problem here is that Introvigne misstates what Marsden has written. Marsden notes that nineteenth-century evangelicals did indeed have “a love affair with Enlightenment science” which continued until, he says, “it was too late.” Contrary to Introvigne’s summary, Marsden does not argue that fundamentalism asserts that there is “one science” and thus is “hostile” to modernist and postmodernist assumptions. Indeed, in the chapter that Introvigne summarizes, Marsden argues that there has been a longstanding debate within the fundamentalist movement between those arguing for “one science” and those who argue that there are multiple sciences, multiple approaches to science influenced by one’s perspective and beliefs:

In virtually every field, the principal intraevangelical debate has been the same: Do evangelical Christians pursue their science or discipline differently from the way secularists do? By now the literature on this subject is vast. In almost every field today, evangelical scholars are divided into two camps, with some hybrids in between. … The Warfieldians–those who believe in one science or rationality on which all humanity ought to agree–point to the breakdown of any promised consensus in secular twentieth-century thought and claim that evangelical Christians and still argue their way to victory, at least in individual cases. To do so, they must stay on common ground with the non-Christians as long as possible, pursuing the technical aspects of their disciplines with just the same methodologies as their secular contemporaries do, but adding to them Christian moral and theological principles that truly objective people will see are rationally necessary to complete the picture. The Kuyperians, in contrast, emphasize that any discipline is built on starting assumptions and that Christians’ basic assumptions should have substantial effects on many of their theoretical conclusions in a discipline. Thus two conflicting worldviews may be scientific or rational if each is consistent with its starting premises. People who start with premises that exclude God as an explanatory force and people who start with belief in God as among their basic beliefs may be equally rational and may be able to work together on technical scientific enterprises; but on some key theoretical issues their best arguments will simply come to opposed conclusions. There will be two or more sciences. Rationality alone will not be able to settle them.

Introvigne incorrectly summarizes Marsden by suggesting that the debate Marsden describes is over, having been won by those arguing for “one science.” Marsden, however, argues that the debate is ongoing, and that far from being rooted in Enlightenment notions of absolute, objective truth, much of the “fundamentalist” community understands that notions of truth are informed by human perception and assumptions. In some ways, Marsden’s argument mirrors what I see within Mormonism. He tells us that, in the face of Darwinian evolution, fundamentalists took two different approaches: “Liberal evangelicals managed this by adopting ever-looser interpretations of Scripture. Many conservatives, however, reconciled themselves to at least limited versions of biological evolution without giving up their trust in Biblical reliability.” To me, this seems to be the same dynamic going on within Mormonism in response to newer discoveries and theoretical frameworks. In short, Marsden’s argument is not only far more complex than Introvigne’s summary, but actually says the opposite of what Introvigne wrote.

Unfortunately, Reynolds takes Introvigne’s poor summary and runs with it; one assumes that she hasn’t read Marsden’s book but merely takes Introvigne’s word for it. Taking a few offhand statements, she attacks critics such as Brent Metcalfe and Michael Quinn as being rigidly wedded to outdated notions of “facts” and “truth.” Metcalfe is excoriated for suggesting that his readers “think for themselves,” while Quinn is mocked for suggesting that he has tried to be honest in his work.

But the premise here is fundamentally flawed. Marsden nowhere argues that Christian fundamentalists are anchored to a naive belief in the ability of “one science” to “prove” anything. Nor do we see very many critics of the LDS church speak in terms of “proof” that Mormonism is not true, unless you count a few RfM or CARM posters. Most critics understand that there is no such thing as objective truth, that human interaction always colors perception and understanding. To suggest otherwise is missing the point.

See also:




What Matters

January 21, 2010

The other day as I was running at the gym, I watched an interview with Sarla Chand, vice-president of IMA World Health, a charitable organization that provides health care to the poor in various parts of the world. She and other members of IMA were in a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when the earthquake struck last week. After 50 hours under the rubble, she and the others were rescued, though one, Rev. Samuel Dixon, Jr., died in the hotel collapse.

She said something that really hit me. She said that, although she is a devout Methodist, she believes in all religions. She keeps in her office “artifacts” from every religion she has come across to celebrate the faith of others, as she believes that we are all trying to find our way to God in our own way.

When I was an active Mormon, I was concerned for the spiritual welfare of millions of people who did not have a knowledge of the true and restored gospel of Jesus Christ. It was that concern that motivated me to serve as a missionary and to share my beliefs with my friends.

Some people see the desire to “save” others as a sign of spiritual arrogance, but I don’t believe it is. Most Mormons genuinely believe that people would be happier and the world would be a better place if everyone were Mormon. I know I did.

But I’m not really a Mormon anymore, though I’m still officially on the rolls as a high priest. And I don’t believe that people will be necessarily happier if they join the LDS church. Of course, if Mormonism works for people and makes them happy, I’m all for their joining and participating in it.

For a time I took the opposite approach toward Mormonism: I genuinely thought that if Mormons really understood the truth about their religion, they would be happier. I knew I was right about Mormonism, and I wanted others to know it, too. But I realize that’s just as wrong as my prior assumptions. I know a lot of people who are much happier having left the church than they were as active participants. I don’t know that I’d say I’m happier out of the church, but I do feel better about myself, and I’ve become a little better equipped to deal with my own problems. But I know people who have had a miserable time after leaving the church. A small number have gone back simply because being Mormon is comfortable and safe for them, whereas “apostasy” is uncharted waters.

I was reminded that there are much more important things than being right, however (I still think I’m right, though I reserve the right to be wrong). No one group has a monopoly on kindness, on charity, on compassion. On Sunday, I sat in the beautiful Provo LDS Tabernacle for stake conference with my wife, and we ended up sitting behind the man who was our bishop some twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. Christmas of 1990, we were about as poor as we could be, we had two small children, and we had nowhere to go. This good man and his wife invited us to share Christmas dinner with them and their children. We spent Christmas that year feeling as if we were family, as we joined in Christmas traditions and activities with people who had, up to that time, been relative strangers. Twenty years later we still remember how much that meant, and it was wonderful to be able to thank them after all this time.

At the same meeting, a young man in our ward approached me to thank me for words of encouragement and specific advice I had given him a few months ago when he had been laid off. He said that my advice (I do not remember what it was) had helped him land a job at BYU that was much better than the previous job. I barely recalled the conversation we had had months ago, but I was glad that something I said was helpful to him.

That’s when I realized that I will have a much more positive impact on the world by focusing on doing good, rather than on being right. I’ve been accused of “evangelizing” for the ex-Mormon cause, and that’s always puzzled me. But I realize that most people see things in terms of doing rather than being. For me, expressing my thoughts about Mormonism was about being right and being true, but for them, it was the doing that mattered. And what I was doing, from their perspective, was tearing down their religion. I still disagree with that perspective, but I think I understand it better.

But these days I am going to try to remind myself to do good. It’s amazing the effort I’ve spent in trying to be right. I’ve looked up sources, read books, made logical arguments, all in the service of showing I was right. But I wonder what has come of it. As far as I know, no one has either joined or left Mormonism because of anything I’ve said or done, and that suits me fine. But what I have noticed is that my relationships with people have become based less on friendship and shared values than they have on which side of the fence we stand on. That’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens when you insist on being right. Eventually you start seeing things in terms of a battle with enemies, and you try to score points or get revenge. That gets us nowhere.

I’m about as opinionated a person as I know (as my dear wife can attest), but what would happen if I gave up the need to be right all the time? It’s probably not a realistic goal, but it’s something I can work on.


January 5, 2010

Years ago I attended a business conference in San Francisco. Our hotel was just off Union Square, and each day as we walked to the Moscone Center for the seminars and exposition we were accosted by numerous people begging for money. I’d seen a lot of begging when I was a missionary in Bolivia, but the aggressiveness and sheer numbers of beggars that week in San Francisco were startling. But one guy sat on the sidewalk, his back against a building, quietly sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup. On the ground next to him were a hat and a hand-lettered sign: “Nonaggressive Panhandler.” That was it. No hard-luck story of joblessness or hungry children, just a frank acknowledgment of what he was and what he was doing. It worked. People were putting money into his hat while they fended off other, more assertive beggars.

Sometimes the direct approach works, though most people aren’t going to say directly that they need money for, say drugs or alcohol or a G4 jet. That’s why most scams appeal either to people’s basest desires (greed or lust, for example) or, failing that, to loftier pursuits (some people who wouldn’t think of investing in a get-rich scheme are happy to send money to religious leaders). Generally, scams appealing to piety tend to have a longer shelf life than those that appeal to greed. Hence, Joseph Smith’s brief career finding treasure and lost items through his “seer stone” gave way to a more fruitful use of the stone to translate the word of God and build a religion.

Occasionally con artists come up with frauds where faith and greed intersect, and I have a hard time understanding why anyone would fall for them. We Mormons are well aware of the frauds built around the promises of God to believers. The Book of Mormon teaches repeatedly that “inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Nephi 1:9, 20,31; see also Alma 48: 15, 25; Mosiah 2:22-31, among others), and church members have taken this promise to heart. We’ve heard of investment “opportunities” where people had to have a temple recommend (i.e., be in good standing in the LDS church) to be allowed to participate, or where financial miracle-workers tout their church experience or BYU degrees (see, for example, Jeff Mowen’s case), or where someone claims revelation that will bring prosperity (the Salem Relief Mine comes to mind). I have a relative who lost almost everything he had to one of those temple-recommend frauds (it was even endorsed by a General Authority, so how could he lose?). I’ve never asked him about it, but I wonder what it was that made him fall for such an obvious fraud?

But then this morning I saw something on television that made my jaw drop for its sheer shamelessness. Some guy calling himself “Dr” Todd Coontz has started Rockwealth International Ministries, whose aim, he says, is to help believers “sow seeds” and reap a “financial harvest.” And by sowing a seed, he means “giving money to Todd Coontz.” The harvest, by contrast, is pretty nebulous. For a mere $1000 annual donation, you get the following “4 Miracle Harvest That Are [sic] Guaranteed In Scripture”:

1) Divine Protection (Mal. 3:10, 11)
2) Triple Favor (Luke 2:52)
3) Supernatural Increase (Deut. 8:18)
4) Uncommon Health (Isa. 53:5)

But if those amazing promises aren’t enough for you, rest assured that you’ll also get monthly “in-depth” teachings (and a letter!) from the good doctor, access to “exclusive” parts of his web site, a “beautiful and durable Increase 3000 Partner card” good for 30% off Dr. Todd’s products, “periodic gift items and ministry tools,” your very own “Increase 3000 Partnership PAK,” and most importantly, “the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others” (notably Todd Coontz’s).

On his infomercial this morning, Dr. Todd constantly asked for viewers to get out their credit cards and send him money, saying that if they called within a specific time window, they would receive blessings that any delay would cause them to forfeit. He reminded me of Oral Roberts’s famous plea for $8 million or God would call him home (which also worked). To no one’s surprise, Dr. Todd’s website sells a book by Oral himself.

Wandering around Dr. Todd’s web site, one finds a lot of entry forms for credit card information but almost nothing about where the money goes and what it is used for. The only direct statement of expense is a discussion of Feed the Hungry, a charitable ministry started by fellow “prosperity” preacher Lester Sumrall. Dr. Todd personally assures us that “your precious Seeds sown each month enables [sic] RockWealth International Ministries to join hands with Feed The Hungry and sow a substantial monthly Seed helping support this worthwhile effort.” I suspect Dr. Todd and I would disagree as to what constitutes “substantial.”

Dr. Todd’s program is quite ingenious: He asks for quite a bit of money and promises nothing but platitudes and prayers in return. It’s so transparently evil that it’s a wonder that anyone would take him up on his offer. But someone must be. Dr. Todd’s web site and TV broadcasts aren’t cheap, and even Benny Hinn himself is using Todd as a fundraiser.

So, my question is, who is sending money to this guy? I wonder how he sleeps at night knowing he is taking money from the weak and credulous, but then he’s a good reminder to me that there are soulless predators out there. And maybe I’m wrong for saying so, but I have a hard time feeling sorry for anyone stupid enough to get sucked into this kind of scam.

But just as I’m feeling smug and superior, I remember that for 40 years I sent ten percent of my income to a religion that promised little more than the good doctor promises. I was promised that I would prosper in the land, and the windows of heaven would be opened unto me. But if I needed financial assistance, I should go to my family, not my church, for help. And if I needed personal counseling (you know, the kind of thing clergy are supposed to do), I was supposed to go to my family lest I be guilty of “counselitis.”

And I didn’t even get a beautiful and durable card.