What’s It Like to Be a Mormon? Request for Help

September 28, 2011

I’ve been blogging for a long time about my experiences in the LDS church and how they have affected my life. I thought it would be a good idea to write in general about what it’s like to be a Mormon, as I don’t think anyone has really given justice to that subject. And I don’t want to extrapolate my personal experience to others in general. So, I was hoping I could get some input from my readers about their experiences so I could talk about common themes.

For whoever is interested, I’ve prepared about 25 questions I’d like other people to answer. I can post them here, but if you are willing to answer any or all of them, please email me at runnertx@hotmail.com, and I’ll send you the questions.

I have no plans to publish anything commercially, but I’m simply looking for some material I can use on my blog to help others understand how Mormonism translates into the lives of its members (and ex-members).

Surreality TV

September 28, 2011

Friday night I got tired of watching BYU play some pretty abysmal football (for at least three of the four quarters), and I stumbled across Bill Maher’s film, “Religulous,” which I had not seen before. Flipping between rabid, blue-clad Cougar fans and Maher’s snarky film was a surreal experience.

I had expected that Maher’s film would be a skeptic’s take on religion, and I guess it was that. He basically went around interviewing religious believers from different faith traditions, from hyper-orthodox Jewish rabbis to fundamentalist Christian truck drivers, and so on.

The film could have been an interesting and humorous glimpse into what people believe and why, but alas, Maher took the cheaper, easier route. First of all, he seemed to go for the lowest common denominator in his interviews. Do truck drivers who meet periodically in a trailer behind a truck stop really represent Evangelical Christians? Does a rabbi who hobknobs with Mahmoud Ahmedinajad represent Judaism in any meaningful way? Not to my mind.

It didn’t help that every clip, every piece of classic rock used as soundtrack, was intended to emphasize the absurdity of each religion. But the worst decision by far was the inclusion of Maher’s comments in his car after each interview, when he ridiculed the people he had just talked to. Unless we’ve been living in a cave–or haven’t been watching the film at all–we already know what Maher thinks of religion and its adherents.

Anyway, I was curious as to how he would deal with Mormonism. Unlike many of the other faiths, Mormonism is not afforded any opportunity to explain its beliefs (not that the PR-obsessed church would have allowed Maher to meet with an apostle). Instead, Maher introduces Mormonism by getting ejected from church property by church security guards (generally, that’s what happens when a film crew shows up on private property). Then he talks to two ex-Mormons (full disclosure: one of them, Tal Bachman, is an old friend of mine) who chuckle nervously as Maher explains some of the more esoteric beliefs of the church while clips from the old–and incredibly crappy and unfair–anti-Mormon film “The God Makers” are flashed across the screen. I suppose it could have been worse. Scientology is treated by a disguised Maher shouting out Scientology teachings about Xenu in a London park while images of a rather deranged-looking, grinning Tom Cruise are shown on screen (to be fair, Tom Cruise seldom looks non-deranged, but that’s beside the point).

The film’s best moments for me are his chats with his mother and sister about his religious upbringing and how they all felt about it. Those discussions are interesting and explain more than the rest of the film why people act and believe the way they do. The difference is that Maher doesn’t treat his mother and sister as if they are idiots.

If I had made this film, I would have asked tough questions and let people explain their beliefs and why they believe without a lot of comment. Maher tells his interviewees, “I’m just here asking questions.” It would have been a much better film had he done so. For example, having a believing Mormon answer questions about Kolob and the Lamanites would have had a lot more impact than Maher snarkily summarizing these beliefs while Ed Decker’s low-rent animation appears on screen. Likewise, having a Scientologist explain Xenu and thetans would have been better than Maher’s attempt to appear even more deluded than Tom Cruise in his park rantings. Did we really need any commentary to realize how repugnant the teachings of Fred Phelps and Yisroel Dovid Weiss are? Is the Creation Museum in Kentucky any less silly because Maher tells us it is? Do we really need superimposed titles to explain how to interpret people’s answers?

But to go back to my original point: it’s one thing to take on religions and their doctrines and dogmas; it’s something entirely different to take on people who, for the most part, are just average people of faith and spend 101 minutes showing how stupid and ignorant everyone is–except Maher.

What could have been a skeptical and funny look at religion turns out to be a film about Bill Maher. I guess it succeeds at that, as long as the objective was to make him seem like a bit of a prick.

Still, it was better than the BYU game.

Time Off

September 19, 2011

I probably won’t be posting much this week, as I’m having surgery tomorrow. Nothing major, just outpatient surgery with 5 or so days of recovery, at least if everything goes as planned.

Why People Abandon Religion

September 15, 2011

Last night I was flipping through the TV channels, and I stumbled across a preacher on our local Evangelical channel. He mentioned that 80% of children raised in Christian homes will abandon their parents’ religion sometime during young adulthood. That sounded about right to me, but what I thought was interesting was his stated reason for losing the younger generation.

In my view, people will stick with a religion if it meets their spiritual needs. If they have made a connection with the religion and it adds to their lives, they are not likely to leave it behind. Generally, people–not just the younger generation–will not adhere to a religion that is not meaningful in their lives, that does not improve the quality of their spiritual lives. But that’s not what our preacher friend identified as the problem.

The culprit, he gravely pronounced, was the public school system, which he described as a system of “madrassas for secularism.” He advocated home schooling for concerned Christians, if they want to keep their children within the flock. But such an approach is doomed to failure, in my judgment.

First of all, I don’t see public schools as hell-bent (literally?) on destroying faith. For one thing, an awful lot of public school teachers are people of deep and abiding faith who presumably would recognize it if they were being used as tools of secular jihadism. But that’s neither here nor there (in other words, if you want to argue about the schools’ hostility to religion, I’m not going to respond).

Let’s say the preacher is correct, and our kids face constant challenging of their faith. It’s true that pulling them out of public schools and home schooling them (or enrolling them in one of those religious “academies”) will protect them in the short run. But eventually, they will be challenged in their faith, either in college or in the broader world. Kids who have been sheltered from any questions or challenges about their faith for 18 years will find themselves dealing with challenges they are ill-equipped to resolve.

True faith involves constant questioning and re-evaluating. There’s a reason that people speak of faith as a “walk”: it’s a continuous process, and when you stop and think you are finished, you are wrong. Some people believe that questioning and doubting are bad and poisonous to faith. For example, LDS (Mormon) Church president Thomas Monson has said,

Remember, faith and doubt cannot exist in the mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other. Cast out doubt. Cultivate faith. Strive always to retain that childlike faith which can move mountains and bring heaven closer to heart and home.

Should doubt knock at your doorway, just say to those skeptical, disturbing, rebellious thoughts: “I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts, to destroy the house of my faith. I acknowledge that I do not understand the processes of creation, but I accept the fact of it. I grant that I cannot explain the miracles of the Bible, and I do not attempt to do so, but I accept God’s word. I wasn’t with Joseph, but I believe him. My faith did not come to me through science, and I will not permit so-called science to destroy it.” (Ensign, Feb. 2001)

But doubt does not dispel faith; rather, struggling through difficult questions and doubt strengthens faith. Doubt is the essential ingredient in faith, as the apostle Paul explained: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

If you know something without a doubt, that is called “knowledge,” obviously. Faith, however, involves hope and conviction of things we can’t see, but which we believe to be true. True faith, then, is accepting that certain things are so and living our lives accordingly. When we “cast out doubt,” we are saying that we don’t need faith anymore; our walk stops, and our faith dies.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In the same way, unexamined faith is not true faith. We can keep our children sequestered away and unchallenged by “worldly” influences, but sooner or later they will confront the wider world. Those whose parents have taught them to accept and deal with doubt as it comes will be far better prepared when the inevitable challenge comes. Parents who think they are protecting their kids by not exposing them to challenges are just harming their children’s potential to develop a strong and lasting faith; at the same time they are seriously short-changing their kids’ education by “sheltering” them from science and history that conflicts with religious dogma.

Note: I don’t have a problem, per se, with home schooling. Some people can and do provide a better and more appropriate education for their children at home. But fear of outside influence is a really bad reason for home schooling.

Again, it’s pretty clear to me that the reason people abandon their faith is that it does not relate to them in a meaningful way. That’s not going to change, even if they get homeschooled.

Reparative Therapy and Sexuality

September 6, 2011

Looks like “reparative therapy” is no longer confined to Dr. Marcus Bachmann and the folks at Evergreen:

Ask a Mormon Apostate: What About the Gays?

September 6, 2011

Today’s question:

“Are openly gay people welcomed at church or are they excommunicated? I read in the Salt Lake Tribune this morning an openly gay man was appointed a bishop’s executive secretary in a San Francisco LDS Bay Ward. Yet they (the church) actively supported Prop 8. I’m confused.”

Excellent question, and one that requires some explanation of Mormon theology. The LDS church teaches that every human being has the potential to become like God, with all His attributes and power. Our Heavenly Father sent us to live on earth to learn how to become Gods, for that is how He became God. Church founder Joseph Smith taught:

God himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heaven, is a man like one of you. That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today and you were to see the great God who holds this world in its orbit and upholds all things by his power, you would see him in the image and very form of a man. …

I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. [That he was not is an idea] incomprehensible to some. But it is the simple and first principle of the gospel-to know for a certainty the character of God, that we may converse with him as one man with another. God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did. …

Here, then, is eternal life–to know the only wise and true God. And you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves–to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done–by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.

But according to Mormon teachings, one cannot become a God alone but must be “sealed” in eternal marriage to a spouse. A revelation given to Joseph Smith and recorded on July 11, 1843, explains:

And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.

Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory.

Thus, the highest, most exalted kingdom of heaven is reserved for those whose heterosexual marriages have been performed by priesthood authority in the temple and sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise. In this sense, God is male and female, sealed together for eternity.

Given the status of marriage as crucial to our exaltation, there is no place in LDS theology for homosexuality. Late church president Spencer W. Kimball called homosexuality “that sin against nature”: “‘God made me that way,’ some say, as they rationalize and excuse themselves for their perversions. ‘I can’t help it,’ they add. This is blasphemy. Is man not made in the image of God and does he think God to be ‘that way’?” Apostle Boyd K. Packer stated, “If a condition that draws both men and women into one of the ugliest and most debased of all physical performances is set and cannot be overcome, it would be a glaring exception to all moral law.” In short, if God’s “great plan of happiness” is for all humans to enjoy eternal, heterosexual marriage, then homosexuality is in direct opposition to God’s plans.

This theological position explains why the LDS church has been so active in the fight against legalizing same-sex marriage. Its organization and funding were crucial to the campaign for Proposition 8 in California. But there has been a backlash against the church because it was highly visible in that campaign and others. The church has sought to mend some fences and repair some of the PR damage caused by the Prop. 8 campaign, hence the recent appointment of an “openly gay” Mormon, Mitch Mayne, to be the executive secretary to his local bishop. The Salt Lake Tribune explains, “He also was chosen specifically to help build bridges between the Bay Area’s Mormon and gay communities, a gap that was widened by the LDS Church’s overt support of Proposition 8, defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.” Mayne’s stake president calls Mayne’s assignment a “tremendous opportunity to show gays they’re welcome at our church.”

One could quibble with the idea that the position of executive secretary is a “key local LDS leadership post,” as the Tribune describes it, but what is more important is how far the church’s welcome mat extends for gays. In one sense, the church’s standards for homosexual members are the same as those for heterosexuals: “Complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage” (Church Handbook of Instructions, 1.3.2). Obviously, if same-sex marriage remains illegal, gay Mormons are expected to remain celibate, as the church recognizes that “marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices.”

However, the church has made it clear that sexual abstinence is not enough for gay members to remain “worthy.” For example, the BYU Honor Code contains the following statements about homosexuality:

Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or attraction and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards. Members of the university community can remain in good Honor Code standing if they conduct their lives in a manner consistent with gospel principles and the Honor Code.

One’s stated same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue. However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity. Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.

Thus, even activities that would not cause even a small problem for heterosexual members, such as kissing or holding hands, are potentially grounds for dismissal from church-sponsored schools. Indeed, it was just such a display of same-sex affection that led to the arrests of two men at the church’s Main Street Plaza in 2009.

So, are gays welcome in the LDS church? Yes, if they are willing to abide by the church’s standards. Mitch Mayne was called after he broke things up with his partner: “Mayne was in a committed, monogamous relationship with a man, but that ended a year ago. Since then, Mayne said, he has lived by LDS standards, and his ecclesiastical leaders found him worthy to serve.” Presumably, if Mayne becomes involved in a homosexual relationship again in the future, he will not be found worthy to serve. Significantly, he did not promise “a lifetime of celibacy,” which to my mind means he’s serving on his own terms, which I find somewhat praiseworthy.

However, it’s just a bit disingenuous of Mayne to say, ““No one is going to ask you to give up your partner before entering the door.” In essence, by asking you to give up all intimacy, sexuality, and even expressions of affection, the church is asking you to sacrifice your relationship with your partner. That seems to work for some people, including Mitch Mayne–at least for now.