Trained for the Ministry

January 24, 2013

Many years ago when I was in graduate school, my brother-in-law’s parents invited my wife and me and my parents to a dinner party at their beachfront house in Malibu (yes, there are advantages to having money). I should note that my brother-in-law is Jewish, as is the rest of his family. My sister converted to Judaism before marrying him while I was on my mission.

Before dinner, everyone was sort of milling around on a large deck overlooking the ocean. My brother-in-law’s father, Sy, and I ended up having a length conversation about my studies and the nature of Mormon clergy. It started out something like this:

Sy: So, what exactly are you studying in your graduate program?

Me: English.

Sy: What is your specialty, your emphasis?

Me: American Literature.

Sy (looking very puzzled): American Literature? I don’t understand.

Me: I’m focusing mostly on 19th-century authors. You know, Twain, Melville, Hawthorne and so on.

Sy: But what does that have to do with religion?

Me (looking puzzled now): Nothing.

Sy: But why would they want you to study literature?

Me: Who’s “they”? I am planning to get a Ph.D. and teach. [I really was planning that at the time.]

Sy: I thought you were studying for the ministry.

Me: Even if that were possible, I have no interest in that.

What ensued was an exchange about the nature of the Mormon church’s “lay” ministry (yes, I know that doesn’t apply to the higher levels of church leadership). It turns out that, because I was on my mission when my sister got married, her husband’s family assumed that I was the family religious fanatic, and because I was attending BYU, I must be preparing for a career in the priesthood.

I expect these kinds of misconceptions from people like Sy who are almost completely unfamiliar with Mormonism, but when a national journalist makes the same kind of mistake in a supposedly well-researched book, I’m taken aback a little.

Last week the US government announced that an LDS soldier, Clinton Romesha of Cedarville, California, would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor for bravery. According to the Congressional act establishing the award, a recipient must have “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” Romesha’s actions in Afghanistan certainly merit this award, and our country owes him a debt of gratitude that a mere medal cannot express.

ABC News chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper wrote a book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, about the battle at Outpost Keating during which Romesha’s acts of heroism occurred. In the book, which was widely quoted in the press after the announcement of Romesha’s Medal of Honor, Tapper discusses Romesha’s Mormon background. Here’s how it was reported in Stars and Stripes, the US Army’s official news publication:

The attack on COP Keating remains one of the deadliest attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan and is chronicled in the book “The Outpost,” by Jake Tapper. In it, Tapper writes that Romesha is the son of a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cedarville, Calif.

“His parents had hoped he would follow his father into the church leadership, and Romesha had in fact gone to seminary for four years during high school — from five till seven every morning — but ultimately it just wasn’t for him. He didn’t even go on a mission, a regular rite for young Mormon men. Romesha was better suited to this kind of mission, with guns and joes under his command.”

I have no doubt that Tapper included this passage for dramatic effect, as a hero who passed up his expected vocation in the ministry for military valor is a pretty great story. Be that as it may, Tapper has been either incredibly lazy or just a bit deceptive in telling Romesha’s story.

Local Mormon leaders are “called” by higher leadership to serve without pay, usually for a fairly set period of years (3 for priesthood quorum presidents, 5 for bishops, and 10 for stake presidents). They are not paid for their service and are expected to perform their church duties in addition to their regular employment and family responsibilities. Over the years my bishops have included an Emmy-award-winning sound editor, an aeronautical engineer, two dentists, a clinical psychologist, a politician, a bank president, a dean of a university, an oceanographer, a geologist, and an accountant. I have no idea what Staff Sergeant Romesha’s father does for a living, but he certainly is not a professional minister. (A 1993 article in People magazine suggests that he is a heavy-equipment operator.) So, the first strike is Tapper’s ignorance of how Mormon leadership works, at least on the local level. One does not follow one’s father into church leadership. Indeed, one does not even choose to be a leader but is asked.

Mormons have traditionally had an underlying disdain for professional clergymen. In the Book of Mormon, preaching for hire is referred to as “priestcraft” and is described as a grievous sin, one that ultimately led to Christ’s crucifixion (2 Nephi 10:5). Until 1990, the LDS temple endowment featured a sectarian minister who is employed by the devil to deceive humanity:

ADAM: I am looking for messengers.

LUCIFER: Oh, you want someone to preach to you. You want religion, do you? I will have preachers here presently.

(Lucifer turns his head as a PROTESTANT minister approaches.)

LUCIFER: Good Morning sir!

PROTESTANT MINISTER: Good morning!

(The preacher turns and looks into the camera.)

PROTESTANT MINISTER: A fine congregation!

LUCIFER: Yes, they are a very good people. They are concerned about religion. Are you a preacher?

PROTESTANT MINISTER: I am.

LUCIFER: Have you been to college and received training for the ministry?

PROTESTANT MINISTER: Certainly! A man cannot preach unless has been trained for the ministry.

LUCIFER: Do you preach the orthodox religion?

PROTESTANT MINISTER: Yes, that is what I preach.

LUCIFER: If you will preach your orthodox religion to these people, and convert them, I will pay you well.

PROTESTANT MINISTER: I will do my best.

The second issue is Tapper’s ludicrous description of LDS seminary. In other religions, a seminary is a school dedicated to formal instruction in the doctrines and procedures of the church. In Mormonism, seminary is an hour-long class held 5 days a week for high school students designed to supplement regular Sunday instruction, but it is not a pathway to assuming church leadership. In Utah and some other locations with large Mormon populations, seminary is held during school hours, with students being granted “release time” to leave the school campus to attend seminary classes. For most Mormons, however, seminary is held before school, usually in the local church, though sometimes in a church member’s home. Tapper has it as a two-hour daily affair, from 5 to 7 am (I’m not even sure zealous parents would wake their kids up that early).

I attended early morning seminary in California growing up. In my experience, both as a seminary student and a parent of seminary students, attendance at seminary is less a gauge of a young person’s religious zeal than it is a reflection of the tenacity of the parents in getting their kids to seminary. Where I grew up several kids simply spent the seminary hour sitting by the creek that ran behind the church property. Marijuana was often involved. For all I know, Staff Sergeant Romesha may have been one of those kids whose parents dragged them out of bed every morning. But that’s not as inspiring a story as a pious young man who trained for the ministry but sacrificed his plans to defend his country.

Yeah, I know, I’m nitpicking a sloppy and dramatized account, but shoddy research like this always makes me wonder what else in the book the author got wrong. A few years back I read Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, which laid out the case that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who killed President Kennedy and that there was no conspiracy. I’ve long believed that, and Posner’s book seemed really solid to me, until near the end of the book he described Jack Ruby’s trial being moved to Wichita Falls, Kansas. That single silly mistake made me question what else in the book was careless or less solid than presented.

So, does Tapper’s misrepresentation of Romesha’s Mormon experience–intentional or not–invalidate the rest of the book? No, not really. But I’m always surprised at how little effort authors expend in getting the background correct. Chief Washington correspondent or not, Tapper’s been a bit lazy, at least.

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