Thriving in Mormonism

A friend sent me a link to Mormon apologist Daniel Peterson’s latest blog entry:

Active Latter-day Saints are manifestly inferior specimens of humanity

Heck, I’ll just repost the whole thing.


I readily acknowledge I haven’t read Kate Kelly’s essay in The Guardian (a left-leaning British paper), as I haven’t been following LDS news regularly. So, I have no idea whether the quote is out of context or not. But ever since I read the quote and Dr. Peterson’s response, I’ve been thinking about whether this is a fair characterization of the Mormons I know who “thrive” in the church. I don’t think it is. At least I don’t think that people who thrive in Mormonism are the “least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous” of its membership.

I have known many brilliant, thoughtful, articulate, talented people in the LDS church, and they are thriving. I’ve known leaders of immense talent and intellect. As Dan Peterson’s sarcasm makes clear, Mormons are not a monolithic group of unthinking automatons akin to North Koreans at a party rally.

What I see is that thoughtful, intelligent people who thrive in the church are those who can, when push comes to shove, subordinate their own beliefs and desires to the goals of the organization. I’ve mentioned before that I know an LDS man who was a bishop in California during the church’s efforts to pass Proposition 8. This man opposed the proposition and supported the right of same-sex couples to marry. But the church not only asked its bishops to organize members in actively supporting Proposition 8, but had bishops call in members and encourage them to donate money and time to the cause. This man was asked, as bishop, to set an example to his ward members by donating generously to the campaign, so he donated $5,000 to a proposition that he voted against in the election. When asked whether his obedience meant he was “weak,” he responded:

A libertarian’s view of things is not some sort of “ethical” opposition. Libertarians believe in a lot of things people would otherwise find offensive. But, just like a Catholic might oppose capital punishment merely because the Pope asks him to do so, so did I oppose gay marriage because my Prophet asked me to do so. I know enough about politics to know that my libertarian views might not be right for policy reasons important to the Church which would otherwise not be apparent to me. By voluntarily joining a group which engages in politicking, I surrender some of my libertarian notions. Libertarian philosophy teaches, for instance, that labor may organize into unions and should do so without restriction, even though their objectives may lead to reduced competition.

This is as good an explanation of what I mean as any. Voluntary membership in an organization like the church requires members to “surrender” their personal beliefs and desires in favor of the organization. It’s fine, even encouraged, to be thoughtful, articulate, and so on, as long as those personal attributes are used to further the kingdom.

I am not saying this to be critical of the church. Many times I did things as a Mormon that I did not want to do, whether it was keeping a commandment that conflicted with my “carnal” desires or was simply an administrative duty I didn’t feel right about. I can remember only one time when I told the church “no,” and that was when I was asked to assign as home teachers a couple of mentally ill, potentially violent ex-convicts.

In general, then, I believe that what leads people to “thrive” in the church is their willingness to subordinate themselves to the needs of the church. I suspect that a lot of Mormons would agree with me. Gordon B. Hinckley once said that members could think freely and critically before joining the church, but once they had joined, they were expected to conform and “find happiness in that conformity.”

So, does that willingness to conform make Mormons inferior people? Does it mean that the leadership of the LDS church is populated with untalented, cowardly yes-men? I don’t think so. I understand Ms. Kelly’s point, but I think it’s overstated. Perhaps a little more nuance is required.




17 Responses to Thriving in Mormonism

  1. Brad says:

    I’m not sure if I totally agree. I think some conformity is good, if I live in a society, I should conform to it’s laws as I expect all citizen should do.

    But, I can’t help but think about Galileo, thank goodness he didn’t conform. If he had decided to conform and keep his mouth shut, our understanding of the nature of our solar system would have been further delayed.

    Thank goodness we have those strong few who do breakout of their conformity and show us new ways to view the world. Thank goodness Juanita Brooks didn’t conform and opened the door of what really happened on that fateful day on Sept. 9th, 1857. Otherwise, who knows if we would have ever known what happened.

    • runtu says:

      I am not saying conformity is good or bad. I’m just saying that the organization requires conformity, but that does not mean that people who are thriving in the church are bad people, as Ms. Kelly seems to suggest.

      • Brad says:

        When I was a TBM back when I was teenager many years ago I was the only one in my immediate family who believed and went to church. My parents and my older brothers did not. I felt happy when I went to church, felt loved, and wished that my family was there with me. Because I had believed in the church I didn’t connect with my parents or brothers. If I had a problem I wanted to discuss about me personally I didn’t talk to my parents I talked to my bishop, when my family did some kind of activity on Sunday I felt guilty if I said yes and so I often decided to go to church and do what I was expected there. When I finally decided to stop going to church I had realized that I had treated my family unfairly, that they where always there for me and loved me. I received the cold shoulder treatment from members of the church that I had known. I kind of expected it, but was often surprised by how deep it was, they wouldn’t even say hello to me if we happen to pass each other on the street.

        On the flip side, I gained my family and saw them as wonderful human beings doing the best they can do. I felt more connected with them.

        In this case, I see my conformity as a bad thing. When I was in the church, it’s hold on me was very strong and I couldn’t see what I was doing with my relationship with my parents and brothers. I felt the church was a higher priority than my family.

  2. CAB says:

    I take issue with the word “thrive.” It is far too squishy and open to interpretation.
    The LDS Church values conformity so highly that it sanctifies it with its teaching “obedience is the highest law of heaven.” That, alone, is sufficient for me to reject your premise:
    “It’s fine, even encouraged, to be thoughtful, articulate, and so on, as long as those personal attributes are used to further the kingdom.”
    That is essentially the same as “ask all the questions you want, so long as they are the right questions and you reach the right conclusions.”
    I know quite a few highly intelligent, kind and generous people who are active LDS. I admire many of them. But they do engage in some very compartmentalized thinking and shield themselves from exposure to information which might shake their faith in and obedience to the church leaders.
    Those leaders you misleadingly question as “untalented, cowardly yes-men….” could not lead a vast and fabulously wealthy organization if they were that. I think those leaders are brilliant, manipulative con-men, and certainly yes-men–OBEDIENCE is the thing, remember.

    • runtu says:

      I do not disagree with you. If anything, I think I agree with what Kate Kelly was attempting to say, just not with how she said it. “Surrendering” to the institution, as the guy I quoted said, means you do and say things you don’t agree with because you are supposed to. I completely agree with you (and presumably Kate Kelly) that this can lead to bad things, such as putting the institution ahead of everything else: family, friendships, values, kindness, and so on. But the way she said it went too far.

  3. Allan Carter says:

    I think that active, faithful membership in the church has subtle and pernicious effects on people. It teaches people to subsume evidence and reason to compliance to the dictates of church authorities on the reasoning that they are inspired and know better than the individuals. I think that evidence shows that they are no more inspired than most good people and sometimes downright uninspired bordering on anti-social. This mindset weaves itself into all aspects of life. I think that for the most part, Mormons are very good at compartmentalizing the secular and religious, but when the two collide, they tend to follow the religious side. This leads to the incredibly stupid stands on race, gender, etc. that defy all evidence and reason and create incredible trouble.

    I think that when you average the beliefs of a large enough population you find truth. You don’t find it by accepting the beliefs of 15 old men and imposing them on a large population.

  4. Joel says:

    I think Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk on conservative vs. liberal morality is helpful to this discussion. He identifies five innate human values: harm/care; fairness/reciprocity; in-group/loyalty; authority/respect; and purity/sanctity. Liberals tend to value the first two, while conservatives value all five. That can help explain why someone who believes that gay marriage is the right thing for reasons of fairness and caring for people might still choose to support their church position against gay marraige out of loyalty and respect for authority.

    The church is very much a conservative organization, and the leadership is chosen for their devotion to all five moral values. I think people for whom those values are innate and comfortable will more likely thrive in the church.

    Kate took a stand for the first two values, harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, but was smacked down for not adhering to the conservative values of respect and loyalty. It has nothing to do with talent, courage, or intellectual nuance. It has to do with one’s moral paradigm.

  5. But you are also ignoring the multitude of Mormons who thrive and do not “subordinate their own beliefs and desires to the goals of the organization”. I know many of these people personally, and there are numerous public individuals such as Joanna Brooks, Jana Reiss, Feminist Mormon Housewives (lot of women here), and so on…

    More and more the Mormonism that is used in so many of these arguments resembles nothing as much as a strawman. Admittedly, I have never lived in Utah, or anywhere near to Utah for that matter, but I have lived near where you are now (I believe a former Bishop of mine is in your local ward) and I simply do not see the Mormonism you see when you post. Perhaps my view is biased, but I have seen Mormonism all over the US diaspora, and world for that matter, and the faith you continually criticize is hardly representative of the faith I have seen practiced or practiced myself.

    • runtu says:

      I find it difficult to find the words to respond to that. Of course we were supposed to temper our own desires and sacrifice and consecrate all we had to the building of the kingdom. I can’t imagine that stating an obvious fact is being somehow critical of the church. Honestly, I have never met a Mormon (myself included) who accepted and agreed with every teaching and policy and practice in the church, so everyone to one degree or another must subordinate our own desires and beliefs to follow the prophet and keep the commandments. Needless to say, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s a requirement of belonging to most organizations.

      I sometimes wonder why you persist in putting the most negative spin on everything I write. But then I remember that you get off on criticizing me, so I should expect it. No worries.

      • What you have said is “What I see is that thoughtful, intelligent people who thrive in the church are those who can, when push comes to shove, subordinate their own beliefs and desires to the goals of the organization.”

        The problem is that “sacrifice[ing] and consecrate[ing] all we had to the building of the kingdom” has so many interpretations and applications throughout Mormondom that any real attempt to broadly characterize Mormons this way is sort of pointless.

        What actually happens, in my experience, is that intelligent people who thrive in the church are those who can, when push comes to shove, supplement their own beliefs and desires with the goals of the organization in their own unique way.

      • runtu says:

        I generally agree with that. I just think that, for everyone I have ever met, at some point our own desires and beliefs bump up against what the church requires of us. I was taught that, in such cases, I was to surrender my will: “Thy will be done, not mine.” Obviously that has a lot of different interpretations, but I think it holds true for everyone. The whole point of this mortal existence is supposed to be to accept what God wants for us and not what we want. The mortal condition is supposed to mean that our desires don’t always complement God’s will, and sometimes it’s impossible to “supplement our own beliefs and desires with the goals of the organization.” Sometimes you have to choose.

        Sometimes when I write things, I think, “How could someone twist this and take offense?” I have to admit that I didn’t think my defense of the church from Kate Kelly’s rather ill-spoken criticism would give offense to anyone. I’m surprised it offended someone, but less surprised it was you.

      • I would suspect that every day everyone has to make decisions based on the various influences in their life, the Church being one of many influencers. Nevertheless, there is a difference between the Church and God. When someone says “Thy will be done” the Thy is God, and not the Church. As an imperfect vehicle representing God, the nuances of adhering to Church positions is certainly up for various interpretations. I can easily agree that I am trying to do what God wants for me, while disagreeing with a position from the Church. Nothing in your position allows for this distinction at all, in fact the presupposition of your entire argument is that the Church and God are synonymous, which could not be further from the truth. You have set up a false equivalence, and thereby created your false conflict, and either do not know it, or do not care. It is, as Alden Nowlan would say, a fairly adolescent argument.

      • runtu says:

        Then you have misunderstood my position. What I have said is pretty simple: whether or not one believes he or she is following God, there are limits to disagreeing with the church. For example, a few years back a BYU employee felt that God wanted him to spend his Sundays feeding people at a homeless shelter; his ecclesiastical leaders denied him a temple recommend, and he lost his job. As I said, when push comes to shove, this man was expected to subordinate what he thought was right to the expectations of the church.

        I find it strange that you apparently believe that church members can disagree at will with the church without consequence, but I am not all that surprised that you are now resorting to name calling.

  6. CAB says:

    Hahah!!! JosAb, are you actually implying–or saying outright–that the LDS Church makes a distinction between ‘following god’ and ‘following the leadership of the church’?!?

    • runtu says:

      Well, that’s really not part of what I was talking about. What I meant is that there are boundaries you can’t cross in the church, and “thriving” means being able to stay within those boundaries, no matter what you wish personally.

      I think when I was a teenager I thought what came down from church leadership was what God wanted me to do, and I could find many examples of leaders teaching precisely that. As I got older, I think I was like everyone else in applying teachings as I felt they should apply to me, and that might not be how the leadership intended.

      I know, I’m rambling, but Joseph Abraham seems to be setting up a false dichotomy between absolute conformity (he thinks this is my view of the church) and absolute freedom to “supplement” one’s beliefs with the church’s teachings. Neither extreme applies, which was my point in the first place. I disagree with Kate Kelly because she seems to believe that the church squashes intellect, talent, and initiative such that only the worst of the worst “thrive.” I know too many Mormons to agree with that.

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