Random Thoughts

April 11, 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that North Korea should not launch its Unha-3 rocket if it wants to provide a “peaceful, better future” for its people. For years, North Korea has experienced serious problems feeding its population. At one point, people were eating grass, tree bark, and any animals or pets they could find. It boggles the mind that a country that cannot or will not provide food for its people can spend its resources building and launching missiles and rockets. Shameful.

Now that Rick Santorum has gone back to his consulting and legal profession (and perhaps back to his job as a Fox News commentator), Mitt Romney is certain to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. A lot of Mormons are expecting the scrutiny of Romney’s faith to be even more aggressive and attacking than it has been so far. My prediction is that the Obama campaign will not directly address Romney’s religion but leave it to other groups and people to go after Mormonism. The Obama campaign had previously indicated it would focus on Romney being “weird,” which many took as a subtle reference to Mormonism, but I think Romney’s biggest problem is that he is a wealthy white guy who seems to have trouble relating to the lives of ordinary Americans. But look for the press to be much more aggressive in their approach to Mormonism. The recent BBC program on Romney and his religion is likely a harbinger of things to come. I don’t expect the attacks to come from the religious right who are likely either to sit the election out or, as Pastor Robert Jeffress put it, hold their noses and vote for Romney. I suppose it depends on whom Evangelicals see as a bigger threat: Mormons or Obama.

I don’t expect Romney to win the election, but if the economy gets worse, all bets are off. If Obama is re-elected, it will validate the view of many conservatives who believe that the GOP can win the presidency only if they nominate “true” conservatives. The last two cycles they’ve nominated moderates in John McCain and Mitt Romney. Starting with Barry Goldwater’s selection of William Miller as his running mate in the 1964 election, the Republican ticket has usually included a “movement” conservative and an establishment moderate. So, in 2008, John McCain chose Sarah Palin to shore up the conservative wing of the party. (I’m guessing he probably regrets that choice, but I digress.) Romney will almost certainly pick a movement conservative as his running mate, as well. But if he loses the election, conservatives will once again insist that the election could have been won by a real conservative who offered, as Phyllis Schlafly put it, “a choice, not an echo.” Thus, in 2016, the GOP will probably nominate someone from the right wing of the party–Rick Santorum, say–and get trounced, unless of course the Democrats nominate someone even more unpalatable.

It’s kind of a shame that the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is being marked by the re-release (in 3-D!) of a really crappy movie.

But at least we know where Homer Simpson lives.

A Top Ten List That Isn’t Mine: The Year in Anti-Mormonism

January 11, 2012

I’ve written before about MormonVoices, a group dedicated to tracking all mention of Mormonism and Mormons in the media and on the web so that they can quash misinformation and instead present the truth. Of course, that often means that they are seeking the negative and replacing it with the positive, no matter the truth thereof, but that’s a subject for a different article.

On occasion, I’ve done top ten lists, usually snarky humorous lists that tend to get a lot of Mormons angry with me. (Here’s a little insight into my psyche: I tend to post snarky humor when the LDS church is getting too up close and personal and is beginning to annoy me.) This time, our friends at MormonVoices have come up with their own, and it’s anything but humorous.

Top Ten Anti-Mormon Statements of 2011

First of all, let me say at the outset that I agree with Scott Gordon’s statement that “religious bigotry is unacceptable. Statements which distort and belittle Mormon [or any other religious] belief in order to marginalize Mormons [or any other believers] are evidence of such bigotry.” The United States has a long history of discrimination against small or fringe religious groups: Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and others have in the past been targeted in many ways. Clearly, it has become unacceptable to ridicule Jews or Catholics (well, there are exceptions, of course), but it’s clearly still socially acceptable to go after Mormons.

MormonVoices managing director John Lynch is quoted as saying, “This isn’t about good-natured jokes or legitimate questions. We’re not concerned with comedians who make good-natured observations about Mormons, or responsible journalists who have reported on Mormons and their beliefs. Instead, this is a list of statements that should be offensive to everyone, and are so disrespectful that their only effect will be to increase bigotry against Mormons. Just as with other minority groups, it should no longer be socially acceptable for public figures to incite such prejudice against Mormons or their faith.”

Pretty strong stuff, indeed. Let’s look at their examples.

10. “The Christian coalition, I think [another candidate] could get a lot of money from that, because Romney, obviously, not being a Christian …” Ainsley Earhart, Fox and Friends, July 17, 2011.

A lot of people believe Mormons are not Christians, though I obviously disagree. Ainsley Earhardt, bless her soul, most likely was not hired for her knowledge or intellect, so you can chalk this up to ignorance on her part, or she may be one of those fundamentalist Christians who don’t believe Mormons are Christian. In context, she was talking about how the Christian Coalition probably would not support Romney because of the shocking fact that most members of the Christian Coalition probably don’t believe Mormons are Christian. So, ignorance, maybe, but anti-Mormon? Not so much.

9. “Can you name the candidate that’s running for president that believes that if he’s a good person in his religion he will receive his own planet?…Would you vote for someone for president who believes in their religion, if he’s a good person, he’ll get his own planet?…Do you want to get your own planet?” Ben Ferguson, Fox 13 News, Memphis TN, July 6, 2011.

Here are Ferguson’s remarks in total: Local Memphis TV News Reporter Mocks Mitt Romney’s Mormon Beliefs

This one is obvious bigotry and fits Lynch’s definition of anti-Mormonism. The guy goes out on the street and presents a ridiculous caricature of Mormonism and shows people reacting appropriately. Of course, had it not been for MormonVoices, I would never have heard of this guy.

8. “Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian faith. It just is not…it’s very clear that the founding fathers did not intend to preserve automatically religious liberty for non-Christian faiths.” Bryan Fischer, Focal Point radio show, September 2011.

Here’s Fischer’s rant.

Yep, that one fits, too. The guy says that the First Amendment applies only to Christians, which ought to give any non-fundamentalist pause. What kind of Constitution applies only to some people? Yikes. Also, his description of the end of polygamy is completely wrong, and of course, he’s playing the polygamy = gay marriage card. Dirtbag.

7. “Yes, it is my opinion that an indoctrinated Mormon should never be elected as President of the United States of America.” Tricia Erickson, CNN.com, July 7, 2011.

OK, this woman is an angry ex-Mormon Evangelical who wrote an anti-Mormon, anti-Romney book called “Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The Mormon Church Versus The Office Of The Presidency of the United States of America.” I fault CNN more than anyone for giving air time to an obvious nutjob. And no other word but nutjob would describe someone who said this: “Indoctrinated temple Mormons (as Romney is) have experienced years of brainwashing and indoctrination and also have made covenants and oaths that they plainly cannot disobey.” For God’s sake. I’m an indoctrinated temple Mormon, and last I checked, I’m not suffering from brainwashing. Hold on a second, I have to check in with the Overlord before I continue.

6. “I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve. Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy—whether or not this is his intent—will be to promote Mormonism.” Warren Cole Smith, Patheos.com, May 24, 2011.

I’ve commented on this, too, so I’ll just let my previous comments stand: Those Scary Mormons

5. “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult…Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” Robert Jeffress, Values Voter Summit, October 7, 2011.

Same for this moron: The Smiling Face of Bigotry

4. “The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as ‘prophet, seer and revelator,’ is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy…” Harold Bloom, The New York Times, November 12, 2011.

This one I’m not so sure about. Here’s the quote in context:

However, should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor. The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy.

Bloom is contrasting Joseph Smith’s vision of a Mormon Kingdom (exemplified in Zion and the law of consecration) and the current church administration. It’s clear to me that one of the main goals of the modern LDS church is preservation of the institution, which requires growth in membership and in income. Daymon Smith has written a terrific book, The Book of Mammon, about how much the LDS church as an institution has been overtaken by American corporate culture.

Despite the grandfatherly persona at general conference, Thomas S. Monson is a businessman entrusted with growing and safeguarding the LDS church’s business and wealth, although, as Bloom notes, he is guided by “religious sanction.” Intelligent readers understand that Bloom is not so much critiquing (let alone attacking) Mormonism as he is speaking of a broader culture that is “obsessed by a freedom we identify with money,” and he is quite right that Mormonism is a great example of that culture. That the folks at MormonVoices read it simplistically as a broadside against their religion does not mean it will or was intended to “increase bigotry.” That is a shallow reading, indeed.

3. “The theology comes across as totally barmy. We can become gods with our own planets! And the practices strike me as creepy. No coffee and tea is bad enough. But the underwear!” Michael Ruse, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2011.

Here’s Ruse’s article: Voting for a Mormon

This one I find ridiculous. Ruse writes an article about how he has come to realize that, even though Mormon beliefs seem ludicrous to him, it is the person’s position on issues that matters: “But the social and related issues are very important, and it is legitimate to involve these in your assessments and decisions. The Mormon Church on the matter of homosexuality is troublesome and it is clear that it is willing to use its vast funds—don’t forget the 10-percent tithing—to achieve social ends it thinks desirable.”

In other words, the LDS church’s position on social issues concerns him far more than coffee or underwear, and that is a legitimate concern because “the trouble is of course whether and how one can be certain that the person’s personal views will not translate into action.” He then says that “while anti-Mormon prejudice may be wrong, I don’t think that being an anti-Mormon is necessarily being wrong.” I should note that he’s not using “anti-Mormon” in the usual pejorative sense of spittle-flecked fanatics who hate Mormons. He’s talking about disagreeing with the LDS church’s goals and positions. And only the most defensive Mormon would think there’s something wrong with that.

2. “[Mormonism is] one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.” Christopher Hitchens, Slate, October 17, 2011.

Hitchens’s piece, Romney’s Mormon Problem, is essentially a polemical listing of some of the–shall we say–esoteric beliefs, practices, and history of Mormonism. But here’s a news flash: Hitchens disliked all religions and was not shy about mocking and ridiculing institutions he thought were not only ridiculous but harmful. But, once again, the MormonVoices folks miss the point yet again: Hitchens says, “we are fully entitled to ask Mitt Romney about the forces that influenced his political formation and—since he comes from a dynasty of his church, and spent much of his boyhood and manhood first as a missionary and then as a senior lay official—it is safe to assume that the influence is not small. Unless he is to succeed in his dreary plan to borrow from the playbook of his pain-in-the-ass predecessor Michael Dukakis, and make this an election about “competence not ideology,” he should be asked to defend and explain himself, and his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.”

Most Mormons I know call Scientologists weird and consider Scientology to be a cult, and I don’t expect many Mormons would enthusiastically support a candidate who is a Scientologist. And that’s because most people think that reasonable adults would not believe and accept the teachings of Scientology; that is how Hitchens and much of the rest of society views Mormonism.

1. “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion.” Bill Maher, October 15, 2011, George Washington University, as reported by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, October 18, 2011.

Finally, we come to the worst statement of 2011. Really? That’s it? Again, Bill Maher dislikes religion, such that he made a movie entitled “Religulous” that was dedicated to mocking different faith traditions. (By the way, I thought that film was rather snide and self-serving and could have been done much better.) We don’t have Maher’s quote in its entirety, just a summary from Maureen Dowd. Fortunately, we have video of Maher from October 14, 2011, the day before the reported remarks at George Washington University.

Religion (and Mormonism) Is a Con

Yeah, we get it. Maher thinks Mormonism is silly (but then he thinks that about all religions). He gets some of the stuff wrong, but if we’re going to learn something from this, it’s that this is what a lot of people think about Mormonism. He’s doing the church a favor by saying it out loud, whereas most of our non-Mormon friends will not say to our faces, “I think your religion is stoopid.”

A few years back, I worked for a company in Texas that developed complicated mathematics and statistics software programs. I worked with a lot of people, lots of PhDs. When I was a believer, they uniformly treated me and my Mormon beliefs with respect. But when I left the church, suddenly people began telling me how they had been so puzzled at my involvement in Mormonism because it was so ridiculous. One colleague said, “I always thought you were too smart to hang with that crowd.” I was shocked, not because I think I’m smarter than Mormons (I’m not), but because when they felt comfortable telling me how they really felt, they described the LDS church as strange and cult-like and its beliefs as ludicrous.

Smart Mormons will realize that the proper response is not to complain about these terrible attacks but to use this exposure to start a conversation about what Mormons believe and who they really are. I think the LDS church is doing this, to some degree, with its ubiquitous “I’m a Mormon” ads and its attempts to get more media exposure through local papers and through columns like the WaPo’s “On Faith” panel http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith, but to me, this kind of stuff from MormonVoices does nothing but feed a persecution complex in some people.

And it goes without saying that life is far too short to be spending one’s time looking high and low for reasons to be offended.

Going on the Offensive

December 9, 2011

Mormon readers may be familiar with Sidney Rigdon’s famous “Salt Sermon” and his subsequent oration of July 4, 1838, given in Far West, Missouri. Perhaps some background is necessary. In 1831, a group of Mormons from New York, had arrived in Ohio (then the headquarters of the newly established Church of Christ), where they had been promised land on which to live. But the donor of the land, Leman Copley, reneged on his promise, and Joseph Smith told these church members they were to proceed to Missouri, which God had prepared as a refuge from their enemies and a land of their inheritance (see D&C 52:3-5, 42-43; 54:1-10). Further revelations from Joseph Smith indicated that the Mormon settlements in Jackson County, Missouri, would eventually become the New Jerusalem spoken of in the Bible, where the Savior would return to rule His kingdom (see D&C 57:1-5).

From the time the Mormons arrived in Missouri in June 1831, hostilities grew between them and their non-Mormon neighbors, who apparently became concerned at the influx of over 1200 LDS immigrants by the summer of 1833. As a BYU summary notes, “It did not help that some [LDS] members unwisely boasted that nonmembers would be driven from the county.” Mob violence soon erupted. “Under duress, Church leaders signed an agreement to vacate Jackson County…. When the old settlers saw that the Saints intended not to depart immediately but to hold their ground and defend themselves, they resumed acts of violence. After small battles erupted and led to several fatalities, the local militia succeeded in disarming the Mormons and driving them from Jackson County in early November.”

After an abortive military mission to regain the Saints’ lost land and property, church members relocated to communities farther north and east in Clay County, where they expected to stay temporarily until a more permanent settlement could be found. By 1836, large numbers of Mormons had gathered to Clay County, and once again the Mormons were told they were not welcome. The legislature created a new county, Caldwell, expressly for the settlement of the Mormons, and the Mormons began leaving Clay County in early 1837. By March of 1838, Joseph Smith had declared the settlement of Far West, in Caldwell County, the headquarters of the church, and the town’s population reached 5,000 that summer. Soon Mormons were streaming into other northern counties, and once again tensions grew with their suspicious neighbors. At the same time, financial setbacks among Mormons in Ohio and Missouri led to the emergence of dissenters within the church, who “stirred up trouble among the Saints through the first half of 1838.”

All this time, church members had not responded in kind to the violence aimed at them, but this time would be different. In mid-June, church leader Sidney Rigdon “publicly threatened [Mormon] dissenters in his June ‘Salt Sermon,’ intimating that they should leave Far West or harm would befall them. News of this threat reinforced anti-Mormon hostility throughout Missouri.” A few weeks later, on July 4, Rigdon signaled that the Mormons would bear no more oppression from their neighbors:

We take God and all the holy angels to witness this day, that we warn all men in the name of Jesus Christ, to come on us no more forever. For from this hour, we will bear it no more, our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity. The man or the set of men, who attempts it, does it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.—Remember it then all MEN.

We will never be the aggressors, we will infringe on the rights of no people; but shall stand for our own until death. We claim our own rights, and are willing that all others shall enjoy theirs.

No man shall be at liberty to come into our streets, to threaten us with mobs, for if he does, he shall atone for it before he leaves the place, neither shall he be at liberty, to vilify and slander any of us, for suffer it we will not in this place.

After some Mormons were forcibly prevented from voting on election day, August 6, in Gallatin, Missouri, over 100 armed Mormon men surrounded the home of a local judge and compelled him, the local sheriff, and several prominent citizens to sign a pledge that they would not “molest” the Mormons. Meanwhile, the citizens of Carroll County voted that same day to expel Mormon settlers from their county. Armed mobs soon began burning Mormon homes and farms, and by October 1, they had laid siege to the Mormon town of De Witt. Two days later, the Mormons surrendered the town and began the march to Caldwell County; several Mormon women and children died of exposure and illness as a result. LDS historian Alex Baugh describes what happened next:

Following the dislocation of the De Witt Saints, Missouri assailants continued to extend their threats against Latter-day Saints residing in Daviess County. But on this occasion. Church leaders decided to take decisive action to disperse their antagonists by removing the remaining handful of non-Mormons who continued to reside in Mormon-dominated Daviess County. They justified such aggressive actions because they clearly felt they had been pushed around long enough, and if they were forced to leave Carroll County, they should be entitled to occupy both Caldwell and Daviess counties exclusively. …

During the hours just before dawn on Thursday, 25 October 1838, a contingency of Mormon Caldwell County militia engaged in armed conflict on the Crooked River, situated in northern Ray County, with the Ray militia under the command of Samuel Bogart, a Methodist minister. This skirmish, later known as the Battle of Crooked River, resulted in a dozen wounded and the deaths of three members of the Caldwell company—including the Mormon commander Apostle David W. Patten—and one member of the Ray company. Although casualties were limited, a broader examination of the conflict indicates the battle fueled the civil strife between the Mormons and the Missourians during the fall of 1838, and consequently was a leading factor in bringing about the forced expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state. [Alex L. Baugh, “The Battle Between Mormon and Missouri Militia,” Arnold Garr and Clark Johnson, eds., BYU Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History, Missouri (Provo, UT: Department of Church History and Doctrine, BYU University, 1994), 85-86]

The decision of the Mormon leaders to go on the offensive against the mob, while completely understandable, led to the Mormons being seen as the aggressors, not the victims of the violence. Reports of the battle at Crooked River reached the governor, who was already hostile to the Mormons, indicating that Bogard’s militia had been completely slaughtered by the Mormons. Boggs, accepting at face value that the Mormons were “in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this state,” issued the infamous Extermination Order instructing that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description.” By the spring of 1839, virtually all members of the LDS church had been forcibly expelled from the state.

Why do I tell this story? It’s a great illustration of my belief that, when tensions are escalating and emotions are running high, it is always best to try and defuse the situation, rather than responding in kind to attacks. Before someone points out that I’m being hypocritical, I will just say that I recognize that I don’t always follow my own beliefs, though I try. Every time I have let my emotions get the best of me and responded angrily or harshly to criticism, I have made the situation worse, and it has often come back to bite me. Would things have been better in Missouri had the Mormons not gone on the offensive? It’s difficult to say, but it is hard to see how it could have been worse.

Recently, Mormonism has been the focus of attention in the media and in popular culture. Two members of the LDS church are running for president of the United States, and the hottest ticket on Broadway is “The Book of Mormon (The Musical).” Some avowed enemies of the church have taken the opportunity to condemn Mormons and spread falsehoods about their beliefs and practices. Notably, Robert Jeffress, a prominent Evangelical preacher urged voters to choose a “real Christian” instead of voting for members of the Mormon “cult.” And of course, every time Mormonism is mentioned in a news item, the comments sections quickly fill with angry rants from opponents of the LDS church. For me, part of being a Mormon was expecting to be called a “deluded cultist,” “Satanist,” and “moron.” I’ve been accused of practicing black magic; engaging in orgies and human sacrifice inside our temples; and, worst of all, forbidding people to eat peanut butter. (Seriously, I’ve heard every one of these.) Most of the time, these misunderstandings come from ignorance, though sometimes they are deliberate. My response has always been to calmly and patiently explain the LDS position and correct any misinformation. It doesn’t always work, but then it’s easy to determine when you are talking to someone who refuses to listen. It doesn’t really bother me.

Although I have lost the simple faith in Mormonism I once had, I still feel it’s important to discuss Mormonism as it is, not as people want it to be. If I’m discussing LDS doctrine, I think it’s only fair to state accurately what that doctrine is. (I should say, however, that some Mormons have accused me of misrepresenting the church and its doctrines. They tell me I didn’t understand the gospel, or I’m just making things up to make the church look bad. It’s ironic, but I digress.) I try very hard to represent the LDS church accurately and fairly, but obviously, my views will always be colored by my experience. My efforts to be fair and honest have attracted criticism from some people who seem disappointed that I don’t hate the LDS church and think it is demon-spawned. An Evangelical friend once invited me to participate in a message board associated with The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, as he believed I might be able to help people understand what Mormons really believed; I lasted a couple of days because I was seen as “too Mormon,” “not Christian enough,” and not hostile enough to Mormon heresies. Why? Because I tried to correct some misrepresentations of Mormon beliefs. So, rather than engage in a futile and increasingly hostile exchange, I chose to withdraw. There are a lot of groups and people like CARM and the unfortunate Pastor Jeffress who seem to come out of the woodwork when Mormons are mentioned at all.

Most Mormons I know respond as I would, by trying to correct misinformation and decrease hostility. But some Mormons have decided to go on the offensive. Some groups, such as the More Good Foundation, seem motivated by the belief that church members can positively share their beliefs with others through the Internet and other media. Of course, they do actively go after critics of the church. One of their sponsored web sites describes former Mormons as “definitely not the best source for information about the Mormon religion—they often distort its teachings” and insists that “books published officially by the Church are likely to be more accurate.” I used to get regular visits to my blog from the More Good Foundation, but not so much anymore. Perhaps they’ve decided I’m not worth worrying about.

More recently, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) formed the Mormon Defense League, which they said would track media reports for inaccuracies about Mormonism. As the Salt Lake Tribune explains:

If the MDL notices a misstatement or mischaracterization, the group will first contact the journalist, [FAIR president Scott] Gordon said. But if a pattern of misrepresentation emerges, the defense league will “go after the writer” by posting the piece or pieces on its website (mdl.org) and pointing out the errors. (“New website to jump to Mormonism’s defense,” August 4, 2011.)

The article states that the defense league is “modeled after the Anti-Defamation League, created in 1913 “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” according to its website (adl.org).” However, the name evokes the more militant Jewish Defense League, founded by radical New York rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968. The JDL’s website states one of its guiding principles:

JDL upholds the principle of Barzel — iron — the need to both move to help Jews everywhere and to change the Jewish image through sacrifice and all necessary means — even strength, force and violence. The Galut image of the Jew as a weakling, as one who is easily stepped upon and who does not fight back is an image that must be changed. Not only does that image cause immediate harm to Jews but it is a self-perpetuating thing. Because a Jew runs away or because a Jew allows himself to be stepped upon, he guarantees that another Jew in the future will be attacked because of the image that he has perpetuated. JDL wants to create a physically strong, fearless and courageous Jew who fights back. We are changing an image, an image born of 2,000 years in the Galut, an image that must be buried because it has buried us. We train ourselves for the defense of Jewish lives and Jewish rights. We learn how to fight physically, for it is better to know how and not have to, than have to and not know how. (Five Principles, JDL.org)

(I should probably mention that, because I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, I’ve known several members of the JDL, hence my shock that the MDL had chosen that name.) Perhaps recognizing the unwanted connotations of the name, in November 2011 the league changed its name to the far more benign sounding “Mormon Voices.” Their stated mission:

MormonVoices has been created to respond to false information put forward in the media.

The intent is to assist journalists, authors, bloggers, producers, and others in the media in getting their stories right, and to correct misinformation and distortions about Mormons, Mormonism, and other faith communities.

Reading through their web site, I was impressed that their guidelines and suggestions were reasonable and helpful, encouraging civility, and keeping the emphasis on positive ways to correct misinformation and “offer constructive suggestions in a helpful manner.” These guidelines are in keeping with recent counsel from LDS leaders about sharing beliefs online. But given the public statements and actions of some Mormon Voices members and leaders, I’m left feeling that there is a much more aggressive attitude involved.

Some of the rhetoric reflects a sort of siege mentality. FAIR president Scott Gordon, for example, stated in the BYU Daily Universe, “Mostly the critics are looking for quotes that shock and awe when they are making these stories. Their goal is to make it as negative as possible.” Clearly, that is the goal of some critics, but in my experience, they are generally the exception. When we assume that those who criticize us or our beliefs are mostly trying to attack and show us in the worst possible light, we tend to become defensive; instead of opening a dialogue, we want to shut them down. Another Mormon Voices leader stated in the same article, “A Mormon saying this is what we really believe can really discredit anything else the author has to say about us.” I don’t know if he really meant it this way, but the implication is clear: if you can show one misconception or falsehood, you can destroy the credibility of whatever else is said.

Indeed, picking one minor point in order to discredit the rest of the message seems to be a pattern among some Mormon defenders. I came across an example of this tactic the other day. Time Magazine published a former Mormon’s photos of his family and life in “Happy Valley” (the local nickname for Utah County, Utah, where I live). I thought the photos, though unconventional and seemingly mundane, were moving and evocative. I loved the unself-conscious display of what to me are obvious realities of life here in Utah: cluttered bedroom floors, “kid art” on bedroom walls, and the ubiquitous blue tarps covering stored items in the yard. The first photo hit me hard: a family sitting on a couch in the waiting room at the Mt Timpanogos Temple while their loved ones are inside being “sealed” (married for time and eternity). Behind them on the wall is a painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Mormons believe he took upon Him the sins of the world. The juxtaposition of the Savior atoning for our sins so that we could be clean and enter into God’s presence against the family excluded from the sacred–well, it was heartbreaking to me.

I admit that I did not read the accompanying article, which was obviously written by a non-Mormon, until after I had seen and absorbed all of the pictures. But I was taken aback by the contempt and hostility from some LDS commenters. Here are a few examples from different commenters:

I suppose the mediocrity of Mr. Shumway’s photographs would be easier to forgive if it weren’t for the intellectual pretentiousness of the accompanying article. I mean, Wow. Like, umm, he read Friedrich Nietzsche (note the correct spelling) and Jean-Paul Sartre and Erich Fromm at sixteen? So did I. In California. And now I’m a believing Mormon academic.

And no, I have never encountered a Mormon family that thought or taught that it was sinful to watch television on Sunday — “Eeek! Turn the Tabernacle Choir off! Turn general conference off! Don’t you know it’s the Sabbath?” — let alone a family that held it a sin to visit others on Sunday.

This is lame. I lived in Utah County for several years and am an amateur photographer. Real life kept me from “briefly attending” an academy of art but I’ve taken and sold enough photographs to know these photos are not good. Mr. Shumway seems to be going out of his way to paint his family as nut job white trash. These photos and his descriptions are not consistent with my personal experience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or life in Utah County. Really? This is what TIME holds up as art? And Mr. Shumway’s credentials are…?

To me, this kind of aggressive attack isn’t helpful and may in fact backfire. I understand that at some point, you get pushed too far. I have. A couple of years ago, a couple of LDS posters were aggressively attacking me any time I wrote anything, anywhere on the Internet. They attacked my character and integrity and made subtle hints about violence toward me. I didn’t think much of it, but eventually when the attacks kept escalating, I responded more harshly and aggressively than I should have. They seized on my response as a sign of my mental instability, paranoia, and tenuous grasp on reality. When my wife began receiving threatening emails (she is still a believing Mormon), they said I was making things up. In short, adopting a more assertive and aggressive stance accomplished nothing for me, and in fact made things worse.

We don’t live in a time when Mormons are under physical attack from roving mobs, but we can learn from the mistakes our ancestors made. I am not suggesting that the aggressive stance of some Mormons is the moral equivalent of mob violence. However, we can stand up for ourselves and for truth without hostility and aggression. And I am convinced we will all be better for it.


October 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens on Mormonism. Brutal.

Romney’s Mormon Problem

Are Mormons Christians?

October 12, 2011

Sorry for the recent foray into politics, but I feel very strongly that people should not make a political issue out of someone’s religious affiliation. I care about principles and policies, not theology.

So, with that out of the way, the question arises, “Are Mormons Christian?” We’ve been told in the last week that Mormons are not “real” Christians and are a cult. Leaving aside that loaded language, I thought I’d just share my thoughts. I’m not going to cite anyone but myself here, so you can take this as my considered opinion.

I grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Southern California. There were Catholics and Protestants and a few Muslims (mostly Iranian exiles), but the largest religious group in my neighborhood and in the schools was Jewish. For that reason, Jewish holidays were also school holidays, simply because almost half the students would not show up anyway on those days. I went to bar-mitzvahs, ate lots of wonderful and (to a Mormon kid) exotic Jewish foods, and learned a lot about Jewish culture and people. (It doesn’t need to be said, but Jewish people are diverse in their lifestyles and beliefs as any other group, and stereotypes don’t work.)

We Mormons were a distinct minority: we weren’t Jewish, and we weren’t Catholic or Protestant or Muslim. But everyone I knew, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, lumped us in with the Christians. I certainly considered myself a Christian. I believed in the Bible, and I accepted Jesus as my Savior who suffered and died to atone for my sins. We read about Jesus in the scriptures, and we sang about Him in church, and we trusted in Him for salvation. I prayed in His name, was baptized in His name, and each week partook of the sacrament in His name and promised to always remember Him.

It wasn’t until I participated in a regional “dance festival” at the Rose Bowl (I’m pretty sure it was 1980) that I learned that some people didn’t think I was a Christian. My friend Corey and I came out to his car late that night to find an anti-Mormon pamphlet stuck under the windshield wiper. I was 15 and didn’t even know there were people out there who actively worked against our religion. But I read this pamphlet, and I honestly didn’t recognize the church they described. Some of what they said was a distorted take on what we really did believe, and some of it was gleaned from obscure quotes from long-dead church leaders from the nineteenth century. This was my first exposure to Ed Decker and his “Saints Alive in Jesus” group. I laughed it off because it was all so ridiculous and divorced from what our church was and believed. But there it was in print: We weren’t Christians because they said so.

I didn’t think much about it after that because the only person I knew who thought Mormons were evil was this really odd guy in my high school class who never bathed and who wandered around school in combat fatigues emblazoned with “GOD SQUAD,” calling everyone to repentance. He actually came to our ward one Sunday and announced to our Sunday School class that he could feel Satan’s power in the room.

But, as far as I can tell, the organized effort to demonize and marginalize Mormonism was in full swing by then, with Walter Martin’s books of the sixties and seventies (has anyone else noticed that he had the same haircut as Pastor Jeffress?), and Decker’s book and film “The God Makers” in the early 1980s. Part of that effort involved proclaiming that Mormons weren’t Christians. The effort has certainly been effective, as by the time I moved to Texas in 2000, my neighbors and coworkers were shocked to find that I read the Bible, believed Jesus is my Savior, and celebrated Christmas.

In response to this effort, the LDS church did two things: First, they revised the missionary discussions so that discussion of the divinity and mission of Christ came first (previously, that material was covered in the third discussion), and second, they added “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” to the title of the Book of Mormon.

As I said in an earlier post, Mormons do come out of historical Christianity, in that they sprang from the Restorationist movement. But they are neither Protestant nor Catholic, and many religious groups consider Mormons to be at best heretical, at worst a cult. I’ve been called worse, so that really doesn’t matter to me. I rolled my eyes when Mr. Jeffress was on CNN the other day because he wasn’t saying anything new.

Evangelicals have given me many reasons why I’m not a Christian (or at least wasn’t when I was Mormon). One is that Mormons do not believe in the Trinity, which of course is an extra-Biblical extrapolation based on Plato’s ideas of form. From what I read in the Bible, a Christian believes Jesus is the Son of God who came to earth in the flesh and died on the cross for our sins. I don’t know if I accept the Trinity at this point, but I really don’t think it matters. Why would God require me to believe something that is not in the Bible? And does anyone think a just God would say to someone, “No, I’m sorry, you followed me, you put your faith in me, but you got the technical details wrong, so you’re going to hell”?

I’ve been told that my beautiful wife, who has more faith in Jesus Christ than anyone I know, is going to hell. Why? Simply because she’s a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The scriptures tell us that God judges the heart. If you believe in Him, surely he knows who is a Christian, no matter what their religious affiliation.

People have said that I believed in the “wrong Jesus.” I’m still not sure what to make of that one. I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, the one spoken of in the New Testament. I wonder which Jesus they believe in? Jesus of Kansas City?

But Mormons believe in “another gospel,” right? Not really. The gospel, or “good news,” is that Jesus died to take away our sins. Mormons believe that. Yes, they believe in modern revelation, but again, how does that disqualify them from being Christian? They believe that the revelations the church has received come from Jesus. If they said they were coming from Xenu, they wouldn’t be Christian at all. But that’s not what they’re claiming.

It’s obvious that there are huge theological differences between Mormons and mainstream, orthodox Christians. And I am the first person to acknowledge that Mormons are definitely not mainstream, orthodox Christians. No Mormon I know would argue with that. But the bottom line is that we call people who believe in Jesus “Christians,” whether they are Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Above all, it bothers me that some people think that when Mormons proclaim their Christianity, they are somehow being disingenuous and sneaky, like they’re trying to put one over on the “real” Christians. That is simply not true. I don’t care if you think my wife or my mother or my children are Christians. God knows His own.

Me? I’m a lost apostate soul. But for some people, that’s better than being a Mormon.

Well Done, Pastor Jeffress

October 12, 2011

Last night the eight Republican candidates for president of the United States held a debate about economic policy. Given the media focus in the last few days on Pastor Robert Jeffress’s controversial call for people to vote only for “real Christians” and his subsequent clarification that he meant we shouldn’t vote for Mormons (and Mitt Romney in particular), I figured the issue would have to be dealt with in one of two ways:

1. Texas Governor Rick Perry (who is most closely associated with Jeffress) would have to address the issue by repudiating Jeffress’s remarks. As Charles Krauthammer said, it’s not enough to simply disagree that Mormonism is a cult; we should all agree that urging people to vote by religious affiliation cannot be tolerated in American political discourse. Of course, Jeffress put Perry in an awkward position with Evangelical voters, many of whom think Jeffress was right on the money. From what I’ve seen from Evangelicals in various places, if Perry repudiated Jeffress, he would be seen as pandering to political correctness.

2. The much more likely response would be for Perry to ignore the controversy and hope it goes away. If asked, Perry can say that he’s already deal with this issue (saying that he doesn’t think Mormonism is a cult) and move on. Ignoring the issue allows him to avoid offending Evangelicals and, he can hope, will simply make the issue disappear.

Either of these responses is a net positive for Mitt Romney because, in a single afternoon, Pastor Jeffress has taken Mormonism off the table as a political issue, legitimate or not. A lot of people across the political spectrum are uncomfortable with voting for a Mormon candidate (oddly enough, 22% of Mormons said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate), but Jeffress has effectively driven such discomfort from political discussion. It was bad enough that he used loaded language such as “real Christians” and “cult,” but he encouraged a religious test for candidates and then when given the chance, said Christians shouldn’t vote for Jews, either, unless they had to. So, post-Jeffress, expressing discomfort with Mormonism has the taint of anti-Semitism and narrow religious fanaticism. Again, the Romney campaign could not have scripted it better.

As it turned out, the subject came up only once in the debate, with Jon Huntsman joking that he wouldn’t bring up religion, “sorry, Rick.” Perry and the other candidates have clearly decided to ignore the Mormon issue, not wanting to be associated with Jeffress’s smiling but poisonous bigotry. They wisely want this issue to go away, and so it will.

Back in 2007, Mitt Romney gave a speech discussing his faith and values, and some called it his “Kennedy moment,” referring to John Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960. However, four years later, Romney’s faith was still an issue. Until now. Pastor Jeffress made sure Romney wouldn’t need a Kennedy moment.

Even if Romney doesn’t win the nomination, Jeffress has done a lot to ensure that a candidate’s Mormon faith will be far less a legitimate issue in the future. And that’s as it should be.

Rick Perry Imploding?

October 11, 2011

I don’t comment much on politics, but the last couple of days have been really instructive as to the political instincts (or lack thereof) of some Evangelical Christian conservatives. To recap, Pastor Robert Jeffress told a conservative political gathering that they should vote for “real Christians” over someone who, although a “moral person,” was not a real Christian. When asked to clarify, Jeffress said he meant Mormons, whom he described as belonging to a cult. He also said Christians should vote for a Christians over a Jewish candidate and stated that Catholicism was a corrupted version of Christianity.

So much to deal with, but the important point is this: he clumsily injected religious intolerance and prejudice into political discussion, something most Americans find at best inappropriate. Perry, when asked about it, said only that he didn’t think Mormonism was a cult, but offered no opinion on the notion that real Christians shouldn’t vote for a Mormon.

Reasonable conservatives from Bill Bennett to Charles Krauthammer have called on Perry to repudiate Jeffress’s remarks. At a press conference today, Mitt Romney and New Jersey governor Chris Christie both expressed disgust at Jeffress’s comments, Christie saying that any campaign that would associate itself with such a point of view “is beneath the office of the president.”

Reaction from some Evangelical conservatives in comments at the National Review website and elsewhere seems to be that Romney is being whiny and playing the victim, some even accusing him of political correctness. It’s all a ploy to discredit Perry, they say.

I should say that I don’t know who I’ll support next year, and Romney has never been one of my favorites for a number of reasons. But the Romney campaign is, I’m sure, loving every minute of this. They probably can’t believe their luck.

Mormonism was inevitably going to be an issue in this campaign. Romney tried to head it off in 2007, but there is no doubt that Evangelical bias against Mormons hindered his campaign. This time around, however, he didn’t have to head it off. Instead, Jeffress’s clumsy and bigoted remarks brought up Mormonism in the best possible way for a Mormon candidate: he made being uncomfortable with Mormonism seem unfair and narrowminded and explicitly linked anti-Mormonism to anti-Semitism. Brilliant move. Romney probably didn’t even need to say anything about the remarks.

Jeffress intended to sway Evangelicals toward Perry, which he may well have done, but then Romney was never going to get a large chunk of that voting bloc. But for everyone else, Jeffress is another in a series of bad miscues for the Perry campaign. First, he’s been terrible in the debates, and then there was the Niggerhead controversy, and now this.

It’s not like Perry’s campaign couldn’t have seen this coming. Jeffress has a long record of bigoted and intolerant statements about Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and just about every other group that is not Evangelical. They had two weeks to vet this guy, and yet they approved of his introduction, with its unsubtle call for religious prejudice, with Perry afterward saying the pastor “hit it out of the park.”

If nothing else, Perry’s campaign is showing itself to be inept and clumsy at best. And at worst, it may be intentionally fanning the flames of religious intolerance. Sorry, but that’s not what I want in a president. But he does have nice hair.

The Smiling Face of Bigotry

October 10, 2011

Why is it that so many bigots are goofy-looking little men with bad hair? I figured that at some point I would have to respond to Pastor Robert Jeffress’s comments last week about Mormonism. Here is what he said:

“Mitt Romney’s a good moral person, but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”

Responding to questions from CNN later the same day, Jeffress cited Founding Father John Jay that ” we have a duty and a privilege as Christians to select and prefer Christians as our leaders.” He repeated that Romney was a “good moral person,” but said that he would vote for someone who would uphold good “Christian principles.” When asked if he could support, say, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, he again said he would prefer a Christian to a non-Christian. However, he said, if Romney is the GOP nominee, he will have to “hold [his] nose” and vote for him over Obama. The president, he said, may be a Christian but does not uphold Biblical values.

First of all, let me say that I thought that the United States was past this kind of stupid religious prejudice. Apparently not. Second, no matter what you think of Jeffress’s comments, he did his candidate, Rick Perry, no good whatsoever. Evangelicals who agree with Jeffress were not going to vote for Romney, anyway, and those who don’t share his animosity toward Mormonism are now going to associate Rick Perry with religious bigots. This is the last thing Perry needed, coming close on the heels of the “Niggerhead” controversy.

But all that aside, let’s unpack Jeffress’s remarks. What exactly does he mean when he says that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not Christian? Jeffress defines Christianity thus: “It is only faith in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, that qualifies you as a Christian.” By that standard, then, Mormons are Christians. The fourth article of faith of the LDS church states that the first principle of the gospel is “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Doctrine and Covenants 76:41-42 further explains that Jesus “came into the world … to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved.”

But Jeffress really doesn’t believe that faith in Christ makes one a Christian. He adds, “They embraced another gospel, the Book of Mormon, and that is why they have never been considered by evangelical Christians to be part of the Christian family.” Thus, to folks like Jeffress, it’s not Christian faith that makes one Christian, but belief in a closed canon. This notion of “Sola Scriptura,” or the belief that the Bible alone contains all the knowledge and truth needed for salvation, is a product of the Protestant Reformation and was an explicit rejection of the priestly authority of Catholicism. But in itself, it is not a Biblical principle.

Jeffress also said that Romney, as a Mormon, “doesn’t embrace historical Christianity.” Strictly speaking, Mormonism is not a Catholic or Protestant denomination, which apparently is what Jeffress means by “historical Christianity.” Note, however, that Jeffress isn’t convinced that Catholicism is “historical Christianity,” either, referring to it as a “fake religion” coming out of “the Babylonian mystery religion” and representing “the Genius of Satan.”

But Mormonism is indeed part of historical Christianity in that it arose from the Restorationist movement that emerged in early nineteenth-century America. Restorationists believed in restoring the primitive church, including its apostolic authority, as a precursor to the Second Coming of Christ. Joseph Smith moved his church’s headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, because a large number of Restorationists (members of Alexander Campbell’s “Disciples of Christ” congregation) had embraced Mormonism, seeing it as the true restoration they had been looking for. So, Pastor Jeffress is mistaken in his assessment of Mormonism’s place in historical Christianity.

What he really means, I gather, is that Mormonism does not accept orthodox Protestant teachings. Fair enough, but Christianity is not defined by one movement’s particular doctrine. If people want to say that Mormonism is not “mainstream” Christianity or is even distorted or heretical, that’s their prerogative, but they have no right to say who is a Christian and who is not. That’s up to God.

Also, what does Jeffress mean when he calls Mormonism a “cult”? When most people hear the world “cult,” they think of Jim Jones and the mass Kool-Aid suicides in Jonestown, or brainwashed automatons wearing robes and handing out flowers. The word is clearly meant as a pejorative, and as I’ve always said, it adds nothing to religious dialogue. Jeffress tried to clarify his position on “Fox News and Friends” on Sunday:

“When I’m talking about a cult, I’m not talking about a sociological cult, but a theological cult. Mormonism was invented 1,800 years after Jesus Christ and the founding of Christianity. It has its own founder, Joseph Smith, its own set of doctrines and even its own book, the Book of Mormon, in addition to the Bible. That by definition is a theological cult.”

What he’s saying here is that Mormonism has different beliefs from his, so it’s a “theological cult.” I could go into what Christian apologists mean when they speak of theological cults, but it’s not necessary. Suffice it to say that they define a “cult” as a religious movement that claims to be Christian but deviates from orthodox belief. But saying that someone is “not an orthodox Christian” packs less of a punch than saying that he or she belongs to a cult. I’m sorry, but there is no way that Jeffress did not intend the pejorative connotation of the word “cult” in this context.

Finally, Jeffress cites John Jay in saying that “as Christians, we have the duty to prefer and select Christians as our leaders. That’s what John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court said.” Here’s Jay’s quote in context.

In 1816, John Murray wrote Jay asking if “war of every description is prohibited by the [Christian] gospel.” Jay responded by saying:

It certainly is very desirable that a pacific disposition should prevail among all nations. The most effectual way of producing it, is by extending the the prevalence and influence of the gospel. Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others and therefore will not provoke war.

Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.

In other words, Jay believed that Christian principles promoted peace and democracy. That is a matter of debate, I suppose, but Jay is not making a doctrinal litmus test, as is Mr. Jeffress. We should be clear here. Jeffress’s point is that, even if two candidates’ positions are exactly the same, we should vote for the “Christian” over the “non-Christian,” and we should rely on the good pastor to tell us which is which. In short, in Pastor Jeffress’s America, we should never vote for a non-Christian unless we have no choice. That’s right, if he had his way, there would be no elected Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, agnostics, atheists, or Mormons–and probably no Catholics, either.

But that’s not bigotry, right?