Who Is Captain Moroni?

January 4, 2016

Two days ago, on January 2, a group of well-armed, self-described “patriots” broke into the headquarters/visitors center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, saying they will not move until their nebulous and unspecified demands are met. I wasn’t surprised that, among the leaders of the takeover, was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay federal grazing fees led to an armed confrontation in Nevada in April 2015. The elder Bundy had cited his Mormon beliefs in support of his defiance of federal law. Fortunately, the month-long standoff did not result in bloodshed, but it certainly looked as if it might.

In an article for Oregon Public Broadcasting, John Sepulvado tries to explain the Mormon connection to the current standoff. I think he did a fair job of it, but I wanted to explore a little bit more of what is behind the peculiar mix of right-wing insurrection and Mormon theology.

As Mr. Sepulvado correctly explains, these armed groups take their cues from Mormon symbolism, particularly the episode in the Book of Mormon involving a man called Captain Moroni gathering the free and righteous under the “Title of Liberty.” This explains why one armed man at the Malheur refuge identified himself as “Captain Moroni, from Utah.”

cptmoroni

As Mr. Sepulvado explains, the story is basically that, at a time when the free government of the Nephites (the protagonists of the Book of Mormon) is under attack by evil dissenters (known as “king-men”), the righteous warrior, Captain Moroni, is outraged at the government’s refusal to come to his aid and therefore threatens to take up arms against the government–ironically to preserve the government. Here’s Sepulvado’s summary:

According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allow them to worship and govern as they saw fit.

In LDS texts, Moroni prepares to confront a corrupt king by tearing off part of his coat and turning it into a flag, hoisting it as a “title of liberty.” This simple call to arms inspired a great patriotism in the Nephites, helping to raise a formidable army. Vastly outnumbered, the corrupt king fled. According to the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni continued to push for liberty among his people.

“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”

This is only partially correct. There was no king at the time described, but a “chief governor,” elected more or less by the voice of the people. The chief governor was a man named Pahoran, who, according to the Book of Mormon, was not corrupt and did not flee. Rather, Pahoran supported Captain Moroni but explained that he had been driven out of his capital by the king-men:

I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul.

But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions, yea, insomuch that they have risen up inrebellion against me, and also those of my people who are freemen, yea, and those who have risen up are exceedingly numerous.

And it is those who have sought to take away the judgment-seat from me that have been the cause of this great iniquity; for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people, which will be the cause of sore affliction among us; they have withheld our provisions, and have daunted our freemen that they have not come unto you.

And behold, they have driven me out before them, and I have fled to the land of Gideon, with as many men as it were possible that I could get.

And behold, I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs. (Alma 61:2-6)

Subsequent chapters in the Book of Mormon describe how Captain Moroni and Pahoran work together to drive out the king-men and reestablish government control over the land. It’s a bit strange that Bundy and his friends see themselves as latter-day Captain Moronis, given that they clearly oppose the elected government of the people. If anything, the actions of Bundy and his friends more closely resemble the actions of the king-men described in the Book of Mormon. Unlike Pahoran and Captain Moroni, they have no legitimate claim to represent the government or the people. They are, in fact, guilty of sedition at best, treason at worst.

So, how did the symbolism of Mormonism become so tightly entwined with right-wing, anti-government ideology?

First, as most Americans understand, early Mormons experienced violent opposition from their non-Mormon neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the 19th century. Their attempts at redress from the federal government fell on deaf ears. Finally, after a mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, the Latter-day Saints were compelled to flee the United States and establish an isolated homeland in what was then part of Mexico. Within a couple of years of their settling Utah, the Mexican-American War resulted in Utah Territory coming under United States jurisdiction. The Mormons in Utah resented being governed by Washington, and they more or less used church ecclesiastical structure for day-to-day business and law. By 1857, federal appointees in Utah, tired of having their powers “usurped” or ignored by the Mormons, asked Present James Buchanan for help in putting down a “rebellion” in Utah. Buchanan sent 2,500 armed soldiers to install a new federally appointed governor and enforce federal law. The resulting Utah War ended with few casualties but a healthy suspicion of the federal government among Mormons. Anti-polygamy laws that disenfranchised Mormons, criminalized their religious practices, and seized church assets further ingrained a culture of suspicion toward the government.

But that’s only half the story. By the time of the Great Depression, Utah would follow most of the country in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which rested on strong federal government action to lift the country out of economic catastrophe. Indeed, more than 60% of Utah voters supported Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944, with support at 70% in 1936. It seemed that Mormons had made their peace with strong central government.

Then the Cold War came.

After World War II, America became gripped by a fear of Communist takeover. Most of us are familiar with the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklists, and Joseph McCarthy. Out of the “Red Scare” came an extreme right-wing ideology that saw a Communist conspiracy in most efforts at international cooperation (such as the United Nations) and “big government” policies. Most prominent among proponents of this ideology was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. He stated, “Both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government'” (The Blue Book of the John Birch Society).

As we’ve seen with the Bundy folks, the idea that there are secret, treasonous forces at work within the government resonates with Mormon beliefs. Throughout the Book of Mormon are warnings against “secret combinations,” or secret organizations dedicated to the destruction of freedom and righteousness.

And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. (2 Nephi 26:22).

One prominent adherent of the Birch Society was well-known Mormon W. Cleon Skousen. His book, The Naked Communist, became an important part of the Birch Society canon, and was followed by The Naked Capitalist. The latter book draws mainly on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (a history of modern European imperialism and multinational organizations) to suggest that, behind the lofty rhetoric of these international bodies lies an insidious effort to control the world through a single socialist government. Most serious students of history rightly dismiss Skousen’s theories, though such luminaries as Glenn Beck wholeheartedly endorse them.

But the link to Mormonism wasn’t cemented until apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave outspoken support to Skousen’s ideas and the Birch Society. Benson grounded his attacks on the United Nation, the Civil Rights movement, and other alleged instruments of Communism in his defense of the U.S. Constitution, which he referred to as “miraculous,” “a heavenly banner,” and “divinely inspired.” Indeed, LDS scripture has God saying, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).

In this way, Benson not only linked the principles of republican democracy and freedom to belief in God, but he specifically called out anything beyond a strict-constructionist reading of the Constitution as being inspired of the devil. Seen in this light, the following statements from a Bundy rally in Utah are completely understandable:

“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked.

“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.

“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” Bundy asked.

“Absolutely,” the audience answered.

In my experience, the folks who most loudly proclaim their love for the Constitution know the least about it, its history, and its development. A few years ago, I heard from a longtime friend who had somehow immersed himself in this right-wing ideology. After a few minutes talking with him, I realized he had only a superficial understanding of the Constitution and how it works. I asked him if he had ever read the Federalist Papers, a must for anyone wanting to understand the “heavenly banner.” I wasn’t surprised when he said he hadn’t. But, he said, “I understand Constitutional principles.”

In his response, my friend told me everything I need to know about these supposed freedom fighters: they have somehow mixed their political beliefs (and fears) with a particular reading of Mormon scripture. To them, it makes perfect sense that one would take up arms against the government in order to preserve our system of government. It seems to me that what they are really saying is that they refuse to be ruled by the voice of people who disagree with them.

I have just learned that the LDS church has issued a statement:

While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.

Some might wonder if these armed men will listen to the church and reconsider their actions. If I were a betting man, I would say they will ignore the church’s clear condemnation, perhaps even believing that the church itself has been infiltrated by the enemies of God.


Mormons in Bolivia by the Numbers

September 18, 2015

A non-LDS friend was asking me about the church’s claims of being the “fastest-growing” church in the world, so I gathered a few statistics. I’ve mentioned before that activity rates in Bolivia, where I served my mission, are abysmal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a large chapel, even a stake center, where there were 25 or so people in sacrament meeting. In one branch where I served, there were 250 names on the membership records, but only 3 who attended sacrament meeting (and one of those was the branch president, who didn’t even live within the branch boundaries).

I just discovered that Bolivia did a national census in 2012, so I finally have real numbers to compare.

In 2012, the church claimed there were 182,964 members in Bolivia. According to the 2012 census, the population of Bolivia in 2012 was 10,027,254, so if we accept the church’s numbers, Mormons made up 1.82% of the population.

However, in the 2012 Bolivian census, only .3% of the population, or 30,082 people, self-identified as Mormon. That is only 16% of the number of members the church claims. Dividing the total by the number of wards and branches indicates that there are, on average, 117 self-identified Mormons in each unit. Of course, I would assume that not all self-identified Mormons are active in the church, so the number of active members per unit is probably a bit lower.

That said, according to Cumorah.com, “Congregations widely vary in active membership, with a few larger wards numbering nearly 300 active members.” I saw that firsthand. There are a few wards in the larger cities that function pretty much like any ward in the US, with large congregations filling the pews each Sunday. But such wards are the exception, with most units struggling.

None of this should surprise anyone, but it’s kind of nice to have some real numbers for once.


Guest Post: A Particularly Aggressive Apostle

July 7, 2015

I have received many thoughtful responses to my post about Boyd K. Packer. I thought this one from “Laozi” was worth sharing, so with his permission, here it is.

I generally agree with your position that Packer was in harmony with the rest of the Q15, but I wouldn’t want to paper over the very deep rifts between the brethren, the fact that there are differences and that apostles often get angry at each other and at pushing things too far. McConkie’s views were unpopular and disavowed, Benson’s 14 points were disavowed, Kimball’s Lamanite programs were quickly trashed. . . Individuals do in fact represent different strains of Mormonism. I agree that some of the apostles, including Kimball and Peterson, shared Packer’s views on sexuality and were equally reprehensible. But I I doubt you’d ever find McKay saying those things, or Brown, or Uchtdorf. The fact is that sometimes a particularly aggressive apostle takes the reins and drives the church a bit further towards his preferred position—notice Ballard’s role in the recent excommunications, also in Prop 8. So individuals matter.

That is one of my two points. First, that Packer was among the most aggressive in condemning human sexuality, perhaps equaled only by Kimball. In that sense he, too, was an evil men. Their volume, their stridency, was not praiseworthy since it served that evil. Goebbels should not be praised for his commitment to sharing his message loudly, clearly, and unequivocally. He was in fact MORE evil because he was more effective at advancing an evil cause. Second, I consider anything that exonerates the individual from responsibility for his own actions dangerous (and in fact ultimately totalitarian). I prefer something like the legal concept of “joint and several responsibility.” Yes the joint enterprise, Mormonism, is culpable and deserves punishment. But so too is each and every person who promotes that agenda both generally and “severally,” for whatever unique additions he contributes to the mix. Packard should, from my vantage, be viewed as what he was, to a certain extent a reflection of an immoral and harmful organization; but simultaneously as an individual who chose to say things more brutally and in more open and influential fora (Aaronic Priesthood, for heaven’s sake?) than the vast majority of his contemporaries. His charge was ideological enforcement, not chastity. His Little Factory speech, that instance of mass torture, was avocational, voluntary.

So yes, I find him particularly invidious, particularly guilty. He has more blood on his hands than do most of the other apostles and prophets. Forgiveness? Sure we all need to achieve that. But we don’t need to let the particularly nasty people off the hook. I don’t think real forgiveness (meaning primarily peace and harmony within the victim) is possible until we have come to terms with who the various abusers were and how much responsibility they each bore. I guess in this sense I’m like the post-Haulocst Jews: never forget. Never forget the movement, and never forget the individuals who willingly served as cogs in the machine. Peace comes after a full and frank appreciation, after we have told our story and warned humanity (or our community) to recognize Packer when he next arises.

My response:

I can’t argue with you. I know from my experience at the COB that there are deep rifts within the highest quorums of the church, and Packer definitely represents an extremely strident faction. So, no, I wasn’t trying to excuse him as merely symptomatic. What concerns me is this notion some people have that, “Now that Packer’s gone, the church will be more tolerant and accepting, etc.” It’s as if Packer was a symbol (an apt one, IMO) of all that’s wrong in the church, but that now that he’s gone, we’ll have a church more like Dieter Uchtdorf. That’s not how it works. The church might be a little more diplomatic than Packer, but nothing’s going to change, particularly if they keep choosing bland corporate types for leadership positions. 

As for forgiveness, I probably should have emphasized more that, with Packer’s passing, we need to rid ourselves of the legacy of guilt and shame he and others left us with; in short, we need to forgive ourselves.


Boyd K. Packer

July 6, 2015

As pretty much all of my Mormon and former-Mormon readers will know by now, Boyd Kenneth Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died on Friday, July 3, at the age of 90. I haven’t been surprised at all at the reactions from different camps. A great deal of vitriol has been heaped on his corpse in the last few days (my personal favorite: “Rot in hell, you bloated toad”), and, of course, the faithful mourn the passing of a great man who loved God and painted in his spare time (M. Russell Ballard said, “He was truly an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he represented the Savior of the world”).

So, what was he: the Savior’s representative, or a vicious old toad? Quite clearly, how we see his life and legacy depends entirely on how we view the church he served for so long. Much has been said about Packer’s role in the September Six affair in 1993, his apparent preference for faith-promoting history over things “that are true [but] not very useful,” and his retrograde attitudes towards sexuality and, in particular, homosexuality. He clearly was a lightning rod who did not shy away from controversy. As Dallin Oaks said of him, “You can’t stage-manage a grizzly bear.”

I had only a few minor brushes with the man. Like all Mormon boys of my generation, I was well-acquainted with his talk, “To Young Men Only,” which, although it spawned countless jokes about “little factories,” made it clear to me that masturbation was a terrible evil, so I vowed to stop, and was quite successful (so much so that my urologist tells me that certain health issues I have had are a direct result of my not “stimulating my little factory”). I learned from Elder Packer that it wasn’t enough not to masturbate, but I was to control my thoughts with such vigilance that I would never allow my mind to wander to anything lustful. More than anything, this teaching is what filled my young mind with shame and guilt, which would remain for many years.

My first real-life brush with President Packer came in December 1983, a couple of weeks after I received my mission call. My birthday is in November, so I had agonized over whether I should squeeze in another semester of college before leaving or enter the MTC right when I turned 19. I finally decided to go back to school, which meant delaying my mission for a couple of months. When my roommate and I heard then-Elder Packer was coming to Provo to give a “missionary fireside,” we were excited, and we arrived early at the Provo Tabernacle to get good seats. Elder Packer spoke about how selfish it is to delay a mission for any reason, such as education or finances. I sat there, slowly shrinking in my seat, burning with shame for having acted so selfishly. Had I been more faithful, I thought, I would have been in the MTC at that very moment, instead of feeling all that guilt. After the meeting, my roommate insisted that we get in line to shake Elder Packer’s hand. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to look him in the eye, knowing I had shirked my duty and that he knew. As we got closer to him, the shame kept on building. Eventually, he put out his hand and shook mine. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you going to serve a mission, young man?” I told him I had already received my mission call and would be leaving for Bolivia in a few weeks. He patted my hand, smiled, and said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was so relieved. Clearly, I had been forgiven, but I vowed I would never again put my own needs ahead of the Lord’s.

The next time I came across President Packer in person was in 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building. Our editing staff had been invited to the All-Church Coordinating Council, which was a meeting of everyone in management in the building. We met in the auditorium, and we heard from M. Russell Ballard, President Packer, and finally, President Thomas Monson. I don’t remember Elder Ballard’s talk at all, but I do have a vivid memory of President Monson glaring at us over glasses he’d borrowed from Neal Maxwell, berating us for our poor efforts to spread the gospel message. But everyone else remembers President Packer’s talk, now (in)famous for his belief that the church faced three great dangers: “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” What struck me at the time was less his calling out of people who were “facing the wrong way,” but more that he read letters from members who were obviously distraught, yet his tone was disdainful and even mocking (the official transcript does not include the laughter he elicited at the letter-writers’ expense). I found the whole thing deeply troubling, and I remember thinking, as the auditorium rang with raucous laughter, “This is not a man of God.” I felt terribly guilty for thinking that, but I couldn’t shake it.

The last encounter I had with him was in 1996, when I attended the dedication of the Mt. Timpanogos Temple in American Fork, Utah. Our bishopric had received tickets to the celestial room, meaning that we would be in the same room as the prophet (Gordon B. Hinckley) when he spoke and offered the dedicatory prayer. At the time, we had 5 small children, and although we had tried to get out of the house early, we didn’t arrive until about 15 minutes before the meeting would begin. To our surprise, the room had been filled from the back, going forward, meaning that our bishop, who had arrived 4 hours early, was seated in the very back row. My wife and I, on the other hand, were in the second row, with only the secretary to the Quorum of Seventy and his wife sitting in the row ahead of us (I knew him from my days at the Church Office Building). Only a couple of things stand out to me: first was President Hinckley saying, as near as I can remember it, “That you are here means that you are the best people in the world, that is, if you were honest in your worthiness interviews.” I remember digging through my brain, trying to find some failing I’d missed, but I ended up feeling pretty good about myself. President Packer was to lead the “Hosanna Shout,” which is the point during the dedication when everyone stands, waves a white handkerchief in the air, and shouts, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!” three times, followed by, “Amen, Amen, and Amen!” He gave us some background history, and then led the shout. I thought he seemed bored in his matter-of-fact recitation of the “shout,” which was more of a low-key chant than anything. I’m guessing he was aiming at solemn dignity, but it sounded mechanical and uninspiring to me. I thought maybe I just wasn’t in tune with the Spirit.

And that’s pretty much it. I didn’t know the man and certainly didn’t know his heart. Part of me admires his dedication to the LDS church. His entire adult life was spent serving the church in one way or another. After a career in the Church Education System (mostly as an administrator), he was called into full-time church service as an Assistant to the Twelve when he was only 37 years old. Eight years later he was called as an apostle, so more than half his life was spent as a full-time church leader, with almost exactly half his life as an apostle. Anyone who saw him the last few years knows he was in very poor health, and yet he still served his church to the best of his ability. He was, by all accounts, a dedicated and loving husband and father to 10 children, and despite what some have said, it seems to me that he lived a fairly modest lifestyle.

At the same time, I completely understand why so many people disliked the man, maybe even hated him (for the record, I have trouble mustering hatred for anyone, so I don’t). His teachings, regardless of their intention, put me and many others through a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame. A friend tells me that Packer’s teachings about masturbation drove him to attempt suicide at age 45. I know a lot of gay and bisexual members (and their spouses) who have suffered so much because of his condemnation of them. Am I angry? Do I blame him for putting people through all that? It would be easy to do so, but I don’t blame him, at least not entirely and not specifically him.. He was simply expressing what everyone in LDS culture knew about sexuality: outside of marriage, it was not to be expressed or even thought of. I’m sure he believed that as fervently as I did, so I can’t blame him for saying what I probably would have said had I been in his position. Did those teachings mess me up? Undoubtedly, but, whatever I experienced, those teachings didn’t originate with him, and they were expressed just as forcefully by others, such as Spencer W. Kimball.

It’s also easy to single him out for his role in quieting dissent and keeping a lid on those aspects of church history that are “not uplifting.” But again, he was merely giving voice to certain strains within the church as an institution. Alone, he could not possibly have orchestrated the excommunication of six very different personalities; the September Six happened because that’s where the church was in 1993. That the institution’s goals coincided with his beliefs is more a problem with the institution. Packer made an easy target, perhaps because people wanted to see him as an aberration, an outlier, so they could distance the church from its actions.

I suspect he recognized his role as lightning rod. He took it upon himself to attract the attention and vitriol of those who would otherwise understand that his “controversial” statements were simply restatements of what the church was already doing. Some might call that courageous, but I think he probably enjoyed it.

In the end, Boyd Kenneth Packer was just like the rest of us: complex, a mass of contradictions, and utterly human. May he rest in peace. And may all those who suffered shame and guilt because of his words find forgiveness–both for themselves, and for him.


Loyalty Tests

June 11, 2015

My good friend Corbin Volluz has posted the latest in his ongoing campaign to face church discipline (just kidding, of course).

Apostasy Now

It’s an interesting read, and I think he may have something here: it isn’t so much what you believe that determines your status in the church as it is your loyalty to the institution and its leaders. Anyway, as always, Corbin is a passionate and compelling writer.

Of course, if that were all there is to it, how does one explain my current status in the church? I suspect that one must not only be deemed disloyal but also attract some notoriety. That would apparently exclude me.


Applied Apologetics

June 11, 2015

I like to browse Real Clear Politics as a way to get different perspectives on current events and issues. Sometimes I also go to the religion subsection, as I find it fascinating to see how differently people of various faiths view the world. Anyway, this morning I stumbled across an article about Travis Kerns, an Evangelical man who works full-time as a missionary to the Mormons in Utah.

A Missionary in the Heart of Mormonism

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the article.

First of all, I have to admire someone whose faith is so strong that he would dedicate his entire life to it. Specifically, I’m impressed that he ended up being willing to do the one thing he said he would never do:

Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”

“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”

The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”

I could relate to that, as my teenage self had said the one place I would not want to serve a mission was in South America, but after fasting every Sunday for months, I came to the point at which I would have accepted a call anywhere with peace and happiness. Bolivia was just fine for me. But Mr. Kerns isn’t talking about a two-year interruption of youth but a full-time assignment with his family. That he was willing to give up his plans to teach and instead focus on missionary work is, in my view, quite admirable.

Kerns mentions that he earned a PhD. in “applied apologetics.” I had no idea such a degree was offered anywhere, but then I’m not up on what is taught in Baptist seminaries. I know a few Mormons who would have loved to earn such a degree in defending Mormonism were it offered. He mentions the kind of stuff you would expect: Mormons aren’t real Christians, and Evangelicals have to “deconstruct” Mormonism so that Mormons can understand what real Christianity is. He seems to take a pretty standard approach to Mormonism and Mormons.

But what fascinates me the most about this article is how his views about himself, his religion, and his relationship with the people in Utah are so similar to how many Mormon apologists I know view themselves. He says that Christians “stick out” in Utah in dress and behavior, especially since they are such a tiny minority.

The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.

Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.

“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”

People who know anything about Utah may notice that 50,000 is a very small number of Christians in the state. Kerns tells us:

Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.

I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers, but that seems wrong on the face of it. Even assuming that 70% of the state is nominally Mormon and that 2% is Evangelical, how does he arrive at the belief that the other 28% are “non-Christian or no religion at all”? The only thing I can think of is that Kerns is one of those folks who believes that Catholicism is a “non-Christian” religion, which I’ve never understood. (The latest statistics for Utah, for 2013, are 58% Mormon, 16% unaffiliated, 10% Catholic, 7% Evangelical, 6% mainline Protestant, and a number of religions at or below 1%.)

I think Kerns’s skewed numbers are essential to his–and the article’s–narrative: with 98% of the state arrayed against him. he’s one of the very few true believers standing up against the overwhelming numbers and power of Mormonism in Utah, sort of a David against Mormonism’s Goliath.

Indeed, Kerns uses military imagery to emphasize his place as a Christian warrior doing battle with the forces of a counterfeit Christianity:

While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”

“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”

I have to admit I was taken aback and wanted some examples of this “intense spiritual warfare” that he sees at every general conference. Most Mormons I know see conference as a nice, uplifting break from regular church services and a chance to hear counsel from the prophets and apostles. The only hostility I ever saw was against those nasty folks who gather outside Temple Square to heckle and shout at conference-goers.

But for Kerns, the “spiritual warfare” is very real.

In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.

Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.

Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.

“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”

I really don’t know what to say about this. I had no idea that anyone in the world believed that LDS general conference was so powerful a tool of Satan that it could cause severe depression and anger, not to mention cancer and stillbirth, among Christian missionaries. At my most devout, I believed that Satan had the power to fill me with doubt or discouragement, but I never thought he had the power to hurt me or my family physically. Maybe there are some Mormons out there who believe as Mr. Kerns does, but I don’t recall having met any.

None of this is meant as criticism, but I find Mr. Kerns’s perspective fascinating, and I’m glad the Southern News profiled him.


The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?