By Samuel Brown
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the after-effects of a highly divisive campaign against gay marriage in California have brought intense media scrutiny to the Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of the attention has been salutary: the academic study of Mormonism is finally taking off, and respected presses are publishing important new books on Mormonism.
The increased attention has also had a more controversial side. A variety of voices excoriate a church and religious tradition that they see as poisonous. These individuals descry in Mormonism dogmatic anti-intellectualism, shunning of dissatisfied or former members, dishonesty about institutional history, and even conspiracy theories that strain credulity. Those who love the LDS Church often express outrage at these criticisms of the community they treasure. Some recount their own highly positive experiences in the Church, the warmth they have found in its embrace, the love of knowledge and wisdom and diversity they find there. The two groups seem to be talking past each other, unable to recognize the Mormonism the other is describing.
Some of the complaints are ill-informed nonsense or conspiracy theories. Some are pure ignorance of a complex, outsider faith. Some of the criticisms represent poorly concealed classism, derision of the worldview of rural folk from America’s Mormon West. Many of the complaints are an artifact of sampling — Mormons are as various as any other people: some will be good, some will be bad; some tolerant, some intolerant; some provincial, some cosmopolitan.
But problems with sampling frame are too easy an answer to some complaints from outside observers or former members, which deserve apology rather than refutation. Those of us who love our church owe it to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to our God to allow criticism to make us better, wiser, more committed.
An apocryphal tradition has Mormon founder Joseph Smith explain that “When an enemy had told a scandalous story about him… before he rendered judgment he paused and let his mind run back to the time and place and setting of the story to see if he had not by some unguarded word or act laid the block on which the story was built. If he found that he had done so, he said that in his heart he… felt thankful that he had received warning of a weakness that he had not known he possessed.” Regardless of whether Smith is the source of this anecdote, there is important wisdom in it.
We Latter-day Saints must accept blame where blame is due. We should deeply regret Mormonism’s pre-1978 rejection of full membership for people of African descent. Even if we believe the policy was divine revelation, the theologies used to defend that policy are offensive, malignant, and must be abandoned. Even if, as some Latter-day Saints maintain, God allowed earlier generations of Mormons to practice institutional racism because they couldn’t handle egalitarianism — much as parents might indulge a teen’s cursing habit in the interests of keeping the lines of communication open — we modern Latter-day Saints must work strenuously to erase the last vestiges of that racism. Mormons are not the only community that needs to confront and mourn a terrible racial past. But we have been called to a higher life, and we should not falter in so great a cause.
Some Latter-day Saints have drawn on acrimonious hatred of gay people in heated debates about homosexuality and the legal contours of family relationships. Whatever the ultimate decision about the legal scope of civil marriage, cruel attitudes and language should have no place in Mormons’ political expression. We ought especially to remember the effects attitudes and rhetoric might have on our gay and lesbian siblings who have chosen to remain involved in our community despite the substantial emotional toll it exerts.
That some of our people turned our communitarian ethos to the heinous crime of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre should embarrass us deeply. While it is true that extra-legal violence was common then and that Mormons understood themselves to be at war with the United States at the time, our first response to angry questions about Mountain Meadows should be that we are deeply sorry that our coreligionists murdered 120 members of a migrant wagon train and then covered up the crime. We should scrutinize ourselves to see whether there are any remnants of the angry isolationism and the penchant for dehumanizing our enemies that played into the massacre. Where we see such traits in ourselves, we should stamp them out.
On a more everyday level, some Latter-day Saints have shamed and shunned members of the community who have faltered in belief or commitment or who have resigned entirely from the faith. At a time of great emotional stress, these individuals have found themselves separated from the support structures on which they have relied for much of their life. We all could and should do better at extending love and kindness to those who no longer feel able to maintain devotion to our faith.
There is much that is beautiful in us, in our church, in our religion. We care for each other and for the stricken with prodigious efficiency and enthusiasm; we generally take our religion and its obligations seriously; we support a coherence of community that is difficult to rival in the modern world. We are preoccupied with Christ, even if many traditional Christians reject our theology as heresy. Recognizing and celebrating all these strengths, we best honor the truth of our religion and our church when we allow just criticism to help us to improve, continuously.
Samuel Brown is Assistant Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Utah/Intermountain Medical Center and the author of In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. He is also the translator of Aleksandr Men’s Son of Man. Read his previous post “I Believe! The Origin of ‘Strange’ Mormon Beliefs.”