I read an opinion article by Carrie Sheffield in the Washington Post today that was somewhat disturbing. In it, the author calls for reform in the LDS Church (a.k.a. the “Mormon” Church), based largely on some of her own experiences.
While her experiences with some members the Church are unfortunate, most of the information she presents as fact is simply not representative of Church doctrine.
This is a somewhat lengthy post, but I feel it necessary to correct the misinformation Carrie is spreading. If you’re not interested in a long post about the LDS Church, I won’t be offended if you stop reading now 😉
Alright. Now that you’ve decided to keep reading, I’ll jump right in, starting with Carrie’s very first paragraph:
There has been much talk recently about whether America is ready for a Mormon president. This tolerance question should cut both ways.
Meanwhile, though the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently found that 56 percent of Mormons think America is ready for a Mormon president, the church isn’t exactly welcoming of outsiders.
… Not welcoming of outsiders? As of December 31, 2010 we had 52,225 active full-time missionaries, each of them specifically called to try to teach “outsiders” the gospel. Most of our church buildings have written in bold letters underneath the name, “VISITORS WELCOME”. Church members are encouraged to bring their friends to church.
But, perhaps she simply means that Church members don’t like voting for non-members:
Mormons account for 57 percent of Utah residents yet some 91 percent of Utah state legislators self-identify as Mormons. The state that’s home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has elected only two non-Mormon governors in nearly 116 years and has sent just one non-Mormon to Congress in the past five decades.
The fact is, most of the people running for office in Utah are Mormons, so it should come as no surprise that most of the people that get elected are Mormons. It’s a little silly to use that to conclude that Mormons are somehow unwelcoming of “outsiders”.
But let’s see what the Church’s instructions are regarding voting:
Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest. Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.
I don’t know about you, but it seems somewhat difficult to find political candidates these days who “act with integrity” and are either wise, good, or honest (let alone all three).
A given political candidate may hold any number of a wide variety of positions on a wide variety of subjects; unless the candidate has been in office before, it is difficult to know how that candidate will behave in office.
As it happens, the LDS Church holds its members to a rather high standard. In order to remain a member in good standing, one must obey the teachings of the gospel. In particular, if I want to remain in good standing, I must be honest in my dealings with my fellow man.
Why is this relevant, you ask? It’s quite simple — if I know nothing about Mitt Romney other than the fact that he’s an active Mormon in good standing with the Church, then I can make several accurate assumptions about his character and how he will behave in office. I may not be able to specifically predict his choices on a given issue, nor can I say whether I will agree with him on everything, but I can say for certain that he will act in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to the best of his ability and understanding.
I can’t say anything with that level of confidence about any of the other candidates, in any political party. This is one reason religion is an important factor in voting; it tells you something about a person. If you’re looking for someone who will uphold the teachings of Christ, will you vote for the man who goes to a Catholic mass once or twice a year and never even glances at a church in the meantime, or will you vote for the man who you know reads the scriptures and prays regularly?
As you can see, it has nothing to do with whether I welcome outsiders, and everything to do with what I know about the candidates as a direct result of their religious beliefs. I would wager that the same is true for the vast majority of Church members — we vote based on who we think will best uphold the Gospel of Christ, and I really doubt an atheist will ever be better at upholding the Gospel than an active member of the Church.
Now, let’s get back to Carrie’s article. We’ll see that she’s not basing her comments on the Church’s official doctrine, but merely on an unfortunate set of personal experiences that she may or may not be remembering correctly.
Yes, Mormons love families. But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church.
Her family treated her poorly when she left the Church, therefore all Mormons must be the same, right?
It gets worse:
The church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking.
This is not true on several levels. First and most basic is that from a very young age, we tell our children to do three things, in this order:
- Search the scriptures
- Ponder what you have read
- Pray and ask if it is true
Missionaries teach the exact same series of steps to people of all ages. When I served my mission, I encouraged people to ask questions, to think about what things meant and whether they could be true. Then I invited them to pray and ask God, and testified to them that if they were sincere in their search for truth, God would answer them. And guess what? He did.
Never have I once heard anyone in the Church encourage “unquestioning obedience”.
Perhaps Carrie was simply unfortunate enough to have a misguided teacher or two. (I do not deny that some Church members might say such things; that does not make it Church doctrine, nor does it mean Carrie should judge the Church harshly as a result.)
Next Carrie moves on to issues of a scientific nature:
But I struggled after realizing that Mormonism’s claims about anthropology, history and other subjects contradict reason and science.
Carrie might have thought there were contradictions, but there are not; unfortunately, because she did not specify any of them, I cannot give any counter-examples.
While many faiths’ irrational claims are obscured by centuries of myth and rubble, the LDS church lacks the moderation and scholarship of its older peers.
I have no idea what this even means… so I have no idea how to respond. It’s not possible that she’s unaware the Church funds several respected universities with strong science programs, because later in the article she says she went to one of them.
[The LDS Church] also stifles efforts to openly question church pronouncements, labeling such behavior as satanic.
Again she leaves us with no examples, but I have never seen a Church leader do such a thing. I *can* give a counter-example, though; a while back, the Church came out officially in support of California’s Proposition 8. At no point did the Church require members to vote either way on the proposition, nor did the Church punish members who disagreed.
Critics of Mormonism include geneticists, Egyptologists and even the Smithsonian Institution, which stopped Mormon apologists from claiming the institute viewed the Book of Mormon as a factual document.
The first two are true, but not surprising. The third is true, to some degree; the Smithsonian did issue various statements over the years regarding what it viewed as problems with the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian’s statement is full of all sorts of holes, and isn’t a good source if you’re looking for valid criticism.
At any rate, there are critics of every organization and idea, and those critics come from a wide variety of backgrounds. It would be equally accurate to say that critics of Mormonism include the Pope and that one atheist guy who lives down the street, but that doesn’t make it relevant to the subject at hand.
While studying at Brigham Young University, I spiritually imploded after learning these things and other facts outside official church curriculum. Disturbed, I met with a high-ranking Mormon leader who told me to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were “worse than pornography.” BYU’s dean of religious education wouldn’t answer my growing list of questions. Other leaders told me that questioning is acceptable so long as it’s done secretly.
This series of descriptions is what disturbed me, and is what prompted me to write this post. I want to make this abundantly clear:
Carrie’s experience is in no way representative of Church doctrine, nor does it reflect what I have heard from Church leaders.
However, I can’t help but think she misinterpreted some of what she heard. Did that high-ranking Mormon leader think she was reading anti-Mormon literature of the sort that is mostly invented accusations and mudslinging, in the guise of “history”? If so, yes, I would agree that such things are “worse than pornography”.
Did BYU’s Dean of religious education refuse to answer her questions because he couldn’t, as Carrie implies? Did she ask him in person, and if so, did he have time for such a discussion? If she wrote a letter or e-mail, how does she know he even read it? Deans aren’t exactly flush with free time. With no context to go on other than what Carrie says here, there’s no way to know, but given what I know of BYU, I find it difficult to accept her words at face value.
As for what “other leaders” told her, there are a number of pieces of advice that bitter memory could turn into “as long as it’s done secretly”.
I will reiterate again: I have never heard a Church leader advise a member to stop trying to think for themselves.
Salt Lake City’s male gerontocracy told me to avoid books and marry, but I could not stomach all their teachings.
(I’ll admit, I had to look up the definition of “gerontocracy”. I guess it’s technically accurate.) I’ve never heard Church leaders tell anyone to avoid books. Quite the opposite; the Church is rather emphatic in its encouragement that all Church members, male and female, seek a well-rounded education.
For example, mainstream Mormons banned polygamy in 1890 to obtain Utah’s statehood, but they continue to perform temple ceremonies that “seal” one man to multiple women in the hereafter.
I have two problems with this statement. The use of the word “mainstream” implies that there are Mormons who did not ban polygamy. Let me be clear: any Mormon found to be practicing polygamy is immediately excommunicated from the Church. Polygamy is not tolerated.
That said, I am unsure if I can explain “sealing” in this limited space to everyone’s satisfaction, as it would extend this discussion far beyond its current scope. A simple definition is that sealing makes a marriage eternal. If people are interested in a more thorough discussion of the topic, I would be happy to write another post on it, just leave a comment with that request.
Suffice it to say that her statement is only true in cases where there is a sealed couple where the wife dies, and the husband subsequently remarries; if both the husband and the second wife agree, the second wife may be sealed to the man as well. (If they choose not to do that, they may instead choose to be married for the duration of this life, rather than for eternity.) Nobody is forced into such an arrangement (though you could argue the first wife is), and it does not happen outside of that situation.
Those whose spouses leave the church are sometimes encouraged to get divorced and remarry a faithful Latter-day Saint.
Um… no. The Church would never advise or encourage a divorce based solely on the basis of a spouse leaving the Church — quite the opposite. (I’m quite familiar with how the Church handles divorces, and it’s not exactly a trivial process. If you want to annul a sealing, you have to convince everyone up the ladder that it’s necessary. “My spouse left the church” is not, by itself, sufficient reason.)
Non-Mormons are not allowed to attend family members’ weddings in Mormon temples.
This is true. I can understand why some see this as a bad thing. But it’s not an issue of “non-Mormons”, it’s an issue of “Mormons in good standing”. A Mormon who is not obedient to the gospel of Christ would not be permitted to attend, either.
Many gay Mormons have been driven to suicide, deeply conflicted about whether acting on their sexuality is, as the church teaches, a sin.
This does not surprise me. Some people choose suicide, as unfortunate as that is, but it seems disingenuous to blame the Church for those suicides. You may as well blame the FDA for the suicide of a chronically overweight person who could not reconcile their desire to eat more delicious ice cream with the FDA’s recommendations that an all ice-cream diet is not healthy. As the saying goes, don’t shoot the messenger!
The Church does not teach its members to avoid, antagonize, or otherwise mistreat individuals who identify themselves as homosexual. Quite the contrary; we are to treat them with love and respect, and encourage them to study the gospel of Christ. This does not require an antagonistic, fearful, or demeaning attitude; those attitudes are actually counter-productive.
With public interest in Mormonism so high, I hope the scrutiny will help break down the church’s fundamentalist trappings: secrecy about its finances, anti-women doctrine and homophobia, to start.
This is Carrie’s first mention of “secrecy about its finances”. Does she have some objection in particular? At any rate, the Church’s financial practices are well-documented, even if the actual numbers are not public.
I’ve never heard “anti-women doctrine” taught by the Church, so this is another accusation that falls in the “didn’t give examples” bucket. (I suppose you could count her vague references earlier in her article as examples, but if they count, they’re inadequate.)
As for “homophobia”, that’s just silly. There is a rather large difference between being afraid of someone for their sexual disposition, and simply teaching that acting on that disposition is wrong. As I said earlier, the Church does not condone antagonizing or mistreating homosexual individuals.
Perhaps someday the church will not excommunicate, fire and demote people who want honest, church-wide dialogue about Mormon history and doctrine.
That’s a serious accusation to level against the Church without even an example… and I rather doubt it has happened to someone who just wanted “honest, church-wide dialogue about Mormon history and doctrine”.
Carrie spent this entire column arguing that the LDS Church needs reform. But she failed to do one very, very important thing (or if she did it, she failed to mention it, and thus missed the point of it entirely): She did not pray. You cannot ignore one of the most basic principles of the gospel, and then complain that the gospel does not work.
Carrie, if you ever read this, I encourage you to do what we teach our children: Search, Ponder, and (most importantly) Pray.