Magic Underwear? Your Own Planet?
But beliefs are important and, of course, we do have beliefs. So let me say something about a couple of the beliefs that are currently the object of considerable journalistic, political, and sometimes even ministerial mockery.
Start with "magic underwear." Latter-day Saints who have taken part in the sacred ritual of the temple wear an undergarment as a reminder of the covenants they make in that ritual. Similar kinds of religious tokens are not unusual: crosses as jewelry or on the wall of a home, yarmulkes, a priest's or minister's collar, wedding rings, head scarves, and other items serve a similar function.
It is also not unusual for folk beliefs to attach to such physical reminders. The soldier protected from death by the Bible in his pocket is one example. Similarly, it is not difficult to find folk beliefs about LDS undergarments saving people from fire or other physical harm. But it would be a mistake to confuse the folk beliefs one finds attached to a religious symbol with the meaning of the symbol itself.
We Mormons sometimes speak of our undergarments as giving us protection, but I doubt that many who speak that way are thinking of the folk beliefs that an internet search can turn up. Our underwear is not magic. It protects us by offering us a constant reminder of our covenants.
Elsewhere I have written:
[M]y wedding band is a symbol of my marriage. As a symbol, it is obviously connected to memory. However, though it serves to remind me that I am married, it is more than just a reminder.
What more could it be? . . .
[M]y wedding ring is a memorial of our relation because it does something for me in spite of myself. Even if I am not thinking of my marriage, the ring demands a certain attitude toward the world, a certain reverence and respect for Janice; it connects me to Janice even when I am not explicitly thinking of her. My wedding ring makes possible certain relations in the world by embodying those relations.
Said another way, my wedding ring gives order to my world: an order that relates me to my wife and to the rest of the world, an order that cannot be reduced to an intention to remember my marriage. (Faith, Philosophy, Scripture, pp.4-5)
Similarly, the garments I wear after my first experience in the temple relate me to God and to the world through the covenants I made there. They offer me protection by ordering the world differently, allowing me to see things differently than I would see them otherwise. That's a great thing, even a wonderful thing. But it isn't magic.
Another of the things that one can read on the internet or hear on some news channels: "Mormons believe they will someday have their own planet." I suppose that's one way to put LDS belief, but it also describes more of a folk belief than a real one. Indeed, I've rarely, perhaps never, heard another Mormon talk that way except as a joke.
Joseph Smith taught that the destiny of human beings is to become like God (D&C 132:20). We also believe "families are forever" (a common slogan among Latter-day Saints). Based on this belief, in the 19th century Brigham Young and others taught that we would become like the Father and create our own worlds. That appears to have been commonly believed then, but it is seldom taught today. I can't think of a time when I've heard an authority of the Church teach it. As I said, I can't think of a time I've heard it said that it wasn't part of a joke.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.