Interview with Ken Jennings

Ken Jennings is the trivia whiz who won 74 straight games on Jeopardy! in 2004 (racking up $3,000,000+ over his total time on the show).

KenJen

He is the author of the (soon-to-be-released-in-paperback) book Brainiac as well as the upcoming Ken Jennings’s Trivia Almanac (release date: December 26th).

Ken also maintains an excellent blog. Which you should read.

On a personal note, when he was in the middle of his Jeopardy! run, I sent him fan mail with a little request… he granted my wish. I was sent back a signed paper that said, “Hemant, I’m so glad I didn’t have to go up against you!”

This is why we like him :)

He graciously took the time to answer questions covering topics such as his Mormon faith, the new book, and Mitt Romney:

Hemant: You’re a Mormon, but I’ve rarely heard you say much about your faith outside of its name. Do you ever talk about your faith publicly?

Ken: I’m always happy to talk about Mormonism when it comes up — Alex Trebek and I discussed topics like tithing and Mormon dietary taboos (cigarettes, booze) on-air, and many interviewers since have been oddly interested in the possible connections between faith and game show success. I think I only seem reticent about my faith when you compare me to a certain kind of bumper-sticker Christian, full of proselytizing zeal. I love my religion and am always happy to share it, but it’s also very personal to me, and I don’t know that trotting it out incongruously in secular situations is always appropriate (or, from a conversion perspective, very effective). Mostly, I’m just happy for the chance to shatter any remaining stereotypes of Mormons as insular weirdos. So I try to pick my spots and appreciate it when others do the same.

Hemant: You’ve said in interviews that a six-month mission trip you took in college strengthened your faith. What was it about the trip that changed your life?

Ken: It’s actually a two-year mission that young LDS guys serve — I was in Madrid, Spain from 2003 to 2005. Missionaries help out with local congregations and perform community service, but the bulk of their day is spent looking for and teaching people who are interested in hearing more about the Mormon church. Almost any Mormon who’s served a mission will talk for hours on end about what a formative, landmark experience it was in their lives. A lot of that is just timing and circumstance: you’re 19 years old, you’re far from home, you’re living an incredibly demanding lifestyle (missionaries work upwards of twelve hours a day, six days a week, and even their non-working hours are tightly regimented for study, chores, etc.). But there’s more to it than that.

For believing people — even very devout ones — religion tends, by necessity, to be a sidelight in our lives. We talk a good game, but we still spend much more time and effort on our careers, family, even hobbies than God gets. It was eye-opening to actually be able to put my money where my mouth was, for a change, and think about spiritual things full time, and act accordingly. That kind of focus really shows you the power can religion have in someone’s life — my life, as well as the changes for good I saw in a lot of the people we taught. A lot of atheists probably assume that a dramatic increase in religious devotion leads inevitably to fanaticism, but believe me, there’s an enormous potential for good in that kind of focus as well. I lived a completely distraction-free, self-examined life for two years, considering nothing but Life’s Big Questions. Those medieval monastic orders were on to something.

Hemant: Have you ever doubted your Mormonism? If so, how did you deal with that?

Ken: I think doubt is an essential part of faith. I don’t like the absolute conviction of a lot of religious people, even when it doesn’t lead them to blow up buildings or whatever. Mormons like to say “I know…” rather than “I believe…” when they testify of their faith, and I know they mean well, but the formulation rankles. It sounds complacent. Ah well, you know. That’s all sorted out, then.

I feel like a livelier, stronger faith is the kind you have to fight for regularly. The man with a sick child in Mark chapter 9 said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” I feel the same way a lot of the time. My faith isn’t just the one I happened to be spoon-fed as a child. By this time, it’s based on a lot of very real life experiences — times when I feel the principles and organization of my church brought me closer to the divine. But it’s a chaotic world out there, and sometimes you have to fight to remember those experiences amid all the other distractions.

Hemant: How do you reconcile your faith with your knowledge of science where there is contradiction between them?

Ken: This is an easier question for a Mormon than it is, perhaps, for an Evangelical: there’s no specific LDS doctrine on issues like evolution, so none of that has ever been problematic for me. Brigham Young taught the early Latter-day Saints that “Mormonism embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical.” As a result, there’s an open-minded, questing, Enlightenment spirit to the Mormon pursuit of truth that I’ve always liked.

Science has been known to be wrong about scientific questions, but it certainly has a much better track record than organized religion does in deciding scientific questions, so I prefer to keep the two magisteria non-overlapping. I also don’t like it when the maple syrup from my pancakes gets on my sausage at breakfast.

Hemant: Outside of your church (which was tithed, correct?), where did you donate some of your winnings?

Ken: Yes, a tenth of my winnings was tithed to my church, but I’d like that to be just the beginning of the good I do with the money, not the end of it. It’s nice now to be able to write a generous check when some worthy cause pops up, Katrina or a friend’s fun run or a public radio pledge drive, and not have to worry about whether I can still pay the bills that month. But I’ll confess that I’m still paralyzed by indecision when it comes to the bulk of the money. I’d like to do one big, substantive thing rather than ladling it out piecemeal, but it’s hard to know where it would do the most good. So for now, I mostly dither.

Hemant: A lot of religious parents raise their children in “the family faith.” Most atheist parents (perhaps in response) prefer teaching kids how to think, not what to think. How are you raising your kids Dylan and Caitlin?

(Quick note: In this question, I meant to ask Ken what his thoughts were on the idea of teaching critical thinking instead of simply believe-it-because-we-said-so religion. In the process, I came off sounding rather douchebaggish. Ken rightly called me out on it with his answer.)

Ken: Wow, if there an emoticon for self-back-patting, you forgot to use it there. This question, with its imagined crazy religious brainwasher parent and its benevolent, tolerant atheist one, doesn’t strike me as very accurate. You’ll be shocked to hear that even religious people would like their kids to know how to think, and I’m sure a Hitchens-style atheist would be just as unhappy to see a child convert as any believer would be to have a child “fall away” from the faith. I would like to see my kids’ lives blessed by their religion in the same way that mine was. We take them to church with us. They’re four and one years old, respectively. Should we open the Yellow Pages to “Churches” every Sunday morning and have them throw a dart?

That said, of course our love for our kids — or anyone else — isn’t contingent on them sharing our religion, no matter what path they choose. But, in the meantime, my wife and I are going to give them a head-start in the only tradition that we know from personal experience has brought us greater truth and happiness.

Hemant: Do you think Mormons ever get an unfair rap from society? Is there any stereotype in particular that annoys you?

Ken: I almost don’t know where to begin here. Until recently, I thought the LDS Church had pretty effectively mainstreamed itself over the last fifty years. Being Mormon made you an interesting oddity at a dinner party — like being a raw-foodie, or a unicyclist, or a Canadian — but it didn’t elicit any lip-curling scorn. Then Mitt Romney decided to run for president, and now I can’t go a week without reading a clueless blog post or Sunday-paper think piece in which it’s 1850 and apparently Mormons are sinister, secretive outsiders. Thanks Mitt!

Dear mainstream media: there are twelve million Mormons in the world today. The majority aren’t Utah-based Osmond clones. In fact, the majority don’t even live in the US anymore. We are not a monolith. The clueless stereotypes (Mormons are chin-bearded polygamists) are as useless now as the slightly more clued-in ones (Mormons are teeth-grindingly wholesome, whitebread, green-Jell-O-eating suburbanites with eight kids apiece). I myself do not have a chin-beard or any multiple wives (though if they actually looked like Ginnifer Goodwin on Big Love, I could maybe be persuaded). I don’t have eight kids. I don’t own a single pitchfork. I’m not (by my own estimation here, of course) a complete moron, a close-minded nutjob, or a humorless tool. I’m not a Republican. I enjoy high culture and pop culture alike. Mormons are regular folks, just like anybody else, not a spooky cult in any way.

Atheists, you should be the ones taking the lead in ending the Mormon-bashing! After all, LDS doctrine may seem kooky to you guys, but at least you don’t think it’s heretical. You should be the first to realize that the founding LDS narrative — Joseph Smith, an angel, golden plates, etc. — isn’t any more or less sensible than the origins of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. It just doesn’t have a few millennia of distance to give it the patina of authority.

Hemant: What trivia don’t atheists know about the Book of Mormon?

Ken: I don’t think non-Mormons know much of anything about the Book of Mormon, so this is a pretty wide field. How about: the word “Deseret,” the Mormons’ 1849 name for their proposed western state, doesn’t derive from the word “desert” at all. It appears in the Book of Mormon, where it’s translated as “honeybee.”

Hemant: Do you only stay in Marriott hotels? :)

Ken: I’m so ecumenical, I’ll stay anyplace with free wi-fi. No matter what kind of godless heathen owns the joint.

Hemant: On your last episode of Jeopardy!, Did you throw the final question *wink wink nudge nudge*?

Ken: Yes. I was so sick of a job where I was making $60K+ an hour that I decided to abruptly quit. That’s exactly right.

Hemant: Is Marie Osmond going to win Dancing with the Stars?

Ken: I hope not. I’m a Jennie Garth or Mark Cuban guy myself.

Hemant: How was the writing of your new book compared to the work you did for Brainiac?

Ken: Brainiac was a tremendously challenging narrative book (at least for a clueless novice author like me), since I was trying to interweave my own TV experience with a look at American trivia culture as well as ask bigger-picture questions about what the trivia urge says about the way our brains work. It was a juggling act. I figured the Trivia Almanac would be a breeze by comparison — just write a lot of trivia questions, right? — and a way to get out of my system all the trivia I accumulated writing Brainiac. But then the scope of the almanac sort of crept out of control: I ended up having to write nine thousand trivia questions in about six months. I think it’s the largest U.S. collection of trivia questions ever released in any form.

Suffice it say, I’m pretty much done with trivia now. As aversion therapy, it totally worked.

Hemant: Mitt Romney. Your thoughts?

Ken: He’s not my favorite candidate — not even my favorite Republican candidate — and as I said above, his run has made it a media open-season on Mormons. But all the hype about a Romney win putting the Oval Office under the thumb of a shadowy Mormon hierarchy is ignorant fear-mongering of the kind that should have gone out with JFK in 1960. Mitt’s certainly the best-looking candidate, though, you have to admit. John Edwards? Are you kidding? That guy looks like John Ritter. Mitt is a hottie.



[tags]atheist, atheism, Mormon, trivia, interview[/tags]

  • Siamang

    Wow, GREAT interview. I always thought I liked the guy, and now I know for sure.

    AWESOME KEN!

    Now I remember the thread where I stood up for Ken when he was being challenged by a jerk atheist.

    I stand by Ken even more now. Plus, he’s a Dancing with the Stars fan!

  • Steven Carr

    Mormons are very hot on family values.

    When I was in Neuss, Germany just before Christmas, I met 2 Mormons in the street, and offered them my mobile phone so they could ring their families in the US and say they were OK.

    Of course, they refused, because their church had forbidden that.

    Mormonism – the family values church that controls how often you can say hello to your mother.

  • Steven Carr

    I think the Mormon church authorities count non-church-authorised contact with family members as a ‘distraction’ (to use Keith Jenning’s term) from the work of increasing the numbers of tithing Mormons.

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    From the interview, Ken Jennings seems like a lot of the intellectual Mormons that I know.

    Being an atheist from Utah, I don’t really try to end Mormon-bashing (there’s a lot in the religion that I don’t agree with), but I do at least attempt to bring discussions about it back to reality. Mormonism isn’t a cult. The very public nature of the Church should at least convince people of that.

    And while it isn’t a cult, there is a program that Mormons are encouraged to follow as members. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but to highlight one point, they are sequestered from their families and friends and any “tempting” influences for two years (their Mission), and after they return, they are pressured into marriage from just about all sides.

    One could claim that all of the decisions that a Mormon could make are by choice (and that would be true), but that wouldn’t be taking into account the tremendous societal pressures that Mormons are under by their neighbors, families, and friends.

    I’d encourage you to check out an Ex-Mormon blog, Letters from a Broad. She has a lot of great info on the topic, and her goal is to encourage understanding between Mormons and Ex-Mormons.

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  • vox nihili

    the founding LDS narrative — Joseph Smith, an angel, golden plates, etc. — isn’t any more or less sensible than the origins of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, Ken. That’s a good reason to not believe any of them I think.

    On another note, being another Utah atheist, I am quite familiar with many people’s perceptions of Mormons. It never ceases to amaze me how many people equate being from Utah with being Mormon.

  • Stephen

    Good interview. I respect Jennings’ faith, naturally, but it does kind of disappoint me that a man so smart is that devout.

    Actually, the part of the interview that stood out to me was when Ken said, “You’ll be shocked to hear that even religious people would like their kids to know how to think.” I suppose that’s probably true overall – I try very hard not to generalize Christians. But I also happen to know many Christian families, some in my own extended family, who absolutely don’t want their kids to know how to think. I have an aunt who flips out if one of her children expresses a word against the Iraq War – that’s not exactly a hugely religious topic, but as far as my aunt is concerned, the Republican Party is ordained by God, and nothing they do is wrong. I’m not even exaggerating.

    Like I say, that’s not all Christians, and I’m sure it’s theoretically possible for atheist parents to be the same way (I’ve never met any who are, but I don’t know a lot of atheist families).

  • mish

    Should have asked Ken the ten thousand dollar question: does anyone in a cult know they’re in a cult?

    [Featured post at romneyforpresident.townhall.com

    Like Mormonism, the blog isn't what it seems.

    (Funny photos too.)]

  • PrimateIR

    I thought he came off very “shiny” like someone used to evading self disclosure. Those missions definitely impart those kids with political skills. You did great as always Hermant, but I’ve enjoyed other interviews more.

  • http://www.wotmwatchdog.org MorseCode

    Ken Jennings…fighting douchebaggery wherever he finds it. ;)

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com John C.

    Just a quick correction, Ken’s mission was from 1993 to 1995.

  • Curt

    Fabulous interview. Having lived in Utah for a few years, I know a few Mormons who are a half-story short of a working elevator, but the vast majority are good, decent people and good friends. They really are nice people, and they definitely are not part of a cult.

    Frankly, I am used to reading stereotypical, blind, cynical comments on religious blogs and so-called discussions between “defenders” and “attackers” – and it saddens me to read some of the comments here. I thought in forum like this the prejudiced bile that flows on the religious sites would be rare.

  • http://www.wordsfromtheway.com/between-the-trees Jake Meador

    Hemant- Awesome interview, thanks for posting this. Ken sounds like a really thoughtful guy. I also appreciate getting a more balanced view of Mormonism. I disagree with a lot of what they stand for, yet I really admire their passion and I appreciate getting a view of someone who definitely defies some of the stereotypes we have about Mormons.

    Stephen- It’s really hard to avoid generalizing. I’m a Christian and I struggle with it! I grew up in a fundamentalist church and to this day I struggle tremendously with feelings of bitterness toward them. And it makes it harder to dialog with them because anything they say that I think is stupid is just “them being a fundy” and it gives me an excuse to ignore their humanity and address them as a stupid idea instead of a human being with hopes, dreams, and feelings. I appreciate that you’re aware of that danger though and are trying to fight it. We can try to do it together :) .

  • http://www.wordsfromtheway.com/between-the-trees Jake Meador

    OK, just read what I wrote above… so now, please let me take my foot out of my mouth… When I said “I”m a Christian and I struggle with it” I meant I’m a Christian and I struggle w/ generalizing about other Christians… I don’t mean that as “I’m a morally superior Christian and even I struggle with it.” Right after I clicked post I realized that my comment could easily be misunderstood, so please don’t take it as any kind of attempt to be morally superior, because that’s not the point at all. OK, awkward correction over…

  • http://mmmarilyn.net marilyn

    Good interview. I respect Jennings’ faith, naturally, but it does kind of disappoint me that a man so smart is that devout.

    This is something of a strange attitude, I think. Religious people hung up on conversion and/or impinging on others’ rights out of “concern for their eternal souls” are my least favorite. How can atheists turn around and pull the same “I know what you should believe better than you do” attitude?

    I think we can all agree that there are things that go on in the world that we can’t explain. Just because there are stupid people who base their explanations on religion doesn’t mean the more intelligent ones’ experiences with understanding “Life’s Big Questions” through faith have less value.

  • ElGuapo

    Damn I like that Ken Jennings. Sorry, mish, I already made a wholehearted attempt–by asking nicely–to get Ken to rise up and lead the ex-Mormon movement. Seems he’s happy where he is. And Ken, feeling indecisive about what to do with that money is a good thing. College and health care and all that, ya know.

    Minor update: since Ken’s responses were given the officially stated church membership has bounced up to thirteen million. Yes, that number apparently includes me even though I resigned, but still, 12,999,999 or so. ;)

  • Darryl

    Ken’s intelligence and niceness (which comes through in the interview) has nothing whatsoever to do with the vices or virtues of Mormonism. He is a Mormon for no good reason, just as we all are as we are, for the most part, for no good reason. We like to dress up our choices with the flair of rationality when in fact most of what we do defies reason. It’s my guess that the views of the average person with regard to “beliefs” is no more considered than those of the dutiful young person raised from birth in a solid Mormon family in a tight-knit Mormon community whose faith has a ring of truth that he/she feels to be self-evident. Ken’s openness is his greatest value to me.

  • grazatt

    I know this is mean, but somehow I think Ken looks like a mouse.

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  • prokop

    Thanks for asking my question! He had an awesome answer.

    He wins many many points for using the word ‘rankle’.

  • Sally

    Ken Jennings is my hero. Not only is he a genius, but he’s also such a nice guy, and pretty funny too. I always thought Mormons were weird, but he does a good job of breaking the stereotype. I love the fact that he keeps his religion a personal matter and never uses him fame as a platform to convert people. I actually respect Mormons a little more after reading Ken’s interview. After all, they are judged and misunderstood just as much as atheists are.

  • B7

    I watched Ken’s run on Jeopardy, daily hoping he would lose. He just came off as an arrogant, holier/smarter-than-thou dweeb. After reading this interview I now deeply regret those feelings. Ken’s seriously cool.

  • http://www.sonarbison.blogspot.com A-Dawg

    Great interview. Ken Jennings rocks.

  • http://davidernst.net/blog David

    Yeah, wow, awesome interview, Hemant. This discussion is an excellent example of the beneficence of us atheists being friendly with people of faith. I’m extremely impressed with Ken (and not just because he has the nerve to call Mitt Romney “a hottie”), he gives me the impression that if everyone were like him, being a theist or not would be a matter of privacy or pleasant conversation, never an issue for anger. Let’s hope, and keep up this kind of engagement. Thanks!

  • FromUpNorth

    Having lived in Utah for a few years, I know a few Mormons who are a half-story short of a working elevator, but the vast majority are good, decent people and good friends. They really are nice people, and they definitely are not part of a cult.

    There are one or two perfectly good English-language definitions of the word cult according to which Mormons would certainly be members of one. One of those definitions is (to quote the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) “A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents.” In other words, what makes a cult a cult is not necessarily the content of its belief system, or whether its adherents are “good, decent people,” but how the belief system is viewed by outsiders. I would suggest that enough non-Mormons still regard Mormonism as “a religion unorthodox or spurious” to make the “cult” label perfectly valid.

    Insofar as atheists more or less by definition regard any theistic belief system as “spurious,” atheists should have no difficulty attaching the word “cult” to Mormonism (or Roman Catholicism, or Lutheranism, or what have you).

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    There are one or two perfectly good English-language definitions of the word cult according to which Mormons would certainly be members of one. One of those definitions is (to quote the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) “A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents.” In other words, what makes a cult a cult is not necessarily the content of its belief system, or whether its adherents are “good, decent people,” but how the belief system is viewed by outsiders. I would suggest that enough non-Mormons still regard Mormonism as “a religion unorthodox or spurious” to make the “cult” label perfectly valid.

    This definition that you cite is probably meant to apply to very small groups. To apply it to an organization as large as the Mormon Church is simply solipsistic. “My religion is true; therefore that religion over there is a cult.” In addition, the definition as you use it just seems to imply sectarian prejudice.

    Insofar as atheists more or less by definition regard any theistic belief system as “spurious,” atheists should have no difficulty attaching the word “cult” to Mormonism (or Roman Catholicism, or Lutheranism, or what have you).

    This just renders the term meaningless. You may as well regard “cult” as being synonymous with “religion”; though that is one of the other definitions by M-W.

    I think AH has a better and more specific definition of cult as KJ refers to it:
    1. a. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
    b. The followers of such a religion or sect.

    Under this definition, Mormonism isn’t a cult, despite the populism exhibited in the first part of the definition. The Mormon Church has a bureaucratic leadership, not an authoritarian or charismatic one. Although it’s easy to say that most people would consider the Mormon Church to be extreme, I think that just plays on popular ignorance. When you examine their philosophies, they aren’t extreme, nor would they be considered so by most people. They are very conservative, but not extreme.

    Call a spade a spade. There’s plenty in Mormonism to criticize without applying inaccurate labels to it.

  • http://www.camp-quest.org Amanda

    Hemant! How could you interview Ken Jennings and forget to ask him about The World’s Largest Trivia Contest?!? You know he came to Trivia in Stevens Point a few years back to do research for his book, right?

  • FromUpNorth

    This definition that you cite is probably meant to apply to very small groups. To apply it to an organization as large as the Mormon Church is simply solipsistic. “My religion is true; therefore that religion over there is a cult.” In addition, the definition as you use it just seems to imply sectarian prejudice

    I don’t infer from the definition cited that it is meant to apply only to very small groups. Insofar as it refers to an implicit charge of unorthodoxy on the part of the religiously orthodox, and insofar as the “orthodox” are typically in the majority, that particular definition may certainly apply to a religious minority. Thus, “Our religion is true, and we are many. Their religion is false, and they are fewer than we. Therfore, that religion over there is a cult.”

    This just renders the term meaningless. You may as well regard “cult” as being synonymous with “religion”; though that is one of the other definitions by M-W.

    And again, it’s a perfectly good English-language definition, not meaningless at all. According to that definition, there is no doubt whatsover that Mormonism is a cult

    think AH has a better and more specific definition of cult as KJ refers to it:
    1. a. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
    b. The followers of such a religion or sect.

    Under this definition, Mormonism isn’t a cult, despite the populism exhibited in the first part of the definition. The Mormon Church has a bureaucratic leadership, not an authoritarian or charismatic one. Although it’s easy to say that most people would consider the Mormon Church to be extreme, I think that just plays on popular ignorance. When you examine their philosophies, they aren’t extreme, nor would they be considered so by most people. They are very conservative, but not extreme.

    Would it be fair to say that, under this latter definition, Mormonism is not a cult — but once was? Ken Jennings writes, “Then Mitt Romney decided to run for president, and now I can’t go a week without reading a clueless blog post or Sunday-paper think piece in which it’s 1850….” Was Mormonism ca. 1850 a “cult”?

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    I don’t infer from the definition cited that it is meant to apply only to very small groups. Insofar as it refers to an implicit charge of unorthodoxy on the part of the religiously orthodox, and insofar as the “orthodox” are typically in the majority, that particular definition may certainly apply to a religious minority. Thus, “Our religion is true, and we are many. Their religion is false, and they are fewer than we. Therfore, that religion over there is a cult.”

    So, the biggest religion is the only one not a cult? I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. That’s just not how the word “cult” is used. It’s not a word used exclusively by the orthodox. It’s used to refer to small, upstart religious groups with charismatic leaders and weird lifestyles. I believe that what you’re describing are “sects.” Is Mormonism a sect? Possibly. I’m not a sociologist.

    And again, it’s a perfectly good English-language definition, not meaningless at all. According to that definition, there is no doubt whatsover that Mormonism is a cult

    Insofar as Mormonism is another religion. You stated that Lutheranism and Catholicism are also “cults” under that definition. What I’m saying is that your interpretation of the definition dilutes it so much that you may just as well say “religion.”

    Would it be fair to say that, under this latter definition, Mormonism is not a cult — but once was? Ken Jennings writes, “Then Mitt Romney decided to run for president, and now I can’t go a week without reading a clueless blog post or Sunday-paper think piece in which it’s 1850….” Was Mormonism ca. 1850 a “cult”?

    Yes. Mormonism was considered extremist and false, the followers lived in an unconventional manner (polygamy) and had an authoritarian, charismatic leader (Joseph Smith). They were a cult in the 1850′s. I fail to see your point. Christianity was a cult in the early centuries of its existence.

    None of those points are true about Mormonism today. Mormons don’t have extreme viewpoints in general; they have very conservative viewpoints. Mormons don’t have unusual lifestyles; you can find many people in the South and Midwest that have similar lifestyles. And again, they have a bureaucratic leadership, not an authoritarian or charismatic one. Many people consider the Mormon doctrine to be false. Sectarian disagreement about doctrine isn’t anything that makes them a cult. Mormons disagree with Catholic doctrine, for example.

    I’m not defending Mormonism. As I have said before, there’s a lot that the Mormon Church espouses that I disagree with. However, my point is that calling them a cult and treating them the same as Koresh’s cult or the Heaven’s Gate cult is going to go nowhere.

  • FromUpNorth

    So, the biggest religion is the only one not a cult? I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. That’s just not how the word “cult” is used. It’s not a word used exclusively by the orthodox. It’s used to refer to small, upstart religious groups with charismatic leaders and weird lifestyles. I believe that what you’re describing are “sects.” Is Mormonism a sect? Possibly. I’m not a sociologist.

    Of course Mormonism is a sect. And, as we both agree, it was once a small, upstart religious group with charismatic leaders and a weird lifestyle, so it began as a” cult” according to the definition of that word you are pushing here. It remains a cult under other common definitions and usages of that same word.

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    Yes, we both do seem to agree on the cult status of original Mormonism. You still have not shown how that has any relevance to whether the modern Mormon Church is a cult. It’s not the same organization that it was.

    The definition that I’m “pushing” is one that clearly states what a cult is. The definition that you originally cited is so ambiguous that you can fit any religion under its umbrella.

    I’ve tried to make the point that ambiguous language isn’t going to accomplish anything. I seem not to have succeeded in this endeavor, so let me ask you this: what do you hope to accomplish by calling Mormonism a “cult”? Is it then distinguished somehow from other established religions? Is it more threatening? Why does it need the “cult” status?

  • Curt

    “Cult” is the religious version of politic’s “racism” – so overused as to lose all relevance and power. Also, for anyone to argue for a definition that is “value neutral” (that doesn’t carry incredibly derogatory and invective-laden connotations) is either naive or malicious. “Technical definitions” applied in a vacuum – void of practical implications – are absolutely useless and, frankly, inappropriate for a forum like this that attempts to provide intelligent conversation regarding complex issues.

    Again, I have lived in Utah and have many Mormon friends. I have spoken with them extensively about this very topic. I agree completely with their central point: If Mormonism still can be classified as a cult – being the 4th largest Christian denomination in America (or 5th, but I think it is 4th now), with less than half its members residing in America, and soon with more Spanish-speaking members than those who speak English – then that definition also applies to almost every other denomination /sect that calls it a cult. After all, every single Christian religion started as people followed a charismatic leader who disagreed with the dominant denomination(s) / sect(s) of that day.

    As John Moeller said, there are plenty of things that can be debated about Mormon theology and beliefs and practices. Hanging onto the tired cult description is a red herring that is not worthy of this site.

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    You know what, Curt, I couldn’t say it any better. I’ll rest my case with your comments.

  • Juli

    Is Mormonism a sect? Possibly. I’m not a sociologist.

    Mormons have sects? They’ll all be horrified. :o )

    I’m actually a Mormon who found this blog linked to Ken Jennings’ blog and wanted to thank you for your intelligent, thoughtful, and polite blog with ensuing debate. It’s such a rarity to see people discuss things so rationally online. Some of you may be interested in a book I found, a collection of essays on reconciling the mormon faith and science. It’s called “The Search for Harmony,” edited by Gene Sessions and Craig Oberg. It’s a good read.

  • Steven Carr

    Is a cult an organisation which controls how often members may phone their family members, declaring such family contact a ‘distraction’ from the work of recruiting more fee-paying members?

  • Siamang

    Hey, Juli

    Thanks for the compliment, and welcome!

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    Is a cult an organisation which controls how often members may phone their family members, declaring such family contact a ‘distraction’ from the work of recruiting more fee-paying members?

    No. The Mormon mission is a bit of indoctrination that I don’t agree with, but again, it doesn’t make Mormons cultists. They can’t phone home, but they can write home. It’s not as though communication is severed permanently. They are encouraged to return to their families and participate heavily in family activities, and in the community as a whole. Their families, in fact, fund their missions.

    Cults generally encourage a person to leave his or her family and sever ties permanently.

    Are Catholic monks or nuns members of cults? Most people would argue not, even though their commitment is quite a bit more permanent than those of Mormon missionaries.

  • Steven Carr

    What do you mean ‘They can’t phone home’?

    This is the Land of the Free we are talking about.

    So basically, you are saying that if an organisation’s leaders prevent 18 or 19 year olds from phoning their family while 3,000 miles away in Europe, that is basically OK with you.

    After all, they all volunteered?

  • Steven Carr

    ‘Their families, in fact, fund their missions.’

    Why does it not come as a total shock that Mormon church money is not used?

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    So basically, you are saying that if an organisation’s leaders prevent 18 or 19 year olds from phoning their family while 3,000 miles away in Europe, that is basically OK with you.

    Wow, that’s a nice conclusion that you leaped to while completely missing the point of my answer. No, it’s not OK with me. I don’t approve of the program. But I also don’t consider it to be cult-like. They still have communication with their families and communities.

    ‘Their families, in fact, fund their missions.’

    Why does it not come as a total shock that Mormon church money is not used?

    Again, not a policy that I agree with. I believe that it actually depends on some sliding scale, but yes, for those families that are deemed to be able to afford it, they bear the cost of the mission.

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  • FromUpNorth

    The definition that I’m “pushing” is one that clearly states what a cult is. The definition that you originally cited is so ambiguous that you can fit any religion under its umbrella.

    Any theistic religion, certainly. However, that does not mean that such a definition is ambiguous. It is simply broader.

    I’ve tried to make the point that ambiguous language isn’t going to accomplish anything.

    Fair enough, but in that case you should not have said anything at all about whether or not Mormonism is a cult. As I have pointed out, the word “cult” has a variety of legitimate English language meanings, under some of which Mormonism not only was, but certainly remains, a cult. That is to say, because the word has a variety of meanings, “cult” is inherently ambiguous, and if clarity was your goal, nothing was to be gained by usiing the word without clarification or qualification, as you initially did.

    I seem not to have succeeded in this endeavor, so let me ask you this: what do you hope to accomplish by calling Mormonism a “cult”? Is it then distinguished somehow from other established religions? Is it more threatening? Why does it need the “cult” status?

    One of my purposes was not so much to distinguish Mormonism from other organized religions, but, on the contrary, to assert, that other organized religions are also cults. (As an aside, I might mention that I sometimes privately refer to Christianity as “the cult of Jesus,” which it certainly is). Another of my purposes was to point out that, under at least one common definition of the word “cult,” whether Mormons belong to one depends on the attitude of the adherents of those other organized religions towards Mormonism.

    Here’s an interesting take from a Christian web site (http://www.allaboutcults.org/religious-cults.htm):

    “What exactly are religious cults? With such a large number of religious organizations and movements in the world today, it’s important to understand what we mean when we start labeling certain groups. The dictionary defines cult as ‘a system of religious worship or ritual’; ‘devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle, etc.” According to this definition, any believer in any god is a member of a cult.’

    Yeah, I think both you and I have said that here. “As the dictionary defines it,” Mormons are members of a cult, because they are believers in a god. Continuing from the web site:

    “Christians define religious cults from a different perspective. Simply, a cult is any religious group that deviates from the fundamental teachings of the historic, Bible-based, Christian faith as confirmed through the ancient ecumenical creeds. Generally, if a religious organization follows Jesus Christ, but denies or distorts essential Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the resurrection, or salvation by grace alone, that organization is considered a cult. Traditional examples are the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unity School of Christianity, and the Way International….”

    So here we have an orthodox Christian definition of “cult,” one which self-consciously seeks to deny Mormonism admission to the “orthodox” club. I don’t think that there’s something horribly wrong with this definition or think that it egregiously violates the rules of English-language discourse. I accept the label of “cult” for Mormonism under this definition as meaning simply that Mormonism is outside of the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy and is
    regarded as such by the orthodox.

    Allow me to invoke one other possible definition of the word “cult,” which has to do with the (for lack of a better word) zaniness of the beliefs of the cult members. Are the beliefs of Mormons only as zany as those of orthodox Christians, or are they perhaps even more zany? One could perhaps argue that question either way, but if Mormonism is even more zany that Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism, then that may be another good reason for legitimately applying the word “cult” to Mormonism.

  • Matt W.

    Awesome interview.

    Stephen Carr:
    As a person who served a mission for the mormon church (and is active in that church) I can tell you that while a mission rule may be to only call home twice a year(christmas and mother’s day), it is not an enforced rule. (No one is tracking your phone usage)

    Also, missionaries are heavily enocuraged to write their familes at least once a week, either by regular mail or by e-mail.

  • http://www.ken-jennings.com Ken Jennings

    If the two-year LDS mission is being used to prop up the dwindling claim that Mormons are cultists, I figured I’d provide an actual informed response rather than just rolling my eyes in silence.

    Rules for Mormon missionaries are certainly strict and specific, but it’s a huge mistake to think they’re representative of mainstream Mormon culture or thought. It’d be like judging the US government, or all its citizens, by the code of conduct at West Point.

    The rules that have grown up around full-time missionary service for LDS kids are in place for one reason: because of the difficulty of keeping thousands of homesick19- and 20-year old kids, mostly boys, acting as full-time ministers for two long years. Anyone who has ever met a 19-year-old boy know how impossible this sounds. Each maddeningly specific rule (no swimming, half-court but not full-court basketball, no being alone with the opposite sex, write all the letters you want but only call home at Christmas and Mother’s Day, etc.) is obviously the result of Someone Screwing Up, with some injury or scandal or general unhappiness as a result. The draconian limitation on phone calls is just a bright line drawn to make smothering moms cut the apron strings and keep homesick kids from staying up all night talking to their girlfriend back home. There’s no campaign of mind control at work. When 19-year-old boys are the public image of your religion, it just takes some directed effort to make sure that image is the right one.

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  • Curt

    Steven Carr, at the risk of crossing the line that I thanked others for not crossing, if all you can do is throw simplistic bombs that make no intelligent argument, please don’t drag down the level of discourse occurring here.

    Back to an intelligent discussion, when a word like “cult” is used in atheistic circles, it doesn’t carry the same connotations that it does in religious circles. Mormonism is a religion, and the *vast* majority of times it is called a cult is when another religion is using that term in a tone of derision – and, in the case of the 1800′s, as an excuse to persecute, forcibly drive away, kill, rape, etc. its members. (I was a history teacher for a while, and what was done to Mormons then is indefensible. It was done in the name of eradicating and rejecting a cult, so is it any wonder that Mormons bristle when called a cult now? Of course, it rankles.) It is naive and quite unfair within the overall, real-world of applied terminology to use a word like “cult” in its value-neutral definitions – when the vast majority of those who use it don’t use it in that way.

    So, if someone wants to stipulate that “for purposes of discussions among atheists” Mormonism is a cult – just like every other form of theism/deism, I can’t argue with that; otherwise, I can’t accept the use of the word – since it is not used that way in 99% of the cases that actually affect Mormons. (Seriously, as much as you might value discussions among atheists, I doubt most Mormons give a rat’s ass about them – just like most atheists couldn’t care less about what Mormons think of their views.)

  • Steven Carr

    Simplistic bombs?

    I meet 2 people in the street, just before Christmas.

    They tell me their church is strong on family values.

    As it is just before Christmas, and they are 5,000 miles away from home, I offer them my mobile phone, so they could give a Merry Christmas to their families, and to my utter amazement, these missionaries inform me that their church forbids unauthorised contact with their families.

    It was Christmas!

    And they had just told me how strong the Mormon church was on family values.

    That was a bomb for me. I was stunned.

    My gesture of friendship had been rejected, because church rules forbad one family member talking to another.

  • Left Field

    Steven,

    As has been pointed out, Mormon missionaries are allowed to call home on Christmas. In fact, it’s safe to say that the call is a much-anticipated Christmas event for the missionary and his or her family. No doubt, the missionaries already had plans to call on Christmas Day when they could spend an hour or so talking to extended family who had gathered for the occasion. A spontaneous and premature call a few days early (possibly in the middle of the night, and certainly without extended family present) would kind of let the air out of the balloon for the expected call on Christmas Day. Rather than explain all that, the elders probably just thought the simplest way to graciously decline your kind offer was to say that it was against the rules (and that was technically correct, since it wasn’t yet Christmas Day).

    As for the reasons for limiting phone calls, Ken already gave an excellent explanation. Missionaries are expected to communicate at least weekly with their families, just not normally by telephone. There is a lot to be said for personal handwritten messages from loved ones. Such correspondence is becoming a lost art. What was the last time you sent your parents or grandparents a handwritten letter? For that matter, do you communicate weekly even by phone or email with your parents and grandparents? I would bet that Mormon missionaries have sent and received more letters from home in the past month than you have in the past two years, and that they have at least as much communication with their distant family members as you do. You seem determined to make something sinister out of the phone call rules, but it cannot be said that missionaries are in any way cut off from communication with their families.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    If it was Christmas, they’d probably just got done talking to their parents that morning (or were going to in the evening depending on how the time zones match-up).

    In just about every Mormon mission, you call home on Christmas. We did on mine. And if I wanted to make a phone call home, I definitely could have and no one was going to stop me.

    Curt, you’re trying to say you’re just using a neutral definition of the word “cult.”

    Hogwash. As earlier pointed out, 99% of the time someone uses the word, they are attempting to shoot off an insult. And usually, it’s an insult not backed up by a lot of facts. Really, it’s just mere name-calling. And your fun little anecdote doesn’t really get us anywhere in getting an objective picture of the religion either.

    From personal experience, missionaries in the field are not highly monitored at all. They do things their own way. Sure there’s group-think, pep rallies, and adolescent disproportionate thinking. But probably no more than on your local high school football team.

    Is high-school football camp a “cult?”

  • Steven Carr

    It was coming up to Christmas, not Christmas Day itself.

    I see that the rules about not phoning home, are because Mormons missionaries spend way too much time communicating with family members :-)

    And not because they are over in Europe to try to get more tithe-paying members of the Mormon church.

    No matter what shocking rules religions apply on their members, there will always be people trying to justify them, although in other circumstances there would be outrage at any organisation which banned American family members from phoning each other.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘As has been pointed out, Mormon missionaries are allowed to call home on Christmas.’

    And Thanksgiving? And birthdays?

  • rnd

    Christmas and Mother’s Day. So, twice a year.

    You’re really quite determined, Steven, on making a Big Deal of the idea of Mormon missions. I agree with the implication by Curt that you’re dragging down the level of discourse. You are, in other words, a troll.

    You’ve gone to the trouble of laying another piece of bait several times with the line about missions being about increasing the number of tithe payers. Okay, fine, after the umpteenth time, I’ll bite. Though I’m sure nothing I say will penetrate your preconceived notions.

    So, where are you getting this from? Is it somewhere besides from your own cynical logic? With some insider experience, and having been on a mission, I think I can confidently say that Mormons never even consider that issue in connection with missionary work. More importantly, though, is the fact that if this were a genuine goal of the Mormon leaders (which they are keeping from the general membership), then they are not very good businessmen. Many of the nations where Mormon missionaries go, and find much success, are extremely poor. With 50,000+ missionaries in the world, why bother sending so many to places which aren’t going to show a return on the investment? Here’s how it would look if this were a goal: Pick the countries with the highest income per capita, and send all the missionaries there. Build a mythology around the idea that the wealthy are prosperous because God has blessed them and he now wants to bless them with his True Religion. The membership is none the wiser, and *bam* the coffers continue to grow.

    Surprise, surprise, It’s not like that. There are two main types of missionaries (that I know of): proselytizing and humanitarian. The latter are usually elderly couples who often work in countries where there are few or no proselytizing missionaries. Think China, Laos, Burma, etc. It would appear that this type of missionary is doing nothing for the coffers of the church.

    Even the idea that missionaries are supported by their families is a bit misleading. There is a flat rate for missionaries who are from the U.S.–I think it’s $400 dollars per month nowadays (other personal expenses, like buying clothes or a bicycle are separate, usually one-time things). Some places they serve cost more, some less. The point of the flat rate is that it evens out the burden. It used to be that if you were called to England or Hong Kong (with a cost of living more expensive than the U.S.), your family just had to pay more. So, as it turns out, some families are getting a deal while others are helping balance out the more expensive corners of the world.

    In addition, the church pays for the extensive infrastructure that supports these missionaries from tithing funds. Mission offices, mission vehicles, the “mission home” (usually a large residence where the mission president lives during his 3-year term, and holds occasional gatherings); not to mention the actual church buildings and other facilities that the missionaries make use of like any other member of the church would. In this case, tithing is the “flat rate”, and those whose 10% is more provide for those whose is less. I’d guess that the poorer nations of the world don’t come anywhere close to supporting their own local church infrastructure. I’d imagine the U.S., and especially Utah, is still the financial core of the church. Just think how many small countries Huntsman or Marriott could fund single-handedly.

    It’s hard to find any logic in the idea that the church uses missionaries to grow its bottom line. Even with a church as corporate-ish in its structure as the Mormon church. But then, I’m sure that “that’s just what they want you to think” is crossing your mind about now…

  • Left Field

    So Steven, I’ll take that as a no on the question of whether your out-of-state parents or grandparents have received a message from you every week for the past two years? Maybe Grandma would be happier if you were one of those missionaries over in Europe trying to get more tithe-paying members of the Mormon Church, and could at least communicate with her every once in a while. But since you evidently don’t regard handwritten letters as one of your approved forms of communication for those promoting “family values,” you should feel free to give Grandma a phone call or an email instead. If she started getting actual letters, she’d know for sure that you you’d joined the Mormons or some other letter-writing cult.

    Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, Arbor Day: Those are just a few of the occasions on which you and Mormon missionaries might want to write home.

  • rnd

    Weekly letters (whether hand-written or, in some areas, email) are actually usually a mission rule. Darn those Mormons! Forcing regular contact with family members! Yarrr!

    Like the phone call rule, though, it’s not like it’s regulated. A missionary could be ignoring the phone rule and call home regularly if he wanted (though many families wouldn’t approve because they would know the missionary wasn’t obeying the rules–something that is seen as being very important to getting the most out of the mission experience), or he could neglect the letter rule and fail to write home regularly. It’s like Ken said. Cutting the apron strings. Finding a way to keep regular contact without encouraging homesickness.

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    Curt, you’re trying to say you’re just using a neutral definition of the word “cult.”

    Hogwash. As earlier pointed out, 99% of the time someone uses the word, they are attempting to shoot off an insult. And usually, it’s an insult not backed up by a lot of facts. Really, it’s just mere name-calling. And your fun little anecdote doesn’t really get us anywhere in getting an objective picture of the religion either.

    Seth, Curt was defending you. He was saying that you can’t fairly apply the value-neutral definition of “cult” to Mormonism in the general arena, because that’s not what people generally mean when they use it to talk about religion:

    It is naive and quite unfair within the overall, real-world of applied terminology to use a word like “cult” in its value-neutral definitions – when the vast majority of those who use it don’t use it in that way.

    He goes on to say that maybe the value-neutral definition can be used, but only when applied broadly, and in a neutral arena:

    So, if someone wants to stipulate that “for purposes of discussions among atheists” Mormonism is a cult – just like every other form of theism/deism, I can’t argue with that; otherwise, I can’t accept the use of the word – since it is not used that way in 99% of the cases that actually affect Mormons.

    He has stated before that this is not that kind of arena:

    “Technical definitions” applied in a vacuum – void of practical implications – are absolutely useless and, frankly, inappropriate for a forum like this that attempts to provide intelligent conversation regarding complex issues.

    So no, he’s not defending the use of the “value-neutral” definition at all. In fact, you restated his case. Please read the history and all of a post before reacting.

    From personal experience, missionaries in the field are not highly monitored at all. They do things their own way. Sure there’s group-think, pep rallies, and adolescent disproportionate thinking. But probably no more than on your local high school football team.

    Is high-school football camp a “cult?”

    Yes, a high-school football camp is a cult; the same way that Rocky Horror Picture Show fans are a cult. We’re not talking about that definition here, so please, let’s not go there.

  • FromUpNorth

    ‘As has been pointed out, Mormon missionaries are allowed to call home on Christmas.’

    And Thanksgiving? And birthdays?

    I believe that the rule as laid down in the White Book (A Missionary Handbook) is one call on Christmas, one on Mother’s Day, one hour each.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    Whoops. I did say Curt didn’t I?

    I meant Stephen Carr. Sorry about that.

    By the way, believe it or not, twice a year was actually more than enough for phone calls for me (and I’m closer to my family than most). I had a lot of work to do and plenty to worry about with the personal and spiritual concerns of the people I was serving without having the additional distractions of day-to-day family concerns.

    Besides, it was a useful exercise in growing up and having to stand on my own two feet without “running home to mommy” every time I had a gripe. I thought a central argument on atheism was that much of religious devotion was due to simply being raised to think a certain way by one’s family. Correct?

    So why object when that crutch of family is removed in favor of some real-world exposure? I guess I’m just not sure what Stephen’s real gripe is. There are plenty of things to gripe about how the LDS Church is run without resorting to petty sniveling about how “the Church took away my phone privileges!”

    Yes, and I went through law school without the benefit of early morning lattes too.

    Horrors.

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    “Steven,” that is…

    Sigh. I’m not doing very well, am I John?

  • http://godlesswasatch.blogspot.com John Moeller

    “Steven,” that is…

    Sigh. I’m not doing very well, am I John?

    Heh. We all make mistakes, and I know I’ve made a few. We just try not to make them in public. :-) Sorry to criticize you so harshly; the “anecdote” statement was confusing me, and now I know why.

    Besides, it was a useful exercise in growing up and having to stand on my own two feet without “running home to mommy” every time I had a gripe. I thought a central argument on atheism was that much of religious devotion was due to simply being raised to think a certain way by one’s family. Correct?

    It’s one of them. I wouldn’t say that it’s central, but related to some central issues.

    I’ve met Mormons who have only become less open-minded by their experience as a missionary but more who’ve become simply jaded or apathetic, and I’ve met just as many as the second group who have become thoughtful, critical people. I’ve had some intense discussions with this last group and I’ve listened to their stories as well.

    I think that people from the first group have just decided to be closed-minded. It’s possible that their parents set up this little program in their head that turns any life experience into xenophobia. I think that there are people like that in any large group, including atheist circles. You tend to find that less, though; by and large, we respect critical thinking as a group and I try to promote it myself.

    Some atheists will still harp on learned prejudice, or replace whatever zealotry they have with atheism. It’s important to note that I don’t include the hardline atheists such as Dawkins or Harris in this group; they’re highly critical of religion and not zealots or bigots, though some zealots and bigots seem to think that Dawkins and Harris support their skewed philosophies. Much of the time you find the jaded camp amongst atheists, but I believe that there are a great deal of atheists out there who seek meaningful debate.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘I believe that the rule as laid down in the White Book (A Missionary Handbook) is one call on Christmas, one on Mother’s Day, one hour each.’

    They have rules about how long you can talk to your mother on Christmas Day?

    America really is the Land of the Free , isn’t it?

  • Steven Carr

    So Steven, I’ll take that as a no on the question of whether your out-of-state parents or grandparents have received a message from you every week for the past two years?

    My grandparents are all dead.

    And guess what?

    I never joined an organisation which preached family values and then laid down rules about how long I could speak to family members.

    But then I don’t live in the Land of the Free.

  • rnd

    If it’s not this it’s that.

    There’s no set rule. There are many, many things which depend on the mission president (who changes every 3 years in each mission–which is a geographically defined area). These include what kinds of music he deems appropriate, whether you can watch the occasional Disney cartoon or not, how long he advises you to spend talking on the phone on Christmas Day (which is not a day off for missionaries–no day is, really–hence the suggested restriction).

    As with all things, it’s up to the individual to follow the “rule” or not. I was never told a time limit, so I probably talked for at least a couple of hours. But even an hour is a pretty long phone conversation. I’ve heard some of mission presidents who say 15 minutes. I think that’s extreme, but that’s based on the mission president’s personal decision for guiding the area he oversees. There isn’t any worldwide policy that I’m aware of.

    You’re also being a bit bullheaded by juxtaposing Mormon mission rules with this phony idea that “Land of the Free” should mean people get to do whatever they want all the time. And besides, not all missionaries and mission presidents are American, nor are they always calling home to families in America. Just drop it already.

    I’m (telling myself that I’m) explaining this for the benefit of those who might be influenced by your silly comments, but I guess I also sort of hope that you’ll realize your stance is ridiculous. It’s okay to disagree and not resort to sweeping generalization based on one thing you disagree with. And it’s also okay to try to express that disagreement rationally. Preferred, really.

  • Russ B.

    Regarding cults and mormonism, I like what Robert L. Millet said in his book “Getting at the Truth”.

    “The derisive label “cult” frightens many people, conjuring up images of the bizarre, the unnatural, and even the demonic. And yet the first two definitions of cult in Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary are synonymous with religion. The third definition is the one, I suppose, most anti-Mormons have in mind: ‘a religion regarded as an unorthodox or spurious sect.’ One writer described cults as follows: they are started by strong dynamic leaders; they believe in additional scripture; they have rigid standards for membership; they proselyte new converts; the leaders or officials of the cult are not professional clergymen; they believe in ongoing and continual communication from God; and they claim some truth not available to other individuals or groups. By these standards, of course, the Latter-day Saints would certainly qualify as a cult. Of course, so would the New Testament Christian Church!”

  • FromUpNorth

    If it’s not this it’s that.

    There’s no set rule. There are many, many things which depend on the mission president (who changes every 3 years in each mission–which is a geographically defined area). These include what kinds of music he deems appropriate, whether you can watch the occasional Disney cartoon or not, how long he advises you to spend talking on the phone on Christmas Day (which is not a day off for missionaries–no day is, really–hence the suggested restriction).

    I seem to find slightly different information in different places on the web, so it’s difficult to know what to quote.

    According to one former Mormon, the rule is this:

    90. Do not telephone parents (in some areas, the mission president will make an exception to this rule and will allow 2 phone calls per year: one on Christmas and one on Mother’s day. But the actual rule in the handbook does not give any exceptions. In my mission, the mission president affirmed that the rule in the handbook is unambiguous: Don’t telephone your parents, no exceptions).

    Other sites have suggested that the rule is that you get the Christmas and Mother’s Day calls, but perhaps that conflates a rigid rule and a slightly less rigid practice authorized by some mission presidents (but not others?).

    You can enlighten us here. When you say there is “no set rule,” are you saying that there is no written rule in the handbook about whether you are allowed to call your parents, are you saying that there is a written rule in the handbook but that a mission president may (or sometimes does) allow deviations from the written rule, or are you saying only that that there is no set rule about how long phone calls (if allowed) should last? Or something else yet again?

    I am inferring that there is indeed a written rule in the handbook, but the handbook is not exactly easy for us non-Mormons to consult. Very few libraries seem to have copies, for example (according to the BYU library catalog, their copy is kept in special collections, so I’m guessing you couln’t get it from them on interlibrary loan from them if you were to request it).

    Is there a written rule in the handbook about phone calls to parents? If so, what does it say?

  • http://www.nine-moons.com Seth R.

    The first page of this handbook also says that it’s a “tool” and a “reference” and that you “will receive additional information from your mission president as he deems necessary.”

    The section on letter-writing and phone calls simply says to limit those activities.

    It’s pretty-much mission president’s discretion. He has recommended guidelines, but missionary practice isn’t half as centralized as you’d think. Especially when you’re talking about foreign missions. My own mission practices in early 1990s Japan would probably be almost unrecognizable to a lot of current missionaries.

  • Joe

    I was personaly never given a time limit on my phone calls home. I actually was allowed to call my brother who was serving in Venezuela as well. No mission prohibits the twice yearly phone calls. They are expected and encouraged.

    I was in much better contact with my parents through letters as a missionary than I ever was in college. I doubt they got more than 3 phone calls a year and that was usually because I needed money for books or something.

  • http://Maryquiltercomcast.net Mary Silver

    Thank heavens for an open-minded interview with an astute, intellectually vibrant member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints!!! I am also a member of the Mormon church ( a convert ) who is NOT a Republican, was not, as others assume, brain-washed into accepting the Mormon doctrine by my parents, and isn’t some dowdy looking frump from Provo. Mitt Romney would not be my choice of candidates if I were a Republican, and John Edwards may look like John Ritter, but I’ll take him over Mitt any day of the week. Mitt’s run for the presidency has indeed thrown members of our church into the spot light, but I am truly hoping some of the old misunderstandings about us can be cleared up. If anyone else in the world has questions about our church or doctrines, I hope they will send them all along to Ken Jennings; I have never heard anyone discuss ideas on religion as calmly, intelligently, or accurately as he did. He also threw in some great witt. Thanks Ken.

  • http://Maryquiltercomcast.net Mary Silver

    Regarding how many annual phone calls missionaries make to their families and how long each call is: Looking at the eternal perspective and the “big picture”, what’s the big deal. All this discussion over something that doesn’t really pertain to our salvation and happiness in our church and faith. Guess I don’t see what makes this worth all the who-hah. I’ve never know a missionary to lose his or her testimony over the phone call situation.

  • Scooter

    This is the logic level of Mr. Carr applied to this phone call issue (if he is even being genuine–a very questionable assumption):

    “I thought parents love their children? I saw a parent restricting a child’s access to a toy for 5 minutes as a punishment.

    Which is it, do you love your child, or do you deprive your child of joy?”

    Please either add some nuanced thinking to the issue or stop grinding your ax.

    I personally can’t believe all the reaction this phone call issue has elicited. I think some people are looking for something to criticize. If this is really a noteworthy issue, man, the religion must be in good shape.

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  • http://intj-mom.livejournal.com INTJ Mom

    Ken sounds like a pretty decent guy, too bad more of the Mormons I personally know aren’t more like him.

    I was Mormon for nearly 25 years and I’ve lived in Utah for about 25 years now – most of those as a former Mormon. I resigned in order to maintain my intellectual integrity. I would still consider Mormonism a pretty small sect. They claim 13 million members, but they include in that number people who are no longer practicing and even members who have joined other faiths. 2-3 years ago, after the Salt Lake Tribune did a series of articles about membership number discrepancies, the Mormon church issued a statement saying they acknowledged that at most only 50% of their claimed members are actually practicing adherents. There’s a BYU sociology professor who’s been doing membership research and he claims that only 25-33% of the total claimed Mormon membership are actual adherents.

    But let’s give them the 50% for argument’s sake. 50% of 13 million is 6.5 million. If at most 50% of the 6.5 million reside in the US that makes 3.2 million active US Mormons or about 1% of the US population. And remember this number includes a goodly number of minor children and that the majority of active US Mormons live in Utah. The latest research I saw (done by Mormons) said 66% of all active US Mormons live in Utah.

    Then let’s look at Mormonism worldwide. A maximum of 6.5 million practicing members amongst 6 billion plus people. I think that’s about 1/10th of 1%. I would consider these percentages indicative of a very small group both in US terms and worldwide terms.

    A lot of Christian sects don’t consider Mormonism a Christian sect. They consider it a completely separate religion outside of Christianity & at times don’t include it in reports of total numbers of Christian sects and Christian adherents.

    From where I stand as an atheist, any sect that believes that Jesus was a real person and was in at least some way divine qualifies as Christian in my book. But the Christian sects apparently have “rules” about what beliefs qualify a sect as Christian and Mormonism doesn’t line up with the majority of those “rules.” So who should get to decide what Christianity is and isn’t?

    A bit off on a tangent, but I find it interesting & a bit amusing that Mormons complain about Christian sects saying Mormons aren’t Christian even though they believe in a divine Jesus but then the Mormons turn around and complain about the FLDS being called fundamentalist Mormons when the FLDS believe in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and other Mormon scriptures just as much as the mainstream Mormons do. Does this amuse anyone else?

  • TJ

    I understand the good and the bad of Mormon faith, as with many faiths.  What I struggle to understand is the recognition of BYU as “Brighom Young University” when it is so well known that he slept with and basically malested young girls, abusing his power.  How is this justified or what rationalle given.