Finding Mormon sources

RoughStoneRollingOne of GR’s regular commenters, Rathje, drew our attention to one of the most lively discussions about religion I’ve read in a great long while.

On May 14, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored a discussion — “Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?” — at its biannual Faith Angle conference. Pew helpfully provided a transcript. With Mitt Romney’s candidacy and the number of journalistic inquiries into Mormonism multiplying faster than a mathlete lightening round, the topic couldn’t be more timely. In attendance are too many journalists to shout out here, but suffice to say those participating in the discussion included some heavy hitters on the Godbeat and the politics beat from major publications.

But the real star of the discussion is the featured speaker, Richard Bushman, Governeur Morris Professor of History emeritus, Columbia University and author of Rough Stone Rolling, a well-regarded biography of Joseph Smith.

As both an Ivy League historian and a practicing Mormon, Bushman has a knack for explaining even the most controversial aspects of the church in ways that are colorful and illuminating. One aspect of the church that journalists writing about Mormonism consistently struggle with is reconciling its 19th century history of radicalism (polygamy, violent skirmishes with the federal government, etc.) with the contemporary view that many outsiders have of a slightly insular and conservative institution. Here is Bushman’s take on the church’s historical evolution:

On the radical versus conservative question, Mormons actually love their radical roots. It’s like all these neo-cons that once were Marxist. (Laughter.) I think there is a feeling that somehow religion was more intense then. We were willing to give all, consecrate all of our property to the church. We were willing to give up respectability by practicing plural marriage. The plural marriage is sort of covered up by the church because it’s a public relations disaster, but in terms of Mormons themselves, they’re willing to honor those people as having done a lot.

So it’s sort of our glorious flaming youth when we did many daring things.

While obviously that perspective isn’t going to justify the practice of polygamy in any non-Mormon’s mind, for those paying close attention, Bushman is performing a great service in explaining how Mormons perceive themselves. I think one of the reasons Mormons are often unhappy with media coverage of the church is not that they necessarily get upset over the focus on Mormon controversies. Most Mormons are actually prepared to deal with that approach. It’s just that journalists either don’t understand or explain how Mormon believers reconcile the issues for themselves.

But part of the reason that journalists and outsiders don’t do a better job explaining how Mormons perceive themselves or their history is that the Mormon church is more than just a set of beliefs. For such a young church it has an entrenched culture. Because the the doctrine of the church encompasses a belief in active revelation for every member of the church from the Prophet to the lay people, the doctrine often changes to reflect the church’s culture, even in ways that seem contradictory. Again, Bushman provides an illuminating way of looking at Mormon doctrine:

Well, when you get those switches back and forth, you know that there is a contradiction or a polarity inside the culture. Someone has said that Mormon doctrine should best be described as a set of dilemmas — as contradictory goods posed against one another.

Bushman also goes on to explain how this is played out in the political arena with some concrete examples that are helpful. Here he discusses changing positions on birth control:

When I was first married and a little alert to such things — (laughter) — there was a lot of talk against contraception, and that all just faded. You never hear a word about it now. And that is also one of the things that moderates the reception of this kind of teaching authority. That is, there are times that something seems relevant, and then it sort of fades, and other things come to the fore. So there is sort of a give-and-take between the needs of the people, who are always talking to their bishops and stake presidents — look, I have a problem; what could be done about this? — and that seeps up to the higher levels of the church. Over time, these teachings change coloration.

But the discussion is also helpful in that you see a variety of journalists respond to Bushman and the give and take is also quite edifying. Here Newsweek‘s Ken Woodward makes an interesting comparison that helps explain the Mormon approach to doctrine:

WOODWARD: It seems you have a magisterium, but what you lack is that informal body of theologians or thinkers whose job is to reflect on the content of faith, and magisterial teachings. So there is no placenta like that — am I right — for these things to go through?

BUSHMAN: That is true. And you must add the fact that there is no professional clergy, which means no clergy trained theologically. No one seeks to situate every teaching of the church against a broader Christian tradition. The process has a kind of informality to it.

The whole discussion is heartening in that many of the journalists present ask thoughtful and perceptive questions, even though their knowledge of the faith varies wildly. (One exception might be when The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn asks Bushman about a notorious memoir by an ex-BYU professor that is as critical of the church as the author’s motivations are suspect. But even that discussion is meaningful.)

The conversation about Mormonism is sprawling and touches on number of interesting subjects, from the relationship between Mormons and evangelicals to the differences in worldviews from political candidates that come from hierarchal churches vs. congregationalists. It’s a long transcript but well worth the time to read.

In fact, the discussion is so successful that it inadvertently highlights a real problem for journalists seeking to write about Mormonism. Sally Quinn notes there is a dearth of members of the church willing to speak about their religion frankly, either to journalists or in public forums:

We have a new website on The Washington Post/Newsweek called On Faith, and we have about 80 panelists from every different religion. The hardest group to find panelists for is Mormons. We have one Mormon, and that’s Mike Otterson, who is the spokesperson for the Mormon Church, and we keep saying, get us Mormons, get us Mormons, but nobody wants to do it. The only other problem we have is with Catholic priests. (Chuckles.)

We did get some guest voices when we had a question on Mormonism. We wanted Bill Marriott and Harry Reid, and they both turned us down, and then I called Mike and he got them to speak out. But Marriott’s PR person told him not to do it, that it would be dangerous for Mormons. Basically what he said was, I love my family, I care about my community — you know, all the things that you would want to hear from somebody, and yet there is this real reluctance. I think that’s one of the things that lead people to believe that there is a secrecy, when in fact what they finally wrote was lovely and very compelling.

For his part, Bushman suggests that journalists deal with this problem by checking out some of the better voices in the Mormon blogosphere. And that’s a good suggestion, but given his candid and compelling performance, it wouldn’t hurt for journalists interested in Mormonism to have Bushman on speed dial either.

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  • Paul Stokell

    Someone has said that Mormon doctrine should best be described as a set of dilemmas — as contradictory goods posed against one another.

    Good Lord – Joseph Smith was Episcopalian!! :)

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    Thanks, Mollie, for reviewing the Pew Forum’s discussion with Bushman. I loved his “Rough Stone Rolling.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better-equipped person to put Mormonism in its American context. I agree with your take on it and also recommend the whole thing to anyone concerned with any “Mormon Problem” in government.

    I think Sally Quinn made a fool of herself, first by not knowing that Bushman was Mormon, and “practicing” at that. (We all have to keep practicing, because none of us ever perfect it.) Bushman, like Romney, has served as a bishop — an unsought and unpaid calling roughly equivalent to pastor of a congregation that consumes about 20 hours a week for about five years. But to admit that all that she knew about Mormonism came from the repressed memory of one individual!

    I think that the Washington Post would find it much easier to recruit Mormon contributors to its “On Faith” blog if it would moderate the comments. Anyone who posts there opens themselves up to incredibly savage bear-baiting.

  • Jon

    Great article! I personally believe that criticism is the biggest reason why many LDS members, especially prominent members, won’t discuss their faith “frankly” with the media.

    Any members who discusses the LDS church on an open forum online, opens themselves up to some pretty harsh criticism. All you have to do is read the comments over on the recent “On Faith” discussions about Mormonism to see how brutal some of them can be. No one wants to endure that type of abuse on something so personal like faith. Responding to these comments and allegations over and over again can get fairly tedious.

    Anyway, thanks for this review. I loved some of the comments from Bushman – especially the ones about the church in its early history.

  • Rathje

    Thanks Mollie,

    Nice review. Glad you caught that he’s actually a Columbia and not a Harvard professor. Oops.

  • Yeechang Lee

    Professor Bushman is wonderful, and it’s always good to see the wider world recognize this. My one claim to fame in life is that I am the only person on Earth to have attended Seminary (high school-level after-school religion classes for Mormon youth), Institute (same for college students), and ordinary college classes taught by the Professor.
    Bushman is a scholar of early American history. His American Revolution class is the only one of the about forty I took in my undergraduate days at Columbia in which, when the instructor finished speaking on the last day, the entire class spontaneously broke out in a standing ovation.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Regarding the secrecy Mormons have about their faith, yes it is true that there is vitriol for those who speak about their faith. Same for me as a conservative WELS Lutheran. Jehovah’s Witnesses take their share of abuse, too.

    Anyone who has seen the temple in Salt Lake City has seen that Joseph Smith was heavily influenced by the Masons–and that influence has been handed down to each generation of Mormons. As Masonism os also secretive you can see how the influence is still there.

    But if doctrine is an informal thing in a group without a trained clergy, then how do you express your faith? Take a straw poll of fellow members? What, exactly, is it that holds Mormons together? What does a Mormon actually believe in? I guess the questions that ought be asked are, “Do you accept the Mormon concept of Celestial Marriage?” “Do you believe there are disembodied spirits waiting for bodies so it is imperative to have large families?” “What do you think of Christ–is he true God from eternity and true man born of the Virgin Mary?” “Do you get a ‘burning in your gut’ when you read The Book of Mormon?”

    If, as Prof. Bushman states, Mormon doctrine is an informal thing, then what place does Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants have in Mormon belief, faith, and life? I’m surprised with such informality a Mormon Talmud hasn’t developed.

  • Rathje

    “But if doctrine is an informal thing in a group without a trained clergy, then how do you express your faith? Take a straw poll of fellow members?”

    The short answer is – yes. Mormons identify by consensus for the most part. I’m a lifelong Mormon and I can’t point you to any formal codification of Mormon theology. But I know what sounds right and what doesn’t sound right. Like pornography, I know Mormon doctrine when I see it.

    Maddening isn’t it?

  • Jon

    The newsroom on has some good guidelines on understanding what is Mormon doctrine and what isn’t Mormon doctrine. I agree with Rathje that most Mormons know what sounds right and what doesn’t sound right and they are in agreement on the fundamental doctrines of the church.

    The article Approaching Mormon Doctrine may be helpful.

  • Rockstarlett

    But if doctrine is an informal thing in a group without a trained clergy, then how do you express your faith? Take a straw poll of fellow members? What, exactly, is it that holds Mormons together?

    I guess I would answer John L. Hoh, Jr. by referring him to a study of the scriptures. How did Christ hold his disciples and follower’s together? My study of them would lead me to believe it was a rather “informal” structure. I don’t recall any vote being taken to decide which fisherman would become the next apostle or what his salary or benefit package would be. I don’t know of a council being convened to decide who would lead the Israelites out of Israel or what were the 10 most important things to make into commandments etc, etc.

  • Eric G.

    I had the privilege of reading that transcript over the weekend, and I thought Professor Bushman did an incredibly good job of explaining Mormonism for that forum. And with the exception of Quinn, I thought that most of the reporters asked intelligent, often insightful, questions.

    I thought it was refreshing to read a discussion that wasn’t dominated by the sensational issues or the questions of concern to the anti-Mormon apologists. (Those issues weren’t ignored either, just put in an appropriate perspective.)

    Incidentally, I’m at about page 500 of Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith. It’s fascinating. And it’s worth noting that Bushman doesn’t shy away from the difficult issues (such as Smith marrying about 10 women who were married to other men at the time). There’s plenty in the book that could cause one to believe in his ministry, and there’s plenty to raise red flags for the skeptics.

    I’d pretty much agree with what Rathje said in #7. There was a codification of LDS doctrine about half a century ago — the book was called “Mormon Doctrine” — and you can still find it on bookshelves today even though parts of it were repudiated by church leadership. I’ve known people who have quoted the book approvingly, and I’ve known others refer to is as “Mormon False Doctrine.”

    All that said, I hope the transcript and this discussion give some idea of why LDS doctrine is somewhat elusive. There is certainly agreement on the basics — Jesus Christ suffered and died so we could have eternal life, that’s the biggest one. But there’s also disagreement and speculation on other issues that might seem like they’d be fundamental but really aren’t — where did God come from, why don’t we know more about Heavenly Mother, that sort of thing. And there’s even more disagreement on the ultimately unimportant issues such as evolution of the species.

    To answer Mr. Hoh’s question about what holds the church together, I suppose it has something to do identification around a common story (both the basic Christian theology of the Atonement and the story of the Restoration through a farm boy) and the fact that there is to some extent a church subculture (much of which doesn’t have a lot to do with its theology). I think there’s also the fact that we actively encourage youths to be involved in the church — for example, at most services, you’ll hear a teenager (or someone younger) actually give a mini-sermon, often one he/she wrote him/herself. As a result, the number people leaving church upon adulthood is much smaller than for most denominations. And there are really lot of ways that congregations (we call them wards) are like large families (usually, not always, a good thing).

    To answer Mr. Hoh’s other question, “What does a Mormon actually believe in?” I’d have to say that there’s a strong belief that what we do here on Earth (not merely what we believe) goes with us into eternity, and that we are in a very real sense God’s children. I’m not saying other Christians don’t believe we’re children of God, but it’s certainly emphasized a lot more in the LDS church and dominates how we see ourselves. We’re not merely creations of God but descendants. Maybe it’s that belief that holds us together as much as anything.

    Things like that are somewhat vague, it’s true, and can be hard for journalists to grab a hold of when there are so many stereotypes out there. The Pew transcript offers a hopeful sign that some journalists have a clear picture of the church than they did a month ago.

  • geotopia

    Bravo Mollie, this was well researched and well expressed. And to those who commented, this is the most civil discussion I’ve encountered. Mormonism seems to stir up such controversy that a broad based discussion proves useless, but you folks have managed to actually get some where. Richard Bushman’s book really is a good read and so well researched to leave it as an unimpeachable source for early Mormon history. There seems to be little whitewash and that’s probably because Professor Bushman does have a colorful way of telling an untellable story. I’d love to hear him lecture on American secular history as well.

  • Noel

    I found Bushman’s book an interesting read at first but after doing a bit more reading of various reviews my mind changed. He misuses some sources by not quoting the whole source which gives a better expression of what the source quoted meant. He makes no mention on Brigham H Robert’s work on the BOM where he spelt out a large number of problems with the book. He makes no mentiion of the paper that appeared in Dialogue Spring 1969 where he was done like a dinner by Wesley Walters on the First Vision.

  • Rathje

    The main problem critics seem to have with Bushman’s book is that he writes it from a perspective of faith rather than skepticism.

    For instance, he will simply refer to “a revelation Joseph Smith had” rather than calling it an “alleged revelation.” That it was a bona fide revelation from God is never really questioned by the book. Bushman explains that this was deliberate (and he admits to it early in the book). He feels the best way to understand Joseph Smith and the way he thought, and the way his followers regarded him, is from an assumption of faith rather than skepticism.

    Maybe this will bother some readers. But at least Bushman explicitly admits to the inherent bias early in the book.

  • Whitney Johnson

    Agreed with both Mollie and #10.

    It was so refreshing to read through both this article and the comments, as all have been quite measured.

    I too have wanted to get involved in the On Faith discussion, but have found the vitriol so repellent — and not just from non-adherents to the Mormon faith — I just couldn’t.

    Thank you to all.

  • Bryan McKenzie

    The book Mormon Doctrine was by one of the Apostles, Bruce McConkie; and while it is good for understanding what the LDS church teaches, it isn’t official.

  • chris g

    I wonder how a report would work if took the angle that Mormonism is more of a network system than a conventional organization. It makes sense to me to think of the religion as based on tacit rather than formal knowledge exchange. With this angle though, facts don’t emerge from the actors, but rather in the way the actors communicate with each other. I guess that is why I found the Bushman dialogue so interesting. The facts and ideas meant more in a real exhange than by themselves. I guess the problem is how to view such exchanges. Unless they are authentic they will always have a ring of secrecy. Unfortunately I am not up to speed on my ethnography to guess how a tacitly formed network can be concisely and easily reported.

  • MJBubba

    I concur with the unpleasantness of the discourse at the Washington Post’s On Faith. Whitney J. is right; it is repellent, for anyone who actually believes in anything. It seems to have become a home for nihilists and “haters” of all stripes.

  • Geoff J

    Nice recap Molly.

    You said: Bushman suggests that journalists deal with this problem by checking out some of the better voices in the Mormon blogosphere.

    If readers are interested in checking out some of the varying voices in the Mormon blogosphere (dubbed the Bloggernacle internally) check out (aka The Mormon Archipelago). It is an aggregator and portal to many of the best Mormon-themed blogs.

  • Geoff J

    Oops… I meant “Nice recap Mollie.” (sorry)

  • Random Guy and provide clear and concise answers to questions about the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Readers can even interact with a church representative with questions. When I did this, I got a response within a day.

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