Hey Mormons, Help a Guy Out

As part of a long commissioned piece that I am currently writing, I use a joke. Would any Mormon Jeremy Lott’s Diary readers please let me know if the highlighted part in the first sentence is correct. Bonus: If you read all the way to the end of the joke, I may have improved the punchline. Here it is:

There’s an old joke about the flood and the true believer that gets recycled endlessly in sermons from Protestant, Catholic and Mormon pulpits. Heavy, pounding rains have busted a local levy and water starts pouring into a Midwestern town. The evacuation order goes out. Almost everybody gets out of town to avoid being swallowed up by the flood.

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I’m Huge in Japan

Let me draw your attention to two Jeremy Lott’s Diary media hits this week because 1) self-promotion! and 2) the articles are by journalists I both like and respect.

The most recent ran today in Politix, a project of Topix, by new editor-in-chief David Mark. Mark was previously editor of a bunch of stuff including Campaigns & Elections, the Politico op-ed page and The Arena.

In a riff on my Rick Warren post, Mark highlighted something that I didn’t think would get as much attention as it has. I said incivility was not really Warren’s concern and then moved on to spell out his real concern: the Obama administration’s somewhat cavalier attitude toward religious liberty.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Warren certainly objects to incivility. Who doesn’t? Yet if that was his only objection it is highly doubtful that we would be writing about a cancelled forum.

The other piece to bring to your attention is by The Observer‘s Paul Harris about Mormons in America.

It’s a meaty article. Harris told me he didn’t have a lot of fixed notions going into it and so he did some good old fashioned journalism. He talked to a bunch of people with differing viewpoints — far more than just the usual liberal-conservative divide of the New York Times template — and, so far as I can tell, represented them accurately.

My favorite small observation, highlighted below, comes when Harris is interviewing Connor Boyack, a libertarian Mormon in Utah who doesn’t want to jump on the Mittwagon:

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Misunderestimating Mormonism

This is one of those times where one probably ought to announce one’s biases up front so as to avoid any misunderstanding: I do not believe Mormonism to be metaphysically true because I accept a different and competing set of metaphysical truths.

While I cannot claim to have given the Latter-Day religion every possible consideration, I have a) had Mormon missionaries over to my house for several weeks running; b) read parts of the Book of Mormon; c) read articles and books on Mormonism by Mormon and non-Mormon experts; and d) visited a Mormon house of worship.

That means Mormon proselytizers are probably wasting their time. It also means that I find lazy anti-Mormon caricatures incredibly irksome.

To wit, reader Ken Dahl writes in comments, “The Mormon god has willingly allowed 99.99% of humanity to pass through life without knowing the principals of salvation as put forward by the LDS church in Salt Lake City. One must wonder about this marvelous ‘plan of salvation’ espoused by Mormonism — living a principled life on earth as the Mormon god intended. It isn’t a plan at all. It’s an epic failure in concept and execution. Further evidence that their ‘loving’ god doesn’t exist.”

This comment evinces an utter failure to understand Mormonism on its own terms. Let us count out a few of the ways:

1) Mormons do believe in hell but it’s pretty damned hard to get there. So the Latter-Day “plan of salvation” has not consigned “99.99% of humanity” to eternal torment in outer darkness.

2) Mormons believe in different levels of heaven or “degrees of glory,” designated as the Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial Kingdoms.

3) They also believe in a post-mortal existence in the “spirit world” before we’re sorted into those kingdoms.

4) Mormons believe that the highest heaven, the Celestial Kingdom, is reserved to believing Mormons in this world or in our post-mortal existence.

5) They believe that their actions in this world affect the spirit world, in two ways. First, their proselytizing efforts send people into the spirit world as believing Mormons likely to migrate up thereafter.

6) Second, Mormons believe that their religious rituals in this world affect what goes on in that spirit world. Thus the baptisms, by proxy, for the dead.

7) You know what, let me just include a handy chart here from Wikipedia to help y’all out:

Mormon heavens

Indeed, you can get almost all of the above on the Mormon hereafter from the content of the Wikipedia article on the subject. If you accept the premises of Mormonism, this is a credible “plan of salvation” for at least a pretty good chunk of humanity, and not an awful fate for the rest of us. If a good plan is evidence of a good planner then a certain reader might want to rethink the existence of a certain deity.

Failure of Moderation

Comments come into this site on an irregular basis. Usually, I’m around to approve or reject them not long after they are submitted, or I can approve the one or two stand-alone comments several hours after the fact.

Today, however, was different. A bunch of comments came in on the Carrie Sheffield Mormon brouhahahahahaha! I didn’t get around to approving them until just now because I managed to get myself locked out of the website and had to reset the password after an exhaustive search for the old one.

The short of it is: Sorry about that, guys.

More on Mormon Decline

In response to the last blog post, Carrie Sheffield wrote to me the following. I asked if she’d like me to reproduce it here. She said yes, so here you go:

Hey Jeremy, I just saw your blog post. Would have been great if you had asked me for comment beforehand to understand some of the constraints I was dealing with.

A few thoughts:

-My initial draft included a link to an excellent study from Trinity College. This points out that “there are far fewer people who claim to be Mormon than are reported in official church statistics. The American Religious Identification Surveys allow scholars to look at self-identified members of the church in the United States … In early 1990, the LDS Church claimed 4,175,000 members in the United States, or 1.7% of the U.S. population. At the end of 2008, the church claimed 5,974,041 members, or 2% of the U.S. population. This constitutes a 30% increase in membership over an eighteen year span, as well as a 0.3% increase in Mormonism‘s ―national market share.
Numbers from the ARIS tell a slightly different story. From 1990 to 2008, the survey reports that the adult Mormon population in the United States rose from 2,487,000 to 3,158,000 but remained a steady at 1.4% of the U.S. population.”

-Unless someone proactively tells SLC they want their records formally removed through a process that takes weeks, they are still kept on Mormon rolls until age 110. That is why there are many many people, especially outside the US, who get baptized and perhaps never enter a chapel or temple again and yet are still counted as “Mormon” when in fact it has no place in their lives.

-I had more details that were taken out of the piece about research from more than 3,000 questioning Mormons, far from the isolated anecdotes of one person. The table on page 8 shows a multitude of reasons why people leave the church.

-I also had more that was taken out about positive things that the official Church had been doing; this would have struck a more conciliatory tone.

Development of Dougherty Doctrine

The Dougherty Doctrine is a rhetorical trick that makes many political debates much easier to understand. It was accidentally coined by journalist and former roommate Michael Brendan Dougherty in an article for the Washington Monthly. Dougherty took in an intra-Republican debate and wrote, “the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.”

The Doctrine has broader application than Republicans. All political parties engage in it from time to time as its members try to tug it in one direction or other. And pundits practice it constantly, usually without much evidence. (The “radical right” is costing Republicans with swing voters; Dems are losing because they’re “too centrist” or “too liberal.”) Sometimes that’s understandable: television is not the most thoughtful medium and the usual length of op-eds forces writers to use a lot of shortcuts. Still, it’s worth pointing out how identity-driven such politics actually tend to be.

Does the Dougherty Doctrine apply to religion as well? That possibility occurred to me when I read this piece by Carrie Sheffield in USA Today. It’s not a bad piece. Indeed, I led with it on Real Clear Religion this afternoon. But the biographical angle raises certain large questions.

Sheffield is a former Mormon whose work I’ve published in the past, when she was still Mormon. She writes in USA Today that she left the LDS church in 2010 and positions her exit as part of a larger rush out the door that the Utah hierarchy really needs to address.

“Church leaders can crack down and continue to see members, especially young people, leave,” Sheffield writes. “Or they can allow churchwide dialogue and changes relating to the church’s historical and doctrinal claims, financial dealings, proselytizing and treatment of women, skeptics and outsiders.”

Just how large is the problem? Sheffield writes, “This year, Elder Marlin Jensen, the Mormon Church’s outgoing official historian, acknowledged that members are defecting from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ‘in droves’ and that the pace is increasing.”

That sounds alarming, but without the relevant numbers, it’s not terribly helpful. Just how many Mormons are calling it quits and how does that stack up against Mormon births and conversions? She doesn’t grapple with that question. Instead we get a lot of anecdotes about some former Mormon protest groups, a YouTube video with half a million views, and “hundreds” of pro-gay Mormons that marched in something or other.

Nor does Sheffield consider what a sort of Vatican 2 for Mormonism would do to the faith and practice of the large mass of faithful Mormons. Maybe most Mormons would be fine with it, or maybe you’d see LDS participation plummet much like Mass attendance did in the 1970s. I’d guess the latter but it’s only a guess, because I’d like to avoid the temptations of the Dougherty Doctrine on this fine Monday.

UPDATE: Carrie Sheffield has replied here.

Exclusive Jeremy Lott Q&A!!!

Q: Why Jeremy Lott’s Diary?

A: So my readers will have something interesting to read on the train.

Q: People still take the train?

A: I did recently, all the way from Bellingham to DC.

Q: What were you doing in DC?

A: I went to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, and I went there to help launch the latest website for my company, Real Clear Policy.

Q: How many Real Clear websites do you edit?

A: Three-and-a-half, roughly. I edit Real Clear Religion and Real Clear Books outright, co-edit Real Clear Policy and lend a hand on Real Clear Science when needed.

Q: How do you sleep?

A: Deputies, colleagues, and co-editors help me do most of this. Joseph “Joe” Lawler handles the day-to-day with Real Clear Policy and Real Clear Religion is a thorough collaboration with Nicholas “Nick” Hahn. Alex Berezow is the insomniac mad scientist behind Real Clear Science. I mention them here because they are sure to get name-checked from time to time.

Q: Sounds like a busy schedule. Why are you making time for a blog?

A: It is busy, but I’ve always done a lot of writing for Real Clear and other outlets. Writing is a way of thinking. Forcing oneself to write regularly is a way of staying sharp. It is thus a good way of giving readers the best “intelligent aggregation” possible, because the product we are really selling is our best judgment.

Q: You mentioned you went to CPAC. Are you a conservative?

A: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Republican Party, but party membership doesn’t mean much in the great state of Washington. Rush Limbaugh one day repeatedly called me a “liberal” on air. My Baptist minister father was flooded with calls from parishioners telling him he ought to call up Rush and set him straight. Dad wrote an e-mail and called Rush a liberal. I found the whole thing highly amusing.

Q: Why amusing?

A: It’s consistent with my general outlook. One stock question that I will ask old friends and new enemies alike is: “Why do you get out of bed in the morning?” Their off-the-cuff answers can tell you a lot about what animates them. I’ve gotten answers from a general sense of duty to “hatred of the left” to fear of being deported to Canada.

Q: OK then, why do you get out of bed in the morning?

A: Because I find life so very amusing.

Q: You wrote “my Baptist minister father.” Was that a way of drawing a distinction?

A: Yes. He’s Baptist, I’m Catholic.

Q: What’s the story there?

A: It’s a long one. The shortest way of getting at it is to say when I was 13 the Baptist congregation we were at went through a very painful “church split.” Some of the pastors and about half of the members walked away to start a new church. I thought that was clearly a bad thing, but that presented a logic problem to my young mind. I was aware there had been this little thing called the Reformation. So I thought: this could be OK now and OK then or wrong now and wrong back then, but it didn’t seem possible it could be a bad thing now but A-OK back in the day.

Q: So you, a pastor’s kid, joined a church that requires clerical celibacy?

A: There always have and always will be PKs, of varying shades of legitimacy, but we’re not the greatest idea. I often tell people that PKs know where all the bodies are buried. I could add “literally.” We’re too close and see too much too early. It becomes pretty hard to shock us with church scandals.

Q: So why not just chuck God, religion, the whole metaphysical ball of wax?

A: Tried that. It didn’t take.

Q: You were an atheist?

A: No, I wanted to be an atheist. I just never could find a way to pretend God doesn’t exist or that what we do here and now has no greater significance. Francis Schaeffer put it memorably. God is there and — in the long run, anyway — he is not silent.

Q: What do you do for fun, when you’re not being ponderous?

A: Too many things. I bowl and go for long, meandering walks. Dirt races are fun. Just got a set of golf clubs and a ridiculously high powered bb gun. All the neighborhood crows are suddenly giving the house wide berth. Of course I read, for fun as well as profit, and go to a ridiculous number of movies.

Q: What’s your favorite movie?

A: It’s a tie between Tombstone and My Fair Lady. Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday and Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins are both immortal fictional characters.

Q: Real Clear Religion has been described as a “Mormon-interested website.” What’s your own take on Mormons?

A: They’re great!

Q: Sarcasm?

A: No I really have liked most of the Mormons I’ve met and corresponded with and I find their religion deeply fascinating. It’s the most ambitious religion I’ve ever encountered.

Q: So when are you going to convert?

A: Oh, probably never. I think you get one conversion in life before you start to court absurdity and I’ve already did that. Besides, my religious notions are pretty well fixed at this point — basically a Baptist-flavored Catholicism, a degree in Biblical Studies and an Irish temperament, and the Jeremy Lott prayer thrown in for good measure.

Q: What in the world is the Jeremy Lott prayer?

A: It goes like this: Dear God: I’m wrong, you’re right, I’m going to bed.