Why Is It So Hard to Figure Out What Mormons Believe?

The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spent far more time than it would like recently tamping down small pestilences of embarrassment spewed forth from its lay membership.  Recently in the Washington Post a professor of religion at Brigham Young University, which the church owns, uttered a series of remarkably garish and disturbingly convoluted theories in explanation of why his church did not ordain men of African descent to its priesthood until 1978.  Before the professor drew the glare of the spotlight, members of the church had spent much of February cringing each time Helen Radkey, a muckraker and professional embarrasser of Mormons, discovered another in the parade of deceased Holocaust victims some earnest, yet rogue, lay member appeared to have baptized by proxy.   The church leadership wishes none of these things had happened.

Indeed, in both cases the anonymous, yet authoritative Church Newsroom issued firm public statements declaring that what its members had wrought reflected precisely the opposite of things official.  But such clarifications can smack a bit of embarrassed post-hoc damage control, or worse, of disingenuousness.  After all, everybody knows that Mormons believe strange things, that some of them still practice polygamy, that God lives on a planet called Kolob, that Jesus and Satan are brothers. The church has issued statements qualifying, dismissing, or clarifying all these notions as well, and yet they continue to stagger forward, zombie-like, animated by quotations careful evangelicals culled undoubtedly sometime during the Nixon administration from the dusty writings of various nineteenth century Mormon divines, but now given eternal copy-and-pasted undead existence on the internet.  It seems evident that the appearance of fuzziness around their theology is becoming an obstacle as Mormons seek greater acceptance in American life.

Understandably, many in the media were confused when the church distanced itself from its own members.  If a professor of religion at a church-owned university cannot be trusted to elaborate on what Mormons believe, who can?   If the Mormons really wanted to stop particular proxy baptisms, couldn’t they? (Ever tighter controls over this practice have been implemented.)   From HBO’s Big Love to Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, one thing that nearly all pop cultural depictions of Mormons agree on is their dreary uniformity: a sea of white shirts and ties, an ominous bureaucracy, a peculiar love of rigid abstinence, a comfort with obedience.  The notion that the Mormon prophet couldn’t control what Mormons did violated the authoritative tenets laid out in American melodrama from Zane Grey and Arthur Conan Doyle on.

And yet, the publicity that Mitt Romney’s endless quest for the presidency has drawn to the church has made public what most Mormons know already: their church is no monolith.  In part because Mormons have no trained ministry they have very little systematic or official theology. The sermons of church leaders, the lessons taught in Sunday school, the official publications of the church all emphasize the homiletic, the devotional, and, more than anything, the behavioral expectations that define what it means to be a good Mormon.  They do not emphasize theology beyond the most basic tenets of Christianity as Joseph Smith interpreted it.  The language of homoousia and heteroousia and determinism and TULIP and consubstantiation is utterly foreign in nearly every Mormon venue, and Mormons tend to treat their unfamiliarity with technical theology as a point of pride.  Congregational leaders care far more about whether any given member might be willing to ferry a widow home from church than what that member might believe about the theory of evolution.

To be sure, there is no shortage of theology within Mormonism.  Again, the faith’s tradition of a lay ministry means that Mormon leader after Mormon leader have enthusiastically offered their followers one particular version of the faith or another.  And precisely because the language of theology is so foreign to Mormons, Mormons barely recognize that they are doing it: nearly all these exercises in interpretation are offered not as a theologian would – as a possible way of understanding God, a story of eternity that might cast new light on the mysteries of faith – but as simple self-evident truth.

But there is no creed, catechism, or systematic theology to hold Mormonism to any fixed point, and therefore, the cluster of ideas that make up Mormon doctrine, all of which at some time or another seemed the unvarnished truth to some group of saints or another, is in a constant state of evolution.  Forty years ago, it was common for Mormon leaders to denounce birth control from the pulpit: today, contraception is explicitly condoned.  That which Mormons generally believe are those things currently emphasized in official venues.  This means they are accustomed to rolling their eyes at worn, little repeated ideas taught fifty or a hundred years ago.  “Brigham Young said a lot of things,” when uttered with the right degree of weariness is certain to gain sympathetic chuckles in any Mormon gathering.  Consequently, church leaders are generally content with letting ideas no longer appealing simply die out, rather than issuing formal repudiation.  There is a great deal which Mormons might believe; there is very little that they must believe.

In the past this lack of precision has been a great boon to Mormonism.  It allowed the church to survive the abandonment of polygamy, to overturn the institutionalized discrimination of the priesthood ban, to adapt from a sectarian separatist movement into a national faith bidding for cultural respectability.

But what appears to be flexibility from one perspective seems like maddening slipperiness from another.   Mitt Romney’s unwillingness to address the doctrinal particulars of his faith no doubt appears to him eminently reasonable, because for him – as for so many Mormons – the religion is about lifestyle as much as orthodoxy.  To others, however, his evasiveness is product of the same weaknesses which lack of doctrinal rigor inflicts upon his church – the appearance of dissembling, slick awareness of public relations, willingness to cover up the embarrassing or tawdry.   Many Americans fear that Mormonism’s polished exterior hides connivance, and many believe the same of Mitt Romney.

But such fears may too frequently misread pragmatism (a virtue Romney shares with his church, at its best) as conscious duplicity, and assume that theological consistency is a greater virtue than it is.  Mormonism remains a work in progress, and, paradoxically, it is strongest when it acknowledges that it is yet half-built.

  • Paul Von Guerard

    The article and the comments are an interesting discussion of religion, man’s attempt to reach God. What was missing for me was recognition of our need for redemption and God provision by His grace through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is assumed by the writer(s). When it comes to religion it seems to boil down to debating points. Placing one’s faith in the atonement of Christ eliminates the subjectivity of man. To me when it comes to faith there are three types of people; belief in no God, belief in man’s position to cut a deal with God (earn His favor), or reliance on God’s forgiveness through His grace manifested in the atonement of Christ.

    • Rockyspoon

      There’s a fourth type–those (like Mormons) that believe in the combination of the last two you list–that man will be judged by his works (otherwise there’s not much efficacy of process) and reliance on God’s grace.

      I wouldn’t say man is in a position to “cut a deal” with God.

      • Paul Von Guerard

        Discussion about works factoring into a persons standing with God can be a bit chicken and egg. I believe I do good works because of God’s grace rather than in addition to His Grace. As for efficacy I rely on the concept that by the works of the flesh no man is justified-Romans 3:20. I will concede that we see through a glass dimly. At that point To judge my intentions, a la Matthew 7:21-24, in the context of love. Motivated by love and loving everyone is as sure as I can be that I am following God and have hope of spending eternity worshiping Him.

  • Systematic Theologian

    “…the cluster of ideas that make up Mormon doctrine, all of which at some time or another seemed the unvarnished truth to some group of saints or another, is in a constant state of evolution.”

    To quote one of the best lines from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s making it up as he goes along.”

    • Rockyspoon

      And as a practicing Mormon, I don’t agree “he’s making it up as he goes along” applies to Mormonism. There are core principles in the religion (many probably more assertive than those found other “Christian” religions) and there are things that are added as times goes by. You wouldn’t need a prophet at all if everything in the church was static.

  • Jim Hodgen

    It’s interesting. As an adjunct to this thread, it would be interesting to explore what the drivers and benefits of that ‘baked theology’ would be to the Church. What are the benefits to churches that claim to have one of them?

    Do ‘baked theologies’ prevent dissension within a church? The cautionary tale of the American Episcopalian church’s collapse under the failure of consensus on Gay Marriage and Gay Priesthood would indicate that might not be the case.

    Do ‘baked theologies’ become guideposts for the individual members as they strive to align their hearts and actions with the example set by the Savior? It would not seem so from a distance.

    Is this perhaps one of those things that the Mormon Church is leading the way on then? That ‘baked theologies’ to at least some extent are artifacts of debates among those that seek to create the Gospel of Jesus Christ as opposed to listen for it and act on it?

    There is a need for core principles in order for people to evaluate and discern without a need to retreat for a month to study from scratch every situation. But is much of the ‘baked theology’ not really essential… kept because it was a win in an ongoing dialogue to define Christ and his mission?

    In that case, perhaps all Churches would be well advised to do some house cleaning in order to not be buried in detritus and unnecessary things of the world as they try to prepare (either themselves as individuals or as a group) to be received by Christ.

    • Rockyspoon

      By “baked” do you mean transformation of ingredients into a better state–a more pleasing form or useful compound? If so, your term “baked theology” seems to be a contradiction in terms.

  • willys36

    I wonder why there wasn’t this much interest in disecting black liberation theology 4 years ago.

    • Rockyspoon

      The church that gets the most negative attention I know of is the LDS religion. And it isn’t because LDS strap bombs on their kids and send them out among the crowd. In fact, we send our kids out (about 52,000 strong) to do just the opposite.

      Could it be that the forces of darkness would all align against the one that brings the most light? (Has any other group here in the US had an extermination order applied to them?)

      To me that’s the only plausible explanation for the hatred and social expulsion.

  • Cort McMurray

    For ten years, I served in the bishopric of a mostly poor, mixed race ward in southwest Houston. For six of those years, I was bishop. Annual convert baptisms for our ward ranged from thirty to seventy-five converts during that period. Seven out of ten households were led by a single sister; nearly all of the Primary children, Young Men and Young Women lived in single parent homes. At one point, we had twenty-four active Melchizedek Priesthood holders, including the four full-time missionaries. Try running a ward with twenty Melchizedek Priesthood holders. Sixty to seventy percent of the ward was African, African-American, or Latino. My family still lives in the ward.

    I’ve learned two things.

    First, Mormons not only expect infallibility from the President of the Church, they expect it from the bishop, from the Elders Quorum president, from the Primary teachers, from anyone who might have a stewardship that includes them. Once, during Ward Council, an irate father confronted me. His son had chosen to not serve a mission, and was not attending Church. If I was the spiritual leader of the ward, why had I not discerned that the boy was struggling, and done what was necessary to “save” him? Every bishop in the Church has had a similar Simons Rider moment, an experience where a member became disaffected, even defiant, because the bishop failed to meet an unreasonably high standard. It is a draining, difficult thing to live through.

    Second, we are all guilty of making unreasonable demands on leaders, and whatever their failings, the full record of any leader is very, very complex. Look at Harold B. Lee. The Claire Middlemiss journals make it clear that he was a major impediment to lifting the restrictions on the Priesthood. He is quoted as saying that Blacks would get the Priesthood “over my dead body.” That’s a horrific, benighted thing to say. It makes me ashamed for him. It also clearly reflects the values, opinions, and belief system of someone who came of age in the first half of 20th century, in the backwater that was the rural Great Basin. He was completely unwilling, and therefore incapable and perhaps unworthy of receiving the revelation necessary to move the Church forward.

    He also set in motion Church Correlation, reforms that dramatically improved and made uniform religious instruction. A lot of things we take for granted, like the consolidated meeting schedule, the revised footnoting of the Scriptures, the “utilitarian” approach to Temple services, came about because of efforts that were instituted by President Lee. I can tell you that all of those things have had a profound effect on the way the Gospel has gone forth in the African and African-American communities. So yeah, I’m ashamed for the guy. But I am also grateful for him. It’s another example of the ol’ “compound in one.”

    It’s easy to judge, for the soft perch of historical detachment. Things are a lot more complicated.

    Also, and no one ever wants to talk about this, but racism remains a HUGE problem in Mormonism, not so much among the younger generation, but certainly among older members. I have a book’s worth of anecdotes: the High Councilors who’d shake my hand after sacrament meeting, and say, with an undisguised hint of amazement, “You know, I actually felt the Spirit here today;” the old acquaintances who’d sidle up to me in the Temple, and ask, “When are you finally getting out of there?” like we were living in The Thunderdome; the earnest senior missionary couple who wouldn’t work with African-American converts, because they weren’t “simple and pure, like the ones from Liberia” (evidently it was imported Crips and Bloods killing all those people in Monrovia). When the announcement about the Priesthood was read in my upstate New York ward in 1978, a couple of people actually got up and walked out, never to return. I often dream of what would have happened to American, had men like Malcolm X found the Priesthood before he found Elijah Mohammed. Then I think about how the good people of Mormondom would have reacted, had the ban been lifted in 1940, or 1950, or even 1970.

    My point is, instead of clucking our tongues over the failings of past leaders, why don’t we ever consider the beam in the members’ collective eye? Is it possible that we’re given exactly as much prophet, exactly as much revelation, as we’re prepared to accept?

    (It’s also important to note that the generally sensitive and thoughtful way that leaders, particularly BYU hierarchy, are addressing the issue of homosexuality and Mormonism indicates that our leaders have learned some lessons since the days of Pres. Lee.)

    • Rockyspoon

      Doesn’t sound like the Blacks were ready or willing to accept the priesthood based on your own account. I wouldn’t say President Lee’s recalcitrant attitude was the problem.

      • Matthew Bowman

        Rockyspoon – I’d refer you to the Church’s official response to statements very similar to those you are making right now:

        http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article

        Further, President Hinckley stated this in General Conference 2006: “Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.”

        Please do not continue to offer offensive racial statements in our comment threads. Further such statements will be moderated.

        • Rockyspoon

          I’ve said nothing that I consider to be racially motivated or a racial slur, Mr. Bowman–I was simply making an observation of Mr. McMurray’s account above–and an accurate one at that, wherein he seems to claim the problem to be President Lee’s “backwards ways” (which are anecdotal at best). I actually happen to believe “The Brethren” don’t make racially insensitive slurs and comments, but I could be wrong.

          • Not so sure anymore

            You are most certainly wrong.

  • Beth Ann Robinson

    You are so wrong about the Mormons. Most of the members are well read in the Bible and their scriptures are marked memorized and read daily. I don,t know any other religion who is as specific in its beliefs or what is expected of its ‘ members,or who holds its members to a high level of ethics and personal responsibility. Parents and youth are given high standards and good support systems to help them. Mormons teach their kids to give service to others, no smokiing, no drinking, chasity, give a full ten per cent tithe, be honest, humble, to follow the Savior’s teachings, attend church, have quality time with your family, serve a full time mission for two years, get married in the temple to your spouse, which is a stronger commitment to be faithful to one another, be responsible for yourself and family, have extra food storsge, get a good education and have a church calling. You SHOULD read the Pew Institutes survey on Mormons. It is informative. I am happiest when I am doing what is right and being the best person I can be. That is what my parents and church taught me and that is what I am passing along to my children. By the way the Mormons teach that families are eternal and if you are rightous you will be together for eternity. That is the difference between a civil marriage, and being married in the temple, fo time and all eternity. Also, there are not magic underwear, but we do have garments that promote modesty and remind us of our promises we make while in the temple.

    • Rockyspoon

      I agree, Beth Ann.

      During the last election cycle when Romney was running, I read a study done by an independent group on the major Christian religions and their adherence to the Bible’s teachings.

      It found that the LDS religion more closely aligned with the teachings of the Old and New Testaments than any other “Christian” religion. This was in direct conlict with claims at the time that said the LDS were the farthest away doctrinally.

      Again, I have problems with the views expressed by the author and wonder if he’s taking this approach because he’s not well grounded in what Mormons believe; it seems he may be looking “beyond the mark”.

    • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

      Just a note: the author IS Mormon.

  • Jake

    Great article. The LDS church loves extolling the virtues of its lay clergy, and have bragged about their system for years. Some Mormons may be heard saying that the “selling” of bad religion as all others do (as the donation tray moves amongst a congregation) by a scholarly priest or paid minister is the “sin of witchcraft.” The only difference between the Mormon church and all other Christian denominations is that the Mormon church’s model for cash intake and care for its members is better than the others – to a point. Faithful members give an exorbitant percentage of their monthly income to the church (at least a nice monthly car payments worth), but almost none of it goes back to the local congregation. However all of the labor and legwork for the church is conducted by its “lay” unpaid clergy and extensive network of volunteers. What a model for selling religion! You pay Salt Lake City a fat sum of money (where the paid employees and official authority resides) and you the lay person then get to do all the work! This model appears to also have flaws (indicated in the article.) There are many “uncorrelated” doctrines and dogmas, urban myths, and other sentiments and beliefs in the church every Mormon knows of well but may not believe entirely (i.e. the devil has dominion over the water, garments stop bullets etc.) I had never considered that my personal problem with LDS dogma could be attributed to a wild belief system born from local yokels making wild claims about God and the universe. Church HQ has a lot of work on its hands.

    • Rockyspoon

      No, Jake–money isn’t the only difference.

      But to bear testimony of the “garments stop bullets” item, while serving as a missionary in Hong Kong from 1969 – 1971, VietNam was part of our mission. Our mission president made quarterly visits to the three (LDS) districts in that country to hold conferences with the servicemen (I was in charge of the several thousand paper copies of those servicemen who were members while I was Recorder in our mission).

      One experience my mission president related to us missionaries upon return was of a servicemen who was wearing his garments while on patrol. Viet Cong jumped up and mowed them all down, but the retrieving patrol found him unconscious but with only massive bruises where the bullets had hit. He was spared an obvious death because of his garments.

      Now you may not believe this story but I know it for a fact–I’d trust my mission president with my life. Miracles still happen, Jake.