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.

  • Not so sure anymore

    Rockyspoon is at once scary and typical of uninformed “black and white” Mormons. Been there. Thought some of that. Hey, rocky, how do you determine when a prophet is speaking as a prophet? In conference? In Ensign? Huh? When?

  • Jake

    The proof behind the argument made in this gentleman’s post is evidenced in these comments. Amongst Mormons there are wildly different points of view, myths, legends, histories, sentiments and experiences; there is even a disconnect between lay members (even local lay leadership) and the real authorities in Salt Lake. For outsiders looking at the church two completely different historical narratives exist, whether practicing Mormons wish to admit it or not: the LDS version of events, and the other more generally accepted American perspectives on Mormon history and it’s origins. Sitting squarely between the American historical view of events and the insider Utah Mormon version the church’s General Authorities guard and dictate what is officially to be consumed by all. It’s a management problem that the church needs to fix for its members (who are giving up on the church in great numbers) and for its external image. Members ignore and refuse to openly admit that the church waffles wildly on very controversial subjects. And because the church is not yet 200 years old and we live in the information age, everyone knows it. It’s the General Authorities who refuse to address the topic of wild historical change head on; and its members pay the price and have to fight for their leaders weaknesses and outsiders simply scratch their heads.

  • Jake

    Anyone paying close attention to the General Authorities and semi annual conference “alignment” understands that the church is grinding down and polishing up its very rough edges as fast as possible, without much “thus sayeth the Lord” type revelation happening.

  • Not so sure anymore

    Rocky, do you believe what was said in General Conference in 1960, below, by Apostle Spencer W. Kimball? I really want to see where you are coming from and this will help.

    “At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl—sixteen—sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents—on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.”


    So, Rocky, do you believe Native Americans were turning white as they joined the Church and lived the Gospel? After all, a prophet, seer and revelator and future president of the church seemed to.

  • Cort McMurray

    Rockyspoon: I certainly was not trying to disparage President Lee. His feelings about race and the Priesthood are well documented. They are also typical of men of his era. It would be a mistake to take President Lee or any other prophet out of the historical and social context in which he lived.

    He had failings, as we all do. He also could be an amazing, visionary leader. I worry that we forget that part, and let’s face it, a lot of the “Mormonism is a cesspit of patriarchy and racism” stuff is coming not from the outside, but from other Mormons, because we live in an ironic and cynical age, where it is fashionable to disparage the things closest to you.

    As for your comment on Blacks, I can only say this. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in administering to an African-American sister who had recently joined the Church. Her grandfather had been the pastor of an all-Black Baptist congregation in rural Louisiana. In her blessing, this sister was told that her grandfather’s diligent service had been a means of preparing his people for the fullness of the Gospel, and that had he lived to receive it, he would have become a faithful and enthusiastic member of the Church. She was also told that her grandfather was actively working on the other side of the veil, to prepare his family for the Gospel.

    There have not been many moments in my life when I felt the Spirit’s confirmation as powerfully as when I heard those words. I felt, for an instant, the pain of millions of righteous men and women, who had been denied the fullness of the Priesthood, and I felt a deep, deep shame for the times that I had treated that blessing casually, or lived unworthy of it.

    I am convinced that Blacks have long been ready for the Priesthood, and that Whites simply weren’t ready to share it. That’s not Church doctrine; that’s my personal conviction. And I try to repent of my own pride and selfishness and “setting at naught the things of God” by striving to honor the Priesthood, and share its blessings.

    This blogging stuff is exhausting. Brethren, adieu.

  • Ryan Lewis

    Thanks Cort for all your blogging. Many comments on this blog from a lot of people, but your comments are a thoughtful insight to these issues and I agree
    wholeheartedly with all of them.

  • Crystal H.

    Sorry, whoever writes this article, clearly didn’t do the research. We believe Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of Heavenly Father, who has atoning sacrificed for our sins, who was crucified by his own, and is resurrected on the 3rd day after his crucifixion. We believe in revelation that God continues giving us. Yes, the polygamy was part of our church history, we have nothing to hide. Another thing is, our church’s name is: The Church Of JESUS CHRIST Of Latter-day Saints. Please learn our name first.