Is Mormonism ‘Bad Religion’?

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has a new book out. It’s called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and it’s getting attention recently as a critique of what the author says is America’s diseased religious soul. Religion in America is suffering, says Douthat, and not as many religious Americans would suspect—not from erosion by atheism or apathy. In fact, American religion (by which he essentially means Christianity) is rotting from the inside out. The traditional impulses of Christianity are slowly being phased out, and other religious values—less inspired, less moral, and less socially constructive ones—are moving in. These new influences, Douthat argues, are at the root of many of America’s contemporary social and political problems. “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s ‘bad religion.’”

Bad Religion, then, is a book—erudite but not academic—about religion’s influence on the social and moral health of the United States. What kind of influence do different kinds of Christianity have on American society? What kinds of religion are good for the country, and which are not? It’s a complex question, and Douthat gives a nuanced response: different stripes of Christianity contribute in different ways. Nonetheless, “orthodox” Christianity, he argues, has always provided the staying power that holds the country together. For Douthat, a conservative Catholic, orthodox Christianity means the “shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church.” This has been the Christianity of mainline Protestantism and eventually of Catholicism, and it is this orthodoxy, Douthat argues, that has the right blend of moral virtues to hold together “a teeming, diverse, and fissiparous nation.” The United States’ many heresies—the scores of American faiths that have broken with the ancient creeds, added or trivialized scripture, and turned from traditional Christian ethics—have given the country energy and vitality. But America’s underrated dogma, he says, has kept it somewhat harmonious and intact.

For this reason, the recent decline of orthodox Christianity endangers America’s equilibrium. The tensions between orthodoxy and heresy has helped keep America erect thus far, but as the country’s innovations begin to overwhelm its tradition, the favorable matrix of society begins to break down. The virtues of orthodoxy—stability, selflessness, humility—disappear, and the triumph of America’s heresies leave us energetic but combative, as well as greedy and solipsistic. So we buy into ideas like the prosperity gospel, we embrace hypernationalism, and we think too highly of ourselves. We increasingly become extremist, and we begin to pull apart from each other.

The question for this venue is obvious: Where does Mormonism fit in all this? If it is a “heresy,” as we rightly suspect, does it have—is it having—the deleterious effects that Douthat claims? Is it hurting the American social fabric? Corroding America’s virtues? Is Mormonism “bad religion”?

The book, in fact, doesn’t have a great deal to say about Mormonism directly. (And generally it doesn’t single anyone out.) Douthat does indeed crowd Mormons in with his heretics, and in a recent interview with pundit Andrew Sullivan, he made it clear that he sees Mormonism this way. But mostly Mormons are guilty by association. Presumably, Mormonism is contributing to American decline in the same ways as other “heretical” groups are.

Perhaps there are cases to be made about Mormonism’s social liabilities, but in my view the offending aspects of Douthat’s “bad religion” are not among them. Whatever else they might be, Mormons are clearly not, for instance, adherents of the prosperity gospel. Say what one will about the efficacious corporate structure and administration of the Church, and the professional and business acumen that that Mormonism supposedly cultivates in its missionaries. Say what one will, even, about Mormon multi-level marketing and the mentality of the Saints in Utah who ascend, each year, into larger homes higher in the foothills and away from centers of community. But however one might quibble on these points, there simply isn’t (and has never been) any substantive theology of affluence in Mormonism. Much to the contrary. Mormons still know—or should know—what their namesake did: that hearts set upon riches, even derivatively, are bound for destruction. And all of this the strange logic of Harper’s Weekly notwithstanding.

Nor does Mormonism make its adherents, as Douthat’s thinking about America’s heresies would suggest, socially disagreeable. Too many Mormons, it is true, are clannish and insular. This is at least partly a vestige of social history; partly it reflects the rigor of the faith. Oriented to their own communities and sometimes out of touch with others, Mormons can indeed entertain a sense of self-importance. But unlike others that Douthat arraigns, Mormons are categorically a service-oriented people, a long-known fact that is now on record. There is in Mormonism profound potential for meaningful social synthesis—and Mormons are trying for it, something that can be seen more and more.  Given a little time, one can hope that we as Mormons will learn to spread this native generosity ever farther and wider.

Does Mormonism contribute to American exceptionalism, which (Douthat argues) too often involves the country in arrogant wars? The book says yes: just witness Cleon Skousen and Glenn Beck, through whom the book gives Mormonism some nominal attention. Weaving Mormonism into far-right ideology by way of Skousen and the contested White Horse Prophecy, Douthat puts Mormons’ claims to an American promised land on par with the historical fundamentalism of David Barton and his illusory “Christian nation.” Mormons are among those, Douthat suggests, whose heresy leads them to sacralize the nation, with harmful results. But apart from Beck—an outlier by anyone’s standards—does Mormon theology really express itself that way? Does it really do political work? And assuming it does, aren’t Mormon libertarians, those who seem keenest to claim religious inspiration for their politics, the ones calling for isolationism and suing for peace?

Bad Religion does bring at least one charge against America’s heretics, however, that may stick for Mormons. Like a true Catholic, Douthat argues that “above all…what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy…is a commitment to mystery and paradox.” It is mystery, he says—mystery like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Virgin Birth—that subdues the human spirit.  Mystery makes for deep, patient, and humble people, people who are temperate citizens, and for a faith that is both steady and adaptable. And mystery is also something, Douthat notes, that “heretics” cannot abide. For centuries, they have tried to reduce the mystery of Christianity to something more understandable—pruning and clipping and paring it into something more intuitive. This makes it clearer and more comfortable, but also less demanding.

Mormons’ mysteries are not the same as Douthat’s, but as some our great scholars have shown, they are real and rich and plentiful. It would do us good to grapple with them, rather than minimizing them or pushing them aside. They should sober us and make us humble, realizing that there is much good in God and mankind that is beyond our comprehension.  Otherwise we may find ourselves more self-assured and less imaginative than we ought to be. Which would indeed be bad.

“The Prophecy of This Book”
On Doctrinal Authority
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I Even Remain Alone?: Reflections on Eve Tushnet’s “Gay and Catholic”
  • Christopher

    Nice post, Ryan. I haven’t read Douthat yet, and appreciate the review.

    I admit to being a bit mystified, though, by your claim that “Whatever else they might be, Mormons are clearly not, for instance, adherents of the prosperity gospel.” As someone who studies popular and lived religion, do you really believe that? You’ve never heard a Mormon variant of the prosperity gospel in Sunday School or Elder’s Quorum, for instance? Or paid attention to the way many of the young families in Cedar Hills or Pleasant Grove justify purchasing homes far out of their price range by appeals to their own activity in the church and adherence to gospel standards? And what do we do with statements from apostles in General Conference that assure listeners that people are “more educated and prosperous because they have values and strong families”; that “when people make family and religious commitments to gospel principles, they begin to do better spiritually and often temporally as well”?

    You’re certainly right that what Mormonism teaches and what Mormons believe is distinct from the prosperity gospel of Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, or T.D. Jakes; and there are key points of Mormon theology that explicitly run counter to the prosperity gospel, but to claim that Mormons don’t believe it doesn’t ring true to me.

  • Ryan Tobler

    Fair enough, Chris. I actually do think some Mormon people believe in a form of the prosperity gospel, and it is something I’ve heard on occasion. To be a bit clearer, I do not think there’s any “substantive theology of affluence” in Mormonism, meaning that there is not an embedded body of thought in Mormonism that supports it. I suspect that this impulse exists in all faiths, Christian and not, but I don’t see Mormonism teachings working to cultivate it or enable it in the way that other traditions do. Hence my comments that Mormons are, as a class, not adherents of the prosperity gospel.

    • Rachel Esplin Odell

      While I appreciate the point you are trying to make, Ryan, and I imagine it arises out of the very real context of Mormon teachings extolling frugality, invoking consecration, and condemning extravagant or egocentric wealth, I too find it hard to believe that you see no “‘substantive theology of affluence’ in Mormonism.” What is the most oft-repeated phrase in the Book of Mormon (after “and it came to pass”)? Is it not some variation of , “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (e.g. 1 Nephi 2:20, 2 Nephi 1:20, etc. etc. etc.)?

      Of course, it would be an error to misinterpret “prosper” as solely referring to material prosperity — especially the kind of conspicuous consumption so ubiquitous in our age and so strongly condemned in the Book of Mormon. But clearly, as the context of these statements repeatedly reveals, material prosperity is at least part of such prospering (Mosiah 10:5, 21:16; Alma 62:48-49; 4 Ne. 1:7, 23).

      I agree with you that there is simultaneously much within LDS doctrine, including and especially within the Book of Mormon, but also within the Doctrine and Covenants and Church history, to suggest that material wealth can be a great curse if it leads us to be prideful or greedy or selfish or if we do not impart freely of our substance to the poor — but is not that simply in some ways a corollary to the prosperity gospel (i.e. “Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not prosper in the land” see Omni 1:6)?

      • Ryan Tobler

        Thanks, Rachel, for the observations. The “prosperity gospel” is actually much more nuanced that my review suggests, and it could incorporate many of the nuances you identify. Douthat, however, defines the prosperity gospel more narrowly (and pejoratively) in his book, which is what I keyed off of in my response. I don’t see strong theological resources for small-minded avarice in Mormonism, but if we consider the prosperity gospel to be a movement for, say, human flourishing, then I think there is a lot to discuss.

  • Ryan Thomas

    Interesting thoughts. I think a distinction needs to be made between the possibilities of Mormon theology and Mormonism as put into practice and reflected in culture. My own opinion is that many Mormons, despite the weight of their own theology and religious past, are enthralled by a distinct form of the prosperity gospel endemic to American culture.

  • DLewis

    Great review, Ryan. I’ve been wanting to look at that book.

    Along with the prosperity gospel point (which your comment helpfully clarifies), I would say that American exceptionalism is definitely at the heart of Mormon tradition, going all the way back to Joseph Smith (not so much the White Horse Prophecy as Article of Faith 10 and a “divinely-inspired” constitution). Even as the church becomes more international, it has not tried to rein in this exceptionalism.

    I think by one part of Douthat’s definition, we would have to be considered “bad religion” because from the beginning, we have disavowed creeds and dogmas for a more flexible theology. But I don’t feel we’ve fallen into the consumerist, self-help American gospel that seems to be what really bothers Douthat. Instead, while Douthat sees traditional Christianity and Catholicism being held together by orthodoxy, Mormonism is held together by its organizational structure and practice: geographic wards, lay clergy, Word of Wisdom, etc (i.e., orthopraxy). “Bad religion” of another color, but one that might be more resilient than orthodoxy in the long run.

  • E B

    I appreciate this post. However, I fail to understand how Douthat can’t lump Mormonism with the rest of Christianity based upon his definitions or explanations. To the contrary, I think most Mormons do grapple with mysteries, and that Mormons share the same values as ‘orthodox’ Christians. In fact, Mormons take firmer stances than many Christians against moral decline, while proactively avoiding combating other faiths. I recognize that traditional Orthodoxy will never be willing to recognize the many similarities Mormons share with them, but if this book claims to be erudite it would at least acknowledge a faith that is second to Catholicism in numbers of members in the United States.

    You also fail to make clear that the LDS Church maintains strict political neutrality. While most members embrace the idea of American exceptionalism, some of their politics would suggest otherwise. And that’s fine, that’s their right. It’s true that LDS scripture teaches of divine inspiration in the Founding, but different members take this to mean different things.

  • Tahadden

    The Whitehorse prophecy is not an accepted by the church has a whole and has an iffy history.
    The fact that there are some mormons who teach it doesn’t make it doctrine.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    When I catch someone preaching a “prosperity gospel” sermon on television, it appears to me that they are arguing that individual wealth is a direct sign of approval from God. What I read in the Book of Mormon is not an individual but a collective properity, just as the negative consequences depicted of pride in wealth are cumulative and collective. Yes, there are Mormons who get caught up in the dreams of easy money through righteousness, or thinking, or things other than working and earning, packaged in various ways like “The Secret” and other books. But that is not something that is a focus of Sunday worship services, or Sunday School study of scriptures, or of the meetings for adult men and women during the third hour of Mormon Sunday meetings. Rather, during the meetings when the men and the women meet separately, volunteers are solicited to help members of the ward who need support during an extended illness, or moving house to another location because of a change in jobs, or a service project for someone whose house needs repairs. The spontaneous testimonies offered by members of my congregation on the first Sunday of the month are rarely about wealth, but more often about struggle. If anyone got up to brag about how God has favored them with wealth, they would be regarded as self-centered idiots, since manifestly there are people in every congregation who are righteous but poor.

    Unlike some churches, Mormons do not get to flaunt their wealth during a collection of donations. They make their contributions in opaque gray envelopes that are handed to the bishop during the breaks between meetings. They are counted by a small contingent of a couple of clerks and a member of the bishopric who make up the deposit that goes into the central Church bank account. When people testify about the blessings of tithing, it is mostly in the context of being able to miraculously get by on less money than they thought they needed, after they paid their tithing, or an unexpected payment is made to them that just covers the tithing. There is no bragging about contributions to the Church being “seed money” that would produce wealth five and ten times over to the donor.

    • diligentdave

      Raymond Takashi Swenson,

      How are you? I never heard a priest blessing the sacrament with the Japanese fervor of a half-Swedish priest like Raymond (it has been many years). And I have never known two sisters assigned as visiting teachers together longer than were your mother and mine (in fact, I don’t know if my mother ever had another visiting teaching companion in the 14th ward than yours).

      While purportedly we verbally in Church, especially in General Conference, downplay the propserity aspects of things, I have visited the wards of my sisters in various locales, from Idaho Falls, to near Olympus Cove, to near Danish Road, in Sandy, and elsewhere, and have heard extremely strong hints spoken in Gospel Doctrine classes, as well as Elders Quorums and High Priest Groups of the implication derived from the oft-repeated Book of Mormon promise, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land.”

      Raymond, though the tithes may be counted by a small contingent of clerks, so no ostentatious display or broad knowledge of contributions are made, as the rich men did in Herod’s Temple, so-called, during Jesus’ time—nonetheless, as the Book of Mormon also often points out, it is NOT just what we do to have others think a certain way about us that can be condemned, but it is simply how we think of ourselves.

      I have been self-employed my whole married life, with the exception of my first year of marriage. And, during that 1/3 of a century, I have been blessed materially to survive, and not, comparatively thrive. I have felt the self-righteous sting of relatives and neighbors whom I have not only supposed, but heard or read some of them say, essentially, “If you were more like me, you would be prospering financially, like me”. And, often enough, the reference for this supposed self-justification is rehearsed, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land.” (Never mind what the corresponding curse helps us to understand if we don’t keep the commandments). The implication is made often when a member rehearses that verse is— “I’m prospering, ipso facto, I must be keeping the commandments.” Hence, “If you were righteous like me, you’d be banking money like me.”

      But, we must also keep in mind, again, that like the things the Nephites used to draw “inadvertent” attention to their “prosperity” (real, or apparent), are things like nice clothes, jewelry, education, and, other things not necessarily mentioned specifically in the Book of Mormon, like our “chariots” (automobiles, nice, new and with most, if not all, the ‘bells & whistles’ in/on them), our homes “high on the mountain (side), if not ‘top’”, and the furnishings in them. Not to mention the gadgets, the second (vacation) homes, the lifestyles, whether going to St George or St Tropez. All of these things have, as the Lord points out via his prophets, “no life” in themselves (and often, though not always, chattel have somewhat, if not largely, replaced children in LDS homes, as our birthrate now is 1/3 or less of what it was just a generation ago). We kill ourselves, societally, if not individually, by “degrees” (BS, MS & Phd), which a visiting assembly speaker from the “U” at Kearns High reminded us in the early 1970’s stands for ‘Bull Stuff’, ‘More Stuff’, and ‘Piling it Higher & Deeper’).

      How à propos it is that the education that we now require of ourselves, to prove that we are indeed and in fact (ironically) “trained for the ministry”, whether that be a government or commerce or even a Church “ministry”, and the amount and/or kind of “material stuff” we have or work at getting, corresponds with that apt description of educational attainment. Wasn’t education level and disparity one of the class division indicators given in the Book of Mormon? (Note: the phrase “trained for the ministry” is alluded to in Mormon academia, but is no longer repeated in the House of the Lord).

      And, whether it is a Phd, MD, or JD, it is all “D”-fining and “D”-scribing who and what we are, and the level of our academic attainment. We may be humble, as I always knew the young Raymond Swenson to be, or we may be lifted up, if only in our hearts and minds (and David Pearson can be, and too often perhaps is, probably is as “lifted up” in those locci as anyone may at times be)!

      Yes, from the pulpit, either setting our hearts on the riches of the earth, or becoming proud because of our wealth or status, are officially frowned upon. And yet, whom do we often see are promoted or called to “high” callings? —those who are rich, as to the things of the earth, and/or have high status, due to fame or fortune. Not only in Judaism, but also in Mormonism, as the almost fictitious Tevye put it, “When you’re rich, they think you really know!”

      This is why general authorities, area authorities, and mission presidents are typically selected from those who are or have been prominent in business, politics, power or prestige.

      Anyway, I disgree with Ryan Tobler on his assertion to the contrary. We may not officially preach it. But, somewhat unofficially we do, and many Mormons mistake the Book of Mormon promise as stating as much. So, like Douthat’s ‘heretics’, I believe that among our members, many in their hearts and minds subscribe to a ‘prosperity gospel’, which they believe their God has given or will give them.

      p.s. (Ray, say ‘Hi’ to Mike & Dave for me)