Is Mormonism Ridiculous?

In The Book of Mormon Broadway musical, the central character Elder Price sings, “I Believe…” followed by a mixed series of benign and ridiculous claims. The genius of the song is that it so perfectly performs widespread American perceptions about Mormonism in the early 21st century.  Elder Price, and Mormons in general, are presented as harboring some naive and strange ideas, but in the end being good people with good intentions who might actually be able to help people.

Mitt Romney’s upcoming nomination as the Republican candidate for President seems to confirm how Mormons generally have come to be understood.  Even Evangelical Republican voters have largely overcome some hesitancy about Mormonism, perhaps accepting it the way viewers of The Book of Mormon musical come to accept Mormons. Romney may hold some wacky religious ideas, but he is a good person who may actually help some people.

Like Elder Price and Mitt Romney, Mormons are praised for certain characteristics: being nice, having good families, valuing industry, thrift, or for being good citizens in the community. These are indeed genuine compliments that any community should be proud of.  What is missing from this list of positive attributes is praise for Mormonism as having any important religious ideas.  In fact, praises of Mormons as people often include the caveat that Mormon ideas and beliefs about angels, golden plates, and Kolob are strange, weird, ridiculous, and sometimes even dangerous.

The common response to the idea of Mormonism’s weirdness is to insist that all religions are weird to some extent.  Mormons and non-Mormons alike utilize this response.  Stephen Colbert said it best when he quipped, “Mormons believe Joseph Smith received golden plates from an angel on a hill, when everybody knows that Moses got stone tablets from a burning bush on a mountain!”  Jon Stewart similarly evaluated the angst about Mormonism as a kind of arbitrary stigmatizing that can apply to any religion. There is something compelling about familiarizing Mormonism by way of defamiliarizing accepted religious stories, yet this also remains unsatisfying to explain why anyone would believe incredulous things.

The trotting out of apparently ridiculous Mormon ideas is evidence of just how little Americans really understand religion.  Religious people of all stripes should be concerned with the way Mormonism is portrayed because it reveals the inability of people to ask the right kind of questions about religion and to discern how religious people construct their worlds.  Discussion of Mormonism in the media tends to reveal the fundamentally unethical way that Americans think about religion, engaging in reductionism, decontextualization, and stereotyping.  It is not enough to suggest that all religious are equally silly (a point Bill Maher’s Religulous makes not in defense of religion, but against it).  This perspective represents a failure to understand religion at all.

Such shallow explanations of Mormonism tend to decontextualize certain details that are embedded within larger narratives in a way that renders them humorous or bizarre, but unintelligible as meaningful religious ideas. It would be like saying that Christianity is about the belief that three Zoroastrian magi followed a star to a house in Bethlehem or Islam is about the idea that Mohammed flew on a horse to Jerusalem.  These may be accurate details, but shorn from the broader context they reveal essentially nothing about Christianity or Islam.  Bullet lists of strange ideas hardly explain what people find compelling about the Christian or Islamic narratives and does little to illuminate the meaning of these religions to billions of adherents.

How then should we think about religions that avoids reducing them to a few salacious ideas?  Iconic scholar of religion J.Z. Smith has suggested that in the way we speak about religion, there is “a tension between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.” (Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], xii.)  In other words, we are often tempted to treat religion as something strange and exotic rather than as a normal way of engaging with the world.  When we engage with the religious ideas of others, we owe them the respect of an explanation of what may be intellectually compelling about them.  What kinds of problems are they seeking to solve?  How do they make sense of the situation around them?

Like most religious traditions, Mormonism emerged to resolve some kind of spiritual or intellectual problems its early adherents saw in the competing options available to them.  In order for Mormonism to survive, it has had to continue to be relevant, to address something that people find compelling.  As the discussion of Mormonism continues in the public sphere, it may be useful to understand what people find compelling about Mormonism, and even why so many apparently smart and capable thinkers remain committed to its teachings.

There is no doubt that public discussions of Mormonism will remain interested in difficult issues from its past, including polygamy and its history of excluding people of African descent from priesthood leadership; and its present, including excluding women from priesthood ordination and its teachings about homosexuality. These discussions are important, and will hopefully be conducted responsibly and fairly. Rather than focus solely on these more problematic and controversial aspects, we might practice an attentiveness toward Mormonism as a paradigm for thinking about religion more broadly, to articulate Mormonism as offering a persuasive evaluation (for some) of human situations. The questions that we should be asking, and Mormons should be answering: How does Mormonism handle the big questions?  What is the meaning of life, of death, of the terrible and the good in the world?  How do Mormon notions about the cosmos affect ethical decisions toward others?  What do Mormon narratives about the past and the present offer their adherents?  These are not simple questions, and the answers are not simple either.  To discuss them at all is a serious endeavor.  While we may laugh (and I think we should) about religion, we can only do so ethically if we learn to think with religion as well.

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  • E B

    I see a lot of confusion as to how one can attain a sprititual certainty regarding spriritual or religious matters. This is in contrast to the natural world, where the scientific method works to establish truths of the natural world. The answer for Christians is in the scriptures. Jesus taught, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” First, you have to want to believe and understand, and then you must act as if you do and the belief will come. In the LDS Church, we talk about faith being like a seed, which will grow if it is planted and taken care of into a large tree (from the Book of Mormon). This process is the parallel of the scientific method in the spiritual realm.
    If someone is unable to take a leap of faith and try to gain spiritual understanding, that understanding will never come. If someone does take the leap, their faith is rewarded with a spiritual witness or testimony – an understanding of a spiritual nature.
    One very important thing to understand about Mormons is that they are actively taught to seek revelation and inspiration from the Holy Ghost through study and prayer. This is a core doctrine in the LDS Church, because such actions bring members closer to Christ. The most fundamental teaching of the Church is to follow Jesus Christ. All else is secondary to this, but all else ties back to this in some way. As you begin to ask the ‘right’ questions of LDS theology, bear this in mind. Christ is the center. All else is periphery in comparison.
    Thanks for listening.

  • Nathan

    I completely agree with the author that it’s important to ask, “How does Mormonism handle the big questions?” I’d like to submit two topics where the LDS church offers answers that are in a way vastly unique and novel:

    1. The problem of evil. Mormonism’s answer to “Why do bad things happen to good people?” takes a completely different approach than traditional creedal Christianity, largely because of its different interpretation of the fall of Adam. It overlaps in a few ways with Buddhism, but then significantly departs from Gautama’s philosophy as well.

    2. Those who die without hearing the gospel. Conventional answers often lean toward God being either lenient to the point of inconsistency (“Even though accepting Christ is the only way to salvation, God will save those who never had the opportunity to do so”), or just to the point of harshness (“If you didn’t get the chance to hear the gospel, well, that’s tough for you—we all deserve hell, and God doesn’t owe you anything”). Joseph Smith’s teaching preserve God’s mercy without removing the urgency of repentance by separating the events of death and final judgment. By explaining that there is a time period between the two, in which everyone will get a chance to accept or reject God’s promises, he removes the problem of unfair disadvantage without lulling people into a false security that they need not worry about acting on or sharing the gospel.

    In my experience, these are two of the truly unique approaches that Latter-day Saints takes on age-old philosophical problems. I have not encountered these approaches in any other faith tradition. I think they would be of great interest to any deep thinker, even to those who are not interested in converting to Mormonism.

  • Nathan000000

    I also might add, the problem of evil doctrine is one that I’ve seen influence Latter-day Saints lives in practical ways. I’ve seen many times where it directly influences their attitudes and decisions. I say this to point out that this topic is a very salient one, not a merely theoretical or philosophical difference.

  • Carey

    I couldn’t help but wonder if Tysic saw all the times he used all the same logic fallacies he accused everyone else of making. He’s probably moved on to greener pastures but I think the particular exchange between him and Dennis showed his inability to defend his positions himself without making them. I’m not saying that necessarily makes his positions wrong, that would in itself would logical fallacy, but that like all new converts their zeal typically trumps their wisdom.

  • Jeff

    Great article, Mr. Petrey. My only complaint would be your treatment—in all its brevity—of the Church’s “history of excluding people of African descent from priesthood leadership,” which is as much a semi-accurate sound bite as many of the things you take issue with. (In actuality, the Church never categorically denied those of African descent from holding the Priesthood, nor has it ever denied any worthy Priesthood holder the opportunity to serve in a leadership position. Until 1978, the Church taught that those of Canaanite ancestry would not be able to hold the Priesthood until God specified otherwise, which He would eventually do. In 1978, He did so.)

    Still, overall, great article. Thank you!

  • Nathan000000

    Er, Jeff, I’m afraid you’re mistaken, or at least your point is unclear to me. Mr. Petrey’s brief allusion was actually quite accurate. The Church did in fact “categorically deny those of African descent from holding the Priesthood” from about 1847 to 1978. True, it’s in the past, Latter-day Saints aren’t racist, etc. But the author gave an accurate (if brief) historical summary.

  • Deila

    Taylor — Great article, I really enjoyed your humor as well as your seriousness about Mormonism. Nice title.