Can Mormonism Ever Go Mainstream?

Can Mormonism Ever Go Mainstream? January 7, 2012

The Mormon faith has gotten more attention in the last couple of years than most could have anticipated. Aside from the ad campaign promoted by the Mormon Church to portray Mormons as everyday folks, other events have eclipsed this more calculated effort to mold public opinion.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of Southpark, have penned a runaway Broadway hit called The Book of Mormon. Though highly irreverent, the message ultimately comes down to this: does it really matter if some find the beliefs absurd, if in the end, the adherents to Mormonism feel it makes their lives and the world better because of it?

Rather profound, coming from a pair of atheist cartoonists.

Then there’s Mitt Romney. It seems the only thing holding the GOP front-runner back from certain victory at this point is his Mormon faith. Polls show that evangelical Christians are struggling with the idea of swallowing hard and voting for a Mormon, given the option between that an a Democrat.

I suppose it helps put everything in perspective, right?

So Mormonism, the only truly American-born major religion, finds itself front-and-center in the public spotlight, whether indented or not. I’ll spare readers the history lesson and will assume most folks know the basics of what Mormonism is about. But there are some key points on which most people’s discomfort with the faith seem to rest.

For one, there’s the whole polygamy thing. Though Brigham Young and Joseph Smith both advocated for, and practiced, polygamy (AKA, plural marriage), the church has since distanced itself from this practice. Though most assume this rejection of polygamy is strategic – if not legally necessary – Mormon leaders claim today at least that they view the practice as morally wrong.

Also, to put it gently, the Mormon church has a spotty record with ethnic minorities. Though current media ads depict folks of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, most folks recognize that non-Anglos have historically been seen as “less than” by the Mormon Church.

Somewhat related to the first issue is the larger issue of the church’s treatment of women. Evangelicals have little room to criticize here, however, since they similarly limit the role of women in roles of leadership and ministry. But mainline and progressive religious folks, along with secularists, would generally agree that this antiquated perspective on women’s place in the world is well out of step with cultural norms.

Though these are not insignificant issues, I’d argue that they could be overcome in the court of public opinion, given enough time and calculated public relations efforts. But there’s the matter of the beliefs and practices of Mormonism themselves that may be the ultimate barrier that keeps Mormonism from ever going truly mainstream.

There’s an aura of secrecy around the faith that many find off-putting. One has to demonstrate certain markers of faithfulness before some of the innerworkings of the faith are revealed. But in a world where institutional transparency is held at a premium, this just doesn’t fly with non-Mormons.

There’s also the broader perception that many beliefs of Mormonism are, well, just kinda weird. From Joseph Smith reading holy tablets in a hat with his magic glasses to Jesus appearing in what is now the United states after his resurrection, there’s plenty that simply doesn’t sit well with those looking in from the outside.

Now, I should point out here that Mormonism unfairly suffers from the liability of being the out-lier here. After all, traditional Christianity has equally weird stories if we take a step back and really look at it. From people walking on water to rising from the dead, talking bushes on fire and oceans splitting in half, there’s plenty of fantastical imagery throughout the Bible. Catholics and Protestants simply have the benefit of being considered the baseline by which religious “normal” is determined.

But here’s the thing: I’d argue that Biblical literalists and those who adhere to the fundamental tenets of how they interpret scripture and the Christian faith are generally seen as equally weird in an increasingly rational (arguably secular) world. There are those who understand many Christian stories more metaphorically rather than literally, but the difference between Mormonism and the rest of Christianity seems to be the very existence of a breadth of interpretation.

Let me try to restate this in simpler terms. Whereas most Christians recognize that there’s room in the faith to interpret and practice our beliefs in a number of different ways, there’s an emphasis in Mormonism on homogeneity that is starkly counter-cultural. Basically, you are to believe what “The Mormon Church” states as the beliefs and values of all Mormons, or you’re not a Mormon.

It’s this hard-line fundamentalism that may ultimately be the wedge that keeps Mormons from being viewed as part of mainstream American culture. All of the other, more sensational, issues can be ameliorated, but rigid fundamentalism simply doesn’t fly in today’s America.

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  • Interesting perspective.

  • The only problem here is that there’s nothing you point out that couldn’t also be said about Roman Catholicism, except for the treatment of minorities (in general, they’re ahead of the rest of us). Is Catholicism mainstream just because they’ve been around so long? Which would argue that the LDS Church just needs a few more centuries — which may happen.

    I think what makes most everyday lay folk in Protestant mainstream congregations I talk to say that Mormons are odd boils down to a) the VERY high expectations (tithing, mission service, leadership roles are not optional, and did I mention tithing?), and b) the almost entire lack of paid leadership. It’s an otherness that fascinates those of us in churches where we’re used to paid leadership, low expectations, and struggling to get people to take leadership roles.

    If we let Mormons become mainstream, it might suggest to the rest of us that we’d have to take some of their distinctives seriously, by which I don’t mean the Angel Moroni . . . but those Golden Plates are always the nervous laughter “out” we have before having to think hard about what, say, Disciples of Christ history shares with LDS history, at least up through 1830 to 1846.

    • WI_Member

      Local leaders are not paid. Leaders at the highest levels receive compensation/salaries/stipends. It’s not widely acknowledged, even among church membership.

      • bytebear

        Some General Authorities are paid a living stipend, but they are hardly professional clergy. They often (almost always) leave more lucrative careers to become full time church leaders. Of the millions of church leaders there are only about 50 people who are full time clergy. But they come from all walks of life. From doctors to business men. One was an exec at Lufthansa Airlines, another a heart surgeon. And unlike other churches, leaders are not chosen because they went to divinity school or have theological degrees. It’s an entirely different system.

  • OT

    Yes, the Mormon church has a historically spotty record when it comes to race. But many Christians have a CURRENTLY spotty record when it comes to race. (Allen’s Macaca? Santorum’s problem with “blah people”?) In the mean time, right now, the Mormon church is taking a rather progressive stance on immigration–one that, I might add, Mitt Romney has more or less rejected in order to pander to the right wing.

  • Anonymous

    I like how you mention that [conservative] evangelicals don’t have much room to criticize the LDS church over their treatment of women. I actually left [conservative] evangelicalism partly because I applied my critique of Mormonism I learned from them to my own faith.
    I thought they were absurd for thinking that God spoke to Joseph Smith and told him to dig in his back yard for golden plates when I believed that 6000 years ago the world was created and then fell because a snake literally talked to a woman; that’s called a double standard. I think it helps to have this perspective whenever we dialogue with other religions; that in many cases we may appear just as crazy to them as they seem to us (I know that if my old self could talk to me now he would think I was a crazy heretic). However, I would agree with you that the LDS is going to need to drop the fundamentalism in order to be accepted as a mainstream religion.

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