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

Why Is It So Hard to Figure Out What Mormons Believe? April 4, 2012

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.

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