In my previous post, I began a conversation about Mormon pride. I would like to continue from a different angle. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was born into persecution. From the moment its founder Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed to have received a vision from God, a wall of persecution stood in his way and eventually stood in the way of the rest of the church and its members. To this day, Mormons all over the world experience their share of persecution, accused of belonging to a cult, accused of not being Christian, accused of practicing polygamy, and feeling the brunt of the blame for many other historical indiscretions, even the bigotry of early church leaders like Brigham Young. A good friend of mine and fellow member of the church, who also happens to come from a long line of practicing Jews, once had teenagers confront him outside of a grocery store in the middle of the night. They called him a “Mormon-Jew-Bastard” and proclaimed that all such were destined to go to hell, according to a specific scripture in Revelation. My friend does not recall the scripture, but he remembers that he read it, and it said nothing about anyone going to hell. In fact, it made no sense to him at all.
I served a mission in part of the South of the USA. I love the South (Can you say fried food?), but most people equate the South with a host of other persecution problems, including racism. What I learned about the South, however, was that the real South, the real Southerners, are a tight-knit group wary of any outsiders, especially outsiders whose beliefs not only do not match up with theirs but that differ in exceptional ways. That is why Mormonism has encountered so many problems in the South, especially in the Bible belt, home to some of the most extreme conservative, traditional Christians in the States. Like any culture, many of them are good, God-fearing men and women. But there are plenty of bad examples.
When I think of the tight-knit kinship of the South, wary of outsiders, I think of Mormonism during its struggle to mature. This is the culture that produced the Mountain Meadows Massacre among other awful events in LDS Church history. People have used fear to justify horrific acts for a long time. Today, the LDS Church faces different threats, or so the culture would have us believe. One of these major threats is, generally, Feminism, and a more specific version of that is found in the Ordain Women (OW) movement. However, if one looks carefully or simply long enough one will see all sorts of threats to the LDS Church. The biggest problem, however, is that the most significant threat does not come from outside the church.
As a member of the LDS faith involved in a deep study of its cultures, traditions, and doctrines, I keep my ear to the ground. Naturally, I constantly read and hear about a lot of different things. I don’t mean Mormon myths, though I find so many of those on both the orthodox and heterodox sides; I mean I collect stories from people who have experienced some of the craziest things in the church. One need not browse the Bloggernacle for very long to find any of these. However, some of these stories don’t make it to the web. They are the simple, everyday events happening in the church all over the world. For example, an acquaintance of mine once found himself in an argument with a stake president (SP) regarding many members’ misplaced faith in cultures and traditions that have polluted the LDS Church. My acquaintance’s argument: “We cannot judge people by standards like drinking caffeine, wearing beards in leadership positions, or by anyone else’s personal standards of righteousness that have no foundation in doctrine.” The SP’s argument: “Some people cannot tell the difference between culture and doctrine.” Therefore, we should not talk about and especially not criticize such things. Of course, the SP’s initial statement is true, but shouldn’t that be the very reason to talk about these issues? Shouldn’t that be the cause for more awareness, more discussion, even criticism, for articles or blog posts, or other avenues of spreading the word?
The answer, unfortunately, is a consistent “No” across the board with few exceptions. When we allow this kind of thinking to persist, that is, when we allow people to continue to mingle culture and tradition with doctrine, we create an atmosphere where persecution not only becomes commonplace but acceptable. People get shunned for facial hair, wearing multi-colored shirts instead of the “uniform” white, wearing pants instead of a dress or a skirt, for drinking caffeine, for the occasional Sunday outing, for supporting organizations that seek, simply, to promote love and acceptance (like Mormons Building Bridges), and, of course, for supporting organizations like OW, whose major crime is putting too much faith in church leadership, in a prophet who acts as the mouthpiece of God, a prophet who can speak the mind and will of God on matters of concern to which no one else is able to give satisfactory answers. Yet these persecutions persist and are even indirectly (if not directly) discouraged.
Have we regressed culturally to a time when a church strong-arms people into speaking only approved culturally acceptable statements or teachings? How well did that work out for the Catholic Church in its fight against the Copernican Cosmos? How many men and women suffered at the hands of a prideful church that couldn’t accept something just because they couldn’t find it in the Bible? Joseph Smith said that he taught the saints correct principles, but that it is up to them, or us, to govern ourselves. What is incorrect, then, about addressing these, apparently culturally sensitive, topics? Are we Pharisees and Sadducees that care only about our appearances, people who “appear unto the world to fast”? Or are we more concerned with our salvation and what it takes to attain that and with loving others wholly, without exceptions or conditions? Hugh Nibley said it best:
“The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status-symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, and necklaces, LSD and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock, come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich, respectable, immovable… We want to be vindicated in our position and to know that the world is on our side as we all join in a chorus of righteous denunciation; the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances” (From What is Zion? Joseph Smith Lecture Series 1972-73).