Fielding the Mormon Question

August 28th, 2012
Mormons' notorious evangelistic methods are just one thing that makes people skeptical.

“Pastor, what do you think about Mormons?”

It’s a question in the same category as queries about scientology or sexuality, one that derails small groups and blindsides pastors in the narthex. Whenever the post-benediction handshake turns into a discussion about someone else’s salvation, we clergy wonder if anyone at church that day heard a word we said from the pulpit.

But questions asked with a sincere heart are not easily dismissed, particularly when they involve things that keep showing up in the news cycles. People wonder about connecting their Christian faith to the real world, including how to relate to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).

Part of the newfound interest in Mormonism comes from the rise of political figures like Mitt Romney and Harry Reid, especially with Romney being affirmed this week as the official Republican nominee for president. But the LDS Church has been gaining traction for decades, exploding to more than fourteen million adherents worldwide. Its members are often successful business leaders who are involved in community affairs.

More importantly, its population is spreading out geographically. Although three quarters of American Mormons still live in the Western states, their numbers have grown in other regions. LDS temples can now be found in most major US cities.

In short, no matter where we live, we are more likely than ever to have Mormon neighbors.

So What Do We Do with Them?

In their early history, the answer was to chase them out of town. The first generation of Mormons were continually evicted by angry mobs until founder Joseph Smith was murdered in Carthage, IL, in 1847. His successor, Brigham Young, led the Mormon exodus to the barren Salt Lake region, where the LDS church finally planted roots.

But as the United States expanded toward the Pacific, the nation’s approach to the Mormons shifted from removal to incorporation. By renouncing polygamy, the LDS church fell in line with the larger American culture so that Utah was finally admitted as a state in 1896. Similarly, growth in membership and the Civil Rights movement pushed it toward greater inclusivity, at least among males.

Aside from these well-documented pieces of history, however, most modern Americans know very little about the LDS Church in its current form. This ignorance, coupled with sensationalized media reporting about fundamentalist Mormon sects, has helped fuel suspicion of the larger LDS community.

That, however, is not the way of Jesus, according to pastor Ross Anderson. In Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor, he argues for an approach that is more about incarnational listening than suspicion or judgment.

“To be a Mormon is far more than being a member of a particular church,” he writes. “To belong to the LDS community entails a deep commitment to the shared customs, values, and lifestyle of the Latter-day Saint culture.”

Do They Believe What We Believe?

In order to understand LDS life—and thus individual Mormons—we first need to realize that Mormonism is not about doctrinal issues that often cause hang-ups for mainline Christians. The Mormons, Anderson points out, are committed to the power of God’s ongoing revelation, which has helped lead them away from systems of doctrine or dogma.

To be a Mormon is not so much to assent to certain beliefs as it is to accept a way of life. People are not drawn to the LDS because of theological musings, but because of a deep experience of community. Mormons care deeply about family values, and the sense of connection active members have with their local LDS wards is evident in the above average percentage of Mormons who attend church regularly.

Of course, Mormon life would still look strange to outsiders, especially those in mainline traditions. There is no separate clergy, since all men are considered priests. Women are not permitted in the priesthood, even though they may be active in other ways. And the peculiar sight of Mormon missionaries traveling door-to-door, evangelizing for the church, is still very much a part of the LDS Church’s modern culture.

Such apparent oddities, though, are largely a matter of perception. Anderson reminds us that things look very different from inside the LDS than they do outside it. For example, he points out that the debate among other faiths over whether or not Mormons are “Christian” often devolves into meaningless argument, owing largely to the different ways in which insiders and outsiders define the term.

So what does all of this mean for the question of how we relate to Mormons? For starters, listening is they key step toward learning both about and from our LDS neighbors. In How Wide the Divide?, evangelical scholar Craig L. Blomberg and Mormon scholar Stephen E. Robinson show readers just how instructive—and interesting—real dialogue can be. Blomberg and Robinson are appreciative of their commonalities and forthright about their differences, proving that interfaith dialogue does not have to sweep theological disagreements under the rug in order to “all get along.”

Another recent book, Richard J. Mouw’s Talking with Mormons, suggests how evangelical Christians might put their own prejudices aside in discussions with LDS friends. By breaking ranks with many in his tradition who view Mormonism as a cult, Mouw offers a look at the LDS Church filled with generosity and perspective.

And What about Romney?

As for the presidential election, it’s hard to say exactly what Mitt Romney’s Mormon heritage means for his candidacy. He has obviously been influenced by the political and social conservatism of his LDS religion, but many Americans of other persuasions—including evangelicals who denounce Mormonism as a cult—share those convictions.

Plus, one of the key leaders on the other side of the political spectrum, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, cites his Mormon faith as a key reason behind his more liberal stance. Much like Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush—both United Methodists—the divide between Romney and Reid reminds us how easily individuals can defy religious categorization.

Besides, no matter what information we can learn about the LDS church or its most prominent members, the fact remains that knowledge only gets us so far. We can learn about Mormons like we can learn about Utah’s Moab desert. But until we spend some time there, exploring the breathtaking landscape, we have no real connection to it.

The real question for those of us charged with soul-shaping work is not what we should say about Mormons, but how to guide the real people in front of us in relating to their Mormon neighbors. That starts with modeling and encouraging respectful listening, and it continues with honest but non-judgmental dialogue.

One of the most basic tasks of any Christian leader is to expand the conversation—to call out stereotypes and challenge assumptions. We offer perspectives that help those in our care can deal with others as real people with whom we share this earth, not simply as “those other people,” who are really more issue than human beings.

What do we do with the Mormons? Simple.

We treat them with dignity and understanding and love, just as Jesus would. We place them in God’s hands, accompany them there, and leave the rest to God.

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