Can Grace Save Mormonism?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a problem. A historical problem. A problem disclosing the difficult parts of its history to its members. This problem exists because the church’s current outlook on itself and its leaders makes it difficult—and at times, impossible—to craft the entirety of its own history into a faith-promoting narrative. Those parts that cannot be safely included are instead quietly omitted.

Evidence of these omissions is abundant. Ex-Mormon disaffiliation narratives frequently revolve around some point in a person’s journey wherein the member learned something about church history not previously known before, something that became a catalyst for loss of faith. The recently published (2011) Daughters in My Kingdom manual makes no mention of the first Relief Society President’s defection from Brigham Young’s faction of Saints, or 19th century Mormon women regularly performing blessings and anointing with oil, or the fact that the Relief Society was shut down in 1844 because Emma Smith was using it to oppose polygamy, making DiMK but one of many official church manuals to carefully tiptoe around the problematic aspects of the church’s history. More obviously, the Church’s official Joseph Smith Web site says not a word about polygamy. It mentions the existence of some of his polygamous wives, like Eliza R. Snow, but it fails to mention that they were married to Smith. When it comes to potentially troubling details in LDS history, the church’s unspoken policy seems to be something to the effect of, don’t ask, don’t tell.

Unfortunately for the church, its history has a habit of getting loose in very public and embarrassing ways despite its best efforts to sweep it under the rug. Continue reading

Obery Hendricks on Mitt Romney & Mormon Racism

Yesterday Obery Hendricks posted an article on the Huffington Post challenging Mitt Romney on racist sentiments found in the Book of Mormon.  As has been pointed out, Hendricks is guilty of cherry-picking some of those statements.  He also doesn’t have a good enough handle on Mormonism to understand that the Book of Mormon is not making reference to people of African descent, rather it’s speaking of dark-skinned people of Jewish descent living in a yet-to-be-determined location (some might say they are dark-skinned Native Americans, others might say these passages have nothing to do with skin color at all).

Last night Hendricks appeared as a guest of Ed Schultz on MSNBC.  As I predicted, I believe this is just the start of these attacks on Mitt Romney and Mormonism.  The challenge Romney faces is answering these charges in the length of a sound-bite.  I don’t think the nuance that Mormons engage the priesthood bad with is going to communicate.  I also don’t think he has the opportunity to engage in exegis of the Book of Mormon. Hendricks does not offer an attack that effectively sways Mormons, but he does offer an attack that sways non-Mormons.

I don’t believe this is going to go away and I’ll be interested to see how Romney resolves it.  I believe he’ll eventually be forced to say, as John Huntsman has stated, that the priesthood ban was wrong.

Mitt Romney’s Mormon Problem Explained

Mitt Romney has a problem. It’s a Mormon problem.  But it’s not the problem you think it is.

When most people think of Mitt’s Mormon problem they think it has something to do with Evangelicals.  It’s true that Evangelicals don’t like Mormonism and it seems apparent that Evangelicals would prefer to not vote for a Mormon.  But Evangelicals are very pragmatic.  When it comes to an election Evangelicals will vote for a Mormon who fits their political values.  Most Evangelicals haven’t been faced with that before, but when push comes to shove they’ll do exactly what Evangelicals in Utah, Idaho and Arizona do, pick the candidate that best fits their political worldview. Continue reading

For Whom the Hell’s Bell Tolls

Popular Evangelical author Rob Bell posted this video over the weekend to promote his upcoming book “Love Wins”

The video is certainly provocative, Bell is a master communicator and this hits every nerve it’s meant to expose. What no one really expected was the controversy that would erupt by Monday morning. A number of other prominent Evangelical authors decided to deliver their early reviews of the book via twitter and kicked over a hornet’s nest.

I thought Tony Jones offered a thoughtful review of the controversy and of Rob Bell’s standing in Evangelicalism. “Christianity Today” took the opportunity to explore the varying views on hell, annihilationism and universalism.

I’ve enjoyed the material I’ve seen from Rob Bell. I understand the anxiety he and this video creates for many Evangelicals but I’m going to reserve judgment until I’ve at least actually read the book. For the moment I’m more disappointed with John Piper and Joshua Harris than I am with Rob Bell, but that could change after March 29th.

Can an Evangelical Vote for a Mormon?

As we begin to approach a new presidential election season I thought I’d write up my thoughts on this controversy. This is not intended in any way to be an endorsement of Mitt Romney or any political candidate. I don’t think Gov. Romney has much hope in becoming the Republican candidate much less win the presidency (because Evangelicals won’t vote for him). But his candidacy offers the opportunity to talk about some larger issues. There are two objections I most often hear expressed against voting for a Mormon.

1. When Salt Lake City Calls

When Salt Lake City Calls” is the name of a book that supports this line of reasoning.  Its premise is that because of the covenants made in LDS Temples a Mormon President would have a higher oath to the Mormon Prophet than to the people of the United States or the U.S. Constitution.

I don’t disagree at all that such oaths are made by Mormons who attend their temples.  Investigating the wording (and penalties formerly associated with the covenants) will reveal that they are serious, literal and binding.  Mormons are indeed asked to place allegiance to their church, its prophet and its message at the highest priority.

The question unanswered is “If a Mormon President holds to this covenant as rigidly as we might imagine, does it pose a threat to the United States?” I don’t think it poses any threat at all.  Knowing that the LDS Church and the President are going to be carefully watched and scrutinized about the nature of their relationship, I don’t think either would be interested in abusing this oath.  The image-savvy Mormon church is already quite sensitive about being accused of being a cult. They don’t show a pattern of wanting to reinforce that stereotype.  If anything, I imagine there would be a distancing in the relationship between Salt Lake City and Washington DC while a Mormon sits in office.

Second, let’s suppose the worst.  Let’s imagine that the LDS Prophet receives a revelation that all religious organizations in the United States should come under his control and he calls on every Mormon to make that vision a reality.  Let’s further suppose that the Mormon President makes such legislation a top priority in his administration.  The chances of him enacting such a law would be infinitely small.  He would be unable to find cooperation from the House of Representatives or the Senate. He’d stand no chance before the Supreme Court and the state houses of 49 states would find their own ways to nullify such a law.  He then would likely be impeached for not upholding the Constitution.  I can’t really imagine the LDS church asking a Mormon President to do anything that might harm the values of the nation, but if it did, the President would have little support from our (very intentionally) separated powers.

The truth is Mormonism is perhaps one of the only religions in the world that recognizes and cherishes the United States Constitution.  When Mormons have been persecuted it has always been their belief that the Constitution (and Heavenly Father) would save them.  Joseph Smith many times would extol the virtues of the Constitution and even predicted that there may come a time when the Mormons are the only people left to preserve it.  The Mormon church used to make American Independence Day celebrations part of its worldwide curriculum because Mormons recognize that they were able to form a new religion precisely because of the religious environment afforded by the US Constitution.  It would be out of character for the Mormon Church or a Mormon President to harm or change it.

Most of these issues were previously discussed in our history during the Reed Smoot Hearings in which it was decided if Mormons could qualify for federal public office.

2. Won’t a Mormon President Legitimatize Mormonism and Make it Mainstream

In truth, I think it will. Evangelicals will need to hold this in tension as they weigh their political choices.  But I would like to question if a mainstreamed Mormonism would be something Evangelicals should fear.

The first concern is that an increased awareness of Mormonism might cause more people to investigate the LDS church and consider becoming members.  History doesn’t really bear this out. George W. Bush and William Howard Taft were by far the most outspoken Presidents about their Evangelical faiths. Neither caused an increase in attendance at Evangelical churches (if anything their presidencies might have set the Evangelical movement back). I don’t believe any evidence exist that John F. Kennedy was able to drive a spike in Catholic conversions in his presidency either.

The second concern is that Mormonism would likely lose it’s image as an “outsider religion”.  Evangelicals might very much like to do what they can to keep the LDS church from gaining that sort of credibility.  I can appreciate the concern for aiding or boosting the heresies taught by Mormonism.  But I think an investigation into Mormon history might convince Evangelicals that a mainstreamed Mormon church might inspire reform within Mormonism.

Culturally there is a large portion of Mormons who want nothing more than to be viewed as normal.  They are aware of some of their church’s previous difficult doctrines and practices but because they don’t have to live with them they are able to pretend they don’t exist.  Many of these Mormons are actually unaware of the origins of some of these practices and assume the folk explanations they’ve heard must be true.  A Mormon President would cause Mormon origins to come to light.  An increased public discussion of these issues is exactly what is needed to cause Mormons to distance themselves from their spiritual ancestors.

When Mormonism interacts with mainstream American culture it has a habit of conforming. Mormonism wants to survive and it has a clear history of doing whatever is necessary to survive.  Polygamy (Reed Smoot Hearings), the black Priesthood ban (NCAA boycotts against BYU) and even temple death oaths (The GodMakers) are all examples of how Mormonism caved to public pressure once broader public awareness was brought to those issues. Even former LDS prophet Gordon Hinckley denied specific Mormon doctrine when asked about it in front of a national audience and claimed he didn’t know if they even taught such doctrines. Mormons will insist that these changes were made as a result of Heavenly Father’s direct intervention and communication. That may indeed be the case, but it’s peculiar that these changes occurred after outside pressure was exerted on the LDS Church.

Currently the LDS church growth rate in the United States is about the same as its birth rate.  The church’s missionary efforts seem to be faltering in countries with widespread internet access.  Free access to information about Mormonism doesn’t help the LDS church’s efforts.  Particularly when that information contradicts the LDS church’s faith-promoting version of the story.  A larger public discussion of Mormonism would only bring that information to further light.

David Clark recently stated on this blog “For now, I’d be satisfied if Mormons would be more open and honest about their history and doctrine at their public church meetings. If that were to happen, I think the LDS church would reform in short order.” I tend to agree.  There are a great many Mormons who have knowledge of and a great love for Mormonism’s many peculiarities. They will never want anything to change.  But I do not believe that is true for the majority of Mormons.  A Mormon presidency coupled with an organization’s desire to survive might be just the thing to cause a Mormon reformation.

As we speak, individuals and organizations opposed to Mormonism are forming materials and strategies to use a Mormon candidacy against the LDS church.  Add to that a candidate’s political opponents who are willing to use anything to hurt him and I think the LDS church has reason to hope there is never a Mormon president.

Compromise is demanded of every person who enters into democratic politics.  This even extends to individual voters.  A perfect candidate who matches every one of a person’s values is not likely to exist.  If it does, that person may not be electable (you might as well write your own name in on the ballot). It’s an Evangelical’s duty not to vote for the candidate that perfectly matches their values, but instead to vote for the candidate from the available and viable choices that most closely represents their values.  I think if a Mormon candidate matches an Evangelical’s political values and they think that candidate has the best possibility of winning they should feel more than comfortable in voting for that candidate.

An Evangelical Review of “Rough Stone Rolling”

I recently finished reading “Rough Stone Rolling” most likely the most extensive biography of Joseph Smith. It joined “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” as the two biographies I completed last year. I don’t typically read biographies, but I enjoyed both. I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive review of “Rough Stone Rolling” as I’m sure that’s been done elsewhere much better than I could hope to accomplish. Instead this is just a passing glance at my impression of the book and Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith

I couldn’t help but feel the wild ride of Smith’s life. At times I wondered how he took a breath in between his travels, his legal issues, his persecutions, his parenting, his marriage(s) and his civic, religious, masonic and military leadership. He was never a business success and it’s easy to see why, I’m not sure when he found time to provide for his family.
Bluntly stated Smith has always been a charlatan in my eyes. But I couldn’t help but gain sympathy for him in the death of his children. As an adoptive parent I was touched by the death of his newborn twins and his adoption the next day of newborn twins whose mother passed away in child birth.
I also felt for him in the failure to obtain justice in Jackson County Missouri and then the continued difficulties in Far West. It’s clear that Smith and the Mormons made mistakes in Missouri but doubly clear that they were treated unjustly and without the protection of law. As the march back to Kirkland began I could sympathize with the disappointment and injustice of the defeat in Zion.
As far as the foundations of Mormonism I think my impressions of Joseph Smith can be summed up in this passage from the book:

According to the description, the temples would serve as a “houses of worship, schools, etc.” One can imagine a town hall, a courthouse, and a perhaps stores among the “temples,” much like the public buildings around the green in a New England town. But the names assigned to the temples do not support this simple reading. The temples were grouped into threes and assigned to priesthood “quorums,” the organizations of the various levels of priesthood. One group was to be called “House of the Lord for the presidency of the High and most holy priesthood after the order of Melchizadek, which was after the order of the Son of God.” . . . .(page 220)

After reading that I was really struck by the impression that Joseph was really making this stuff up as he went and doing his best to make everything sound as polished and regal as he could. With that, and the various councils and quorums formed in the Kirkland temple with overlapping leadership and responsibilities which lacked any obvious structure, I got the distinct impression that he was trying too hard. He really wanted to make something grand and give himself and everyone around him distinction.

It’s commonly pointed out that Smith grabbed religious inspiration wherever he could find it. I think just a strong a case can be made for his constant tinkering. I’m not sure how Smith would describe his communications from God, but they seemed loose enough for him to amend and revise at will. I recently heard John Larsen say that he’s not sure if there’s a smoking gun against Mormonism but if there is one it might be the differences between the “Book of Commandments” and “The Doctrine and Covenants.” I now see his point.

It has been obvious to me that the modern LDS church is not in the least bit patterned after the primitive Christian church, But now it’s obvious to me that it’s only loosely similar to the LDS church as it functioned during the life of Joseph Smith. A theme I think Bushman exposed was that Smith wasn’t out just to create a religion, but instead a society based on religion. It’s no wonder that the Nauvoo Bishopric is the more obvious choice to succeed Joseph Smith than the Quorum of the Twelve. Smith was out to build the City of God, not the Church of God. The persecutions of Mormons and the murder of Smith probably would have been avoided if Smith hadn’t been calling everyone to “come to Zion.”

Rough Stone Rolling

I was generally impressed with the work Bushman did in this biography. He pointed out discrepancies between the faith-promoting versions of Smith’s life and what the historical record actually shows. Many times he acknowledged where Smith was breaking the law or how he was evading it. Not something Mormon historians have been known to do in the past. Bushman found a way that made sense to weave in themes and tidbits that didn’t necessarily follow the overarching narrative and still keep the story moving.

I had heard Christopher Smith make the claim that Bushman does some apologetics work in the biography and I have to agree. Some of it was maddening. Probably what bothered me most were the times that Bushman chose to speculate. It’s totally fine with me if a historian has to speculate. But Bushman’s speculations always left out the more obvious and more secular perspective (namely that Smith was probably making it up in the moment). This frustrated me more than once particularly when the speculations were quite far reaching.

I also think it’s a must to read the footnotes endnotes at the end of every chapter. It might have been a good idea to read them at each notation, but there are so many it would have made the book quite difficult to read. I read all of the endnotes when I finished the book and it would have been much better to read them chapter by chapter. Some of the more juicy tidbits of Smith’s life are found in the endnotes and many of them help you understand how Bushman came to his perspective of the event.

I enjoyed the book and have a much richer understanding of Joseph Smith thanks to “Rough Stone Rolling”. If you’ve got the time and don’t mind carrying around a 1.75″ thick paperback book, I recommend it.

Romans 6

This review of Romans 6 is provided by Steve (The Old Adam)
background – I’m a Lutheran laymen who felt the weight of the shackles of my own spiritual project and religious wandering fall off when I heard the free gospel in it’s purity and gift of Christ handed to me, free of charge, no strings attached

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?

This is pretty much an extension of Chapter 5. Paul is just anticipating the question that some, or many of the Romans he was writing to might ask. Many of us ask the same thing. A question like that shows a misunderstanding of the gospel to start with, or maybe someone who really has not heard the gospel (hasn’t grabbed hold of) yet.

Now to the meat of the chapter:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Paul is speaking here about Holy Baptism.
Continue reading