Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An outsider's tour of the LDS church

Excerpts of Questioning General Authority Jim Burklo

Jim Burklo, ... is Associate Dean of Religious Life at USC.
For an exotic cultural and religious experience without leaving the borders of the United States, pay a visit to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints!
... I went to Salt Lake City this past Thursday and Friday to meet with top leaders, known as "General Authorities", of the Mormon church. We were guests of the church, invited by the interfaith representatives of the LDS in southern California....

[At BYU,] another professor reported something that intrigued me greatly. He said that when LDS young people drop out of the church, they give up religion altogether, and they don't join the ranks of the "SBNR" – spiritual but not religious. Perhaps Mormonism is such an all-consuming experience that its people see it in all-or-nothing terms....  A professor of Islamic studies answered my question about how other faiths are presented at BYU and by the LDS church. I pointed out that evangelical Christians have textbooks that outline the world's faiths, with explanations about how all faiths but their own version of Christianity are wrong. "We don't do that, and if any leader does that publicly in the LDS church, the higher-ups will put a stop to it," he said. ... He and other Mormon officials suggested that Islam, in particular, bears many similarities to LDS faith. Later that day, the president of BYU told us that many of the few non-Mormons at BYU are Muslims, because their parents like the fact that there are strict rules against drinking and premarital sex.) ...  Just before lunch, one professor smiled and said, "We're weird, we Mormons. But that makes us interesting, don't you think?"
From BYU we went to the training center nearby where tens of thousands of Mormon missionaries are trained for service ... I asked the center manager and a former Elder of the Quorum of the Seventy, the leadership body just under the Presidency and the 12 Apostles, whether the main value of the missions was in conversion of others or was in the spiritual formation of the "elders" and "sisters" who go on the missions. In so many words, they made it clear that it was the latter. Many missionaries make few conversions in the course of their missions. But they come back with organizational and language skills, global cultural awareness, self-discipline, and a much deeper commitment to their religion.
Back in Salt Lake City, ... [w]e dined with two Elders of the Quorum of the Seventy and their wives. I asked how they reconcile the fact that Mitt Romney disavows his LDS faith as a factor in his run for the US presidency, while Elder Dallin Oaks, another member of the Seventy, gave a major speech recently complaining about the erosion of religious freedom in America. They cited the attacks on Mormon facilities and nasty verbal attacks on Mormons after Prop 8 was passed in California. "On behalf of the interfaith community, I apologize that all of us did not rally against those attacks as vigorously as we should have," I said. When they said that gay marriage was an erosion of the influence of religion, I said that I perform gay marriage ceremonies and advocate for its legalization with my denomination, the United Church of Christ. "Which of our denominations will prevail in influencing the government's policy? In either case, it seems to me, and to my progressive Christian colleagues, that religious influence and freedom in American society are very alive and well!" This made them sputter a bit. I said that same-sex marriage will be legalized inevitably, no matter what he or I think about it. So we must find other ways for each of our faiths to find acceptance and understanding for our particularities on this issue. They said it's not inevitable for gay marriage to prevail. But then they admitted that was true only for the short term, because young people overwhelmingly support it, so one day it probably will be legalized. This admission greatly surprised me. In the end, all of us at the table agreed that we can work together to promote religious literacy so that all of our faiths can be understood: ignorance breeds intolerance. The LDS church suffers, as do all our religious traditions, from the lack of religious literacy in the wider culture.
... the worldwide service mission program of the church impressed all of us in the tour group very much. It gave me a case of "holy jealousy", wondering how my own United Church of Christ could match it!...
We had lunch in the Hotel Utah with the official church historian, who is an Elder of the Seventy, his assistant, and professors from the University of Utah and Utah State. We learned about the enormous scale of the church's records, which in recent years have become much more available to the public and to the scholarly community. The scholars in our tour group asked lots of questions about the methods the church uses to maintain its physical and digital archives, which are among the largest of any institution. The historians indicated that the church's expertise in this area is often tapped by other organizations. I asked about the role of history in the church. "What do you learn about the future of the church from studying its past?" The answer: "We rely on our prophets for that!" But with further questioning the church historians agreed that effectively, there is a sort of "case law" that has built up over the years, and that the top leaders of the church consult the historian's office about how present issues can be compared to past decisions. Afterward, I got into an engaging chat with them about the Mormon concept of revelation. Many Christians strongly believe in guidance from the Holy Spirit, and other religions emphasize similar experiences. But it seems to me that the LDS church has a pretty specific culture about revelation, both for its leaders and its members....
[Regarding the temple square visitor's center] Clearly the Mormons have recast their marketing to de-emphasize their more unusual and controversial aspects, and aim their appeal toward people who worship a very particular form of family life. The household dioramas and film clips say at least as much in their omissions as they do in what they include. Apparently the Mormons have figured out that their beliefs are not the deal-closers. The people and the lifestyle are the attractions. Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.
Even the typeface for the name of the church on its buildings and literature reflects a big change in the way the LDS presents itself to the outside world. It now puts JESUS CHRIST in bold capital letters, to emphasize its identity as a truly Christian church.
We visited the church's family history center ... For Mormons, it is important because members can baptize their ancestors into the faith by proxy at LDS temples. The more names they know, the more connection to their family they can have in the afterlife. ...
We had our closing dinner with another member, or Elder, of the Seventy, and his wife at the Lion House, where Brigham Young (from whom this Elder was descended) lived with his many wives. The couple didn't flinch in talking about Young's polygamy. The Elder has worked for the church all over the world, particularly in Latin America. I asked him about retention of converts in the church outside the US, which I have read is problematic: lots of people get baptized into the church, but many drop out. He explained that retention is an issue in places where there are not enough local wards to accommodate new members, and in places where the church has not had time to develop strong leadership. I asked if this culture of the church did not identify people excessively with America. They said that people make it their own, and don't think of it as particularly American. Toward the end of the dinner, the Elder told us he'd talked to the Elders who had met with us the night before, and that the topic of gay marriage had come up. He then announced with a bit of bravado that he had led the LDS effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. I think that left us speechless. But after dinner, as we were about to go to the airport, I asked his wife what was the most important misunderstanding that non- Mormons have about the church. "That we aren't Christian," she said. "Well, you and I have that in common," I said. "Because I perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, and because I take the Bible seriously because I don't take it literally, I've been told by evangelicals that I'm not Christian, either. So I have some idea of how you feel!" I wish that I had quoted to them this passage from the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, which functions as one of the church's sacred scriptures. I discovered it while reading a book about LDS doctrine on the airplane home: "Whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man." (D and C 49:15)
My most important learning from this fascinating short visit, besides being very impressed with the warmth, friendliness, and wonderful hospitality we were shown, was that Mormon leaders are hungry for their church to be understood and accepted as a mainstream faith. This makes them strong allies for all faiths in promoting religious literacy, religious liberty, and interfaith cooperation. They are very sensitive about any perceived threat to their faith from the government or the wider culture. I believe that many of their concerns are unfounded, but given the church's history of being persecuted, it's best for interfaith activists to go out of our way to be sensitive to their worries and find creative ways to reassure them. We have big differences, but we also have important common causes in which they can be remarkably effective partners.