Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Tensions between Mormons and Non-Mormons--George's Post

A.   Tensions between Mormons and Non-Mormons; Respect for Others’ Beliefs; The Blessings of Obedience

Over the last several weeks, I have been grappling with three topics, seemingly separate, but in my mind closely related.  First, what are the primary sources of the tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons?  Second, given the Mormon’s claim of doctrinal primacy (the claim of being the “one and only true church”), what does it mean for Mormons to “respect” the religious beliefs and practices of others.  And lastly, is the doctrine of “obedience,” as understood by Mormons, the key, or at least one of the keys, to appreciating the spiritual experiences of non-Mormons and, at the same time, to testing the substance of the Mormon’s claim of enjoying the “fulness” of the gospel.

1.    Tensions between Mormons and Non-Mormons

Since its formation in upper state New York in 1830, Mormons have found themselves at odds, sometimes at their great peril, with members of the communities in which they lived.  Early Mormon history, from the beginnings through the exodus to the great valleys of the Salt Lake basin, is a litany of persecution--the jailing and martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the infamous extermination order of Governor Boggs of Missouri threatening the lives of early church members, the destruction of Nauvoo, widespread vilification of and discrimination against Mormons.  The blatant aspects of earlier persecution have certainly given way to more subtle forms of anti-Mormon conduct.  Mormons, unlike most other religious groups, are still fair game for open ridicule—behaviors that would be roundly condemned as politically incorrect if directed at other religious groups are still acceptable when aimed at Mormons.  Mormons are thought of as peculiar, odd, out of step with modern values.  They are regarded as clannish, exclusive, even arrogant, in the practice of their religion.  Temple ceremonies, abstinence from coffee, tea and alcohol (the Word of Wisdom), special garments, set them apart from others, a separatedness that breeds suspicions and mistrust.  The historical practice of polygamy, though now disavowed, leaves an indelible mark, branding Mormons and the Mormon Church as something foreign, peculiar, unattractive.  And certainly many Mormon doctrines sound strange to mainstream Christians—the origin and history of the Book of Mormon; existence of modern-day prophets; proselyting to other Christians; claims of priesthood authority.  All these factors lead to institutional tensions between the Mormon Church and other religions organizations, and between Mormons themselves and those of others faiths.
Certainly, one of the most visible aspects of Mormonism is its evangelical fervor, something with which many others are uncomfortable.  Since its formation, almost 185 years ago, the Mormon Church has been outward looking, seeking to share, through an active missionary program, its message of the “restored” gospel with as many others as possible.  The first missionaries were sent to labor in New York and surrounding states, with missionaries shortly thereafter going to Canada and into the Indian territories to the west.  Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde were the first missionaries to be sent overseas when they opened the British Isles to missionary work in 1837.  By the end of the 1850s, the Mormon Church had expanded its missions to include Chile, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Hawaii, India, Italy, Malta, Scandinavia, South Africa, the South Pacific, and Switzerland.  The proselytizing activities have continued unabated over the decades.  Today the Mormon Church has a world-wide footprint, with over 15 million members, residing in close to 30,000 wards and branches, publishing church materials in 188 languages.  Its missionary force is over 85,100 full time missionaries, serving in 406 missions around the world, together with over 30,000 Church service missionaries.  As of the end of 2014, the Mormon Church had 144 temples in operation, special buildings considered sacred by Mormons, consecrated for the performance of ordinances symbolically representing the covenants between man and God.[1]  Seeing pairs of clean cut, white shirted young men, and of conservatively attired young women, wearing black nametags, have become iconic images of modern Mormon life. 
Not surprisingly, nonmembers’ reactions to this proselytizing activity have been mixed.  Some have responded favorably to the Mormon message, resulting in steady growth since the Church’s earliest days, so that now the Mormon Church represents one of the major religious movements to have emerged from the United States.  It is generally regarded to have transformed itself from a predominantly intermountain church located in the western part of the United States into a major religious movement with an appeal transcending national boundaries.  Others have persecuted Mormons, discriminated against them, ridiculed their doctrines, criticized their leaders, and taken offense at what they consider to be Mormon arrogance—rooted in the Mormon claim that the Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.”[2]  Mormon success has met with staunch opposition, challenges by evangelical groups calling Mormons “non-Christians,” the proliferation of anti-Mormon publicity, and attacks by special interest groups who consider Mormon doctrines out of step with modern liberal values.[3] 
Mormons are occasionally viewed by nonmembers as condescending, patronizing, and smug when dealing with others not of their faith.  Mormons themselves are taken back by these feelings, inasmuch as they try to be friendly, outgoing, committed to being good neighbors.  But, at least as relates to doctrinal matters, the tension is likely created by the Mormon’s belief that the Mormon Church is the “one and only true church,” a claim not received well by other Christian denominations.  Indeed, an early statement by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, included seemingly harsh statements about other Christian churches, dismissing their doctrinal as “abominations,” claiming their professors were corrupt, and criticizing their teachings as the doctrines of men.  Those churches were said to have “the form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”[4]  Such blunt criticisms could hardly be expected to engender inter-denominational good will, but instead created historically an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust, not allowing much room for interfaith discourse and reconciliation.  Given its claims of doctrinal primacy,[5] the Mormon Church has not become involved in ecumenical efforts to reconcile doctrinal differences with other denominations.  Recently however the Mormon Church has broaden its dialogue with other churches on topical issues of common social or political concern, such as humanitarian aid to the poor, support of families, rights of religious freedom, and the tax-exempt status of churches and non-profit institutions, breaking down some of the historical barriers.  Another factor contributing to the distance between Mormons and others is the tendency of Mormons to close ranks and keep to themselves.  They find themselves extremely busy with church activities, meaning that they spend most of their spare time with other Mormons rather than being as involved in their neighborhoods and communities as they might otherwise be.  Even in mixed social settings, Mormons tend to congregate with one another, rather than mingling, both because they are more comfortable associating with other Mormons than with others, and because they do not engage in certain common mixing activities, such as drinking.  As a consequence, Mormons have inadvertently created a social distance between themselves and others.  
Recent communications by the Mormon Church, though not retreating from this doctrinal high ground, have considerably softened in tone.  No longer does one hear of allegations that the Catholic Church is the “great and abominable” church excoriated in the Book of Mormon.[6]  Instead the Mormon Church is reaching out to Catholics and other denominations, Christian and non-Christian, to improve their relationships and to burnish the Mormon Church’s public profile; for example, many Mormons appreciate the moral leadership the Catholic Church has taken on important moral issues, such as abortion.  Still the basic thrust of the Mormon claims—the presence of modern day revelation and possession of priesthood keys not possessed by others—remain doctrinal linchpins, distinguishing Mormonism from other religions, and leaving an unbridgeable gap.  Coupled with the doctrinal differences is the Mormon Church’s ongoing efforts to proselytize among the members of other denominations, not conducive to good will among Christian denominations, even if they could otherwise understand such proselytizing if aimed at a non-Christian population.  Indeed, it is easy to understand why the Mormon Church, and in turn its members, may struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with other Christian denominations, each of which is considered to some degree to be apostate. 
From a historical and doctrine perspective, there is nothing odd about the missionary activities of the Mormon Church.  Proselytizing has been an integral part of Christianity since the time of Christ.  During Christ’s ministry the twelve disciples were instructed to carry the Savior’s message to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.[7]  Indeed the last instructions given to the disciples, after the resurrection, as recorded in Matthew were to spread the gospel throughout the world, baptizing those willing to accept the word.  “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:  Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you:  and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.  Amen.”  Matt. 28: 20.  These injunctions have spurred missionary activity from the beginning, and constitute the impetus behind sending missionaries to christianize the pagan world in the early days of Christianity, to proselytize among the nonchristian countires in the Far East and Africa, and to continue evangelizing the message in modern times.  The Mormon Church sees its efforts as continuing this well-established tradition, gathering the elect of God in the last days, before the “great and dreadful” day of the Lord.  “And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect; for mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts; Wherefore the decree hath gone forth from the Father that they shall be gathered in unto one place upon the face of this land to prepare their hearts and be prepared in all things against the day when tribulation and desolation are set forth upon the wicked.”  D&C 29: 7-8.[8]
Even though this section focus upon the tensions between Mormons and those not of their faith, it is worth pointing out that such tensions are not as prevalent in Malawi as they are in the United States, where the Mormon Church and its practices are better known.  Malawians are generally more accepting of those believing in God.  

[1] These statistics taken from the May 2015 issue of the Mormon Church’s Liahona Magazine.
[2] See D&C 1:30.
[3] The involvement of the Mormon Church in supporting California’s Proposition 8 became a lightning rod in California, sparking vehement anti-Mormon sentiments within the gay-lesbian community.
[4] Joseph Smith, when asking the God the Father and Jesus Christ about other Christian denominations was told: 
“I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a formof godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”  Joseph Smith History 1: 19.
[5] One would not expect much interest in ecumenical topics from a church based upon the proposition that it is led by modern day prophets.
[6] See, for example, 1 Ne. 13: 6 et al.
[7] See, e.g., Matt. 10: 5-6.
[8] See the section entitled “Gathering the Elect of God.”