What is it about Mormonism?

the mormonsLast week's Sunday New York Times Magazine had an article analyzing the Mormon religion and arguing for voters choosing a president without regard to his or her religion. "What is it about Mormonism" was written by Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor and adjunct senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. I know Feldman's a contributing writer for the magazine but I honestly think the piece might have found a better home in another publication. Or maybe it needed a rewrite or better editing. With not a single source for the story interviewed, the piece is essentially one educated man's random thoughts and reactions to a religion he is not, presumably, a part of. It also seems to be a bit of a two-headed monster -- either of its objectives would have been more than sufficient for a long-form essay of this nature.

Having said that, I do feel that there is a need for explorations such as this one about religion and public life. And Feldman's piece, which I believe Mormons and non-Mormons probably have quibbles with, strikes me as earnest, largely respectful and well-intentioned. Most of my problems with the piece relate to how it incorrectly portrays Mormons, but the first excerpt I'd like to look at is about a broader issue:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism's tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God's revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh's changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith's revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

This argument -- all religions are equally implausible -- seems to be rising in popularity in our multicultural postmodern milieu.

There are two problems that come to mind. One is that it assumes that plausibility of a religion is based solely on individual assertions of divine revelation. In fact, without going into a large discussion of all the different ways that people determine plausibility of a religion, that isn't how it's done.

The other problem with this argument is that it seems to approach the issue scientifically. In the 19th century, people attempted to classify religion as the genus and Christianity, Judaism, et. al., as the species. That is a great way to approach things if you believe either in rational truth to the exclusion of revealed truth or a complete separation of the two. But such secular, anthropological models are really only illuminating to those who reject such separation or exclusion.

In other words, people who reject Mormon tenets as ridiculous because it is implausible that God might reveal himself to man are only a subset of the larger population that rejects Mormon tenets. Some people who do believe that God reveals himself to man still don't accept Mormon teaching. This "equal implausibility" model doesn't carry any water for them.

Feldman's piece then goes into a long discussion of Mormonism and secrecy. It argues that Mormonism's secrecy originally came about because it was part of the theology -- sacred temple rituals, et. al. -- and also for protection from persecution. But he also says this:

Like Mormon ritual, much of Mormon theology remains relatively inaccessible to outsiders. The text of the Book of Mormon has always been spread to a broad audience, but the text is not a sufficient guide to understanding the details of Mormon teaching. Joseph Smith received extensive further revelation in the nature of sacred secrets to be shared with only a handful of close associates and initiates within the newly forming church.

mormons pbsLater Feldman writes:

What is more, what began as a strategy of secrecy to avoid persecution has become over the course of the 20th century a strategy of minimizing discussion of the content of theology in order to avoid being treated as religious pariahs. As a result, Mormons have not developed a series of easily expressed and easily swallowed statements summarizing the content of their theology in ways that might arguably be accepted by mainline Protestants. To put it bluntly, the combination of secret mysteries and resistance in the face of oppression has made it increasingly difficult for Mormons to talk openly and successfully with outsiders about their religious beliefs.

He pounds the secrecy issue hard but I'm not sure what we have here is a secrecy issue so much as a revelation issue and a systematic theology issue. I think that what is being interpreted as secrecy about teachings is really about the fact that when a religion has on-going revelation, it's bound to be in flux and up for constant revision. What's more, Mormon teaching allows for individual believers to systematize the theology for themselves within the larger teachings.

That's why we have discussions here on GetReligion where one Mormon might discuss one teaching as particularly important while another Mormon might respond "not so much." And a belief system that is not systematic is not one that will develop "easily expressed and easily swallowed" theological statements. That's not secrecy so much as a different theological approach. For a culture so accustomed to traditional Christianity's systematic theology, it might strike some as secretive but I don't think that's the fairest way to put it. These passages exemplify how this story might have benefited from more input than Feldman's alone.

Having said that, the piece does have some very interesting tidbits about Mormon secrecy, such as their doctrine of celestial marriage, that is, polygamy, which was:

revealed to Smith as early as 1833 but never publicized during his lifetime and formally announced to the world only in 1852, eight years after his death. And there were other doctrines of similar secrecy revealed to Smith, especially in the years just before his death. "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret," he is reported to have said in one of his last communications with his followers.

Feldman's piece delves into the practice of polygamy (a topic so large that it could have its own 5,000 words) as a way of discussing Mormons and political life I was a bit surprised that for an historical piece on Mormonism and public life that he didn't mention President James Garfield's 1881 inaugural address. But he does attempt to show how Mormons have changed their civic engagement over time. He lost me when he indicated that being anticommunist means opposing civil liberties and minority rights.

JosephSmithTranslationStill, in response to his characterization of evangelical theology, Feldman writes:

Mormons were able to argue that they, too, believed in salvation and in the literal accuracy of the Bible. The difficulty was that in addition to the Bible in its King James Version, the Latter-day Saints had further scriptures with which to contend -- the Book of Mormon, translated by Smith from "reformed Egyptian" and styled as "another Testament of Jesus Christ"; and supplements to various biblical texts known collectively as the Pearl of Great Price.

Feldman is trying to show the tension between Mormon and evangelical Christian beliefs. But he doesn't quite see that the "problem," as it were, isn't just with the extra scriptures but also with the understanding of the Bible itself. On that oh-so-secretive LDS.org web site, you can find their 13 articles of faith, one of which states:

We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

The Mormon view is basically that some original version of the Bible contained the revealed word of God but that omissions and alterations (related to when the Christian Church fell into the "Great Apostasy") significantly changed the scripture to the extent that no translation is quite right. In the Mormon view, there is no adequate manuscript. Smith attempted to correct this problem with his revelatory translation of the Bible. You can buy a copy of his New Testament translation on Amazon, in fact. So Feldman's contention that the scripture problem between evangelicals and Mormons is based solely in Mormonism's extra scriptures doesn't quite do justice to either the Mormon position or traditional Christians' problems with same.

The piece ends with Feldman's advice for how Mormonism can be better mainstreamed into American culture, but I'm not sure Mormons are asking for counsel, much less looking to further compromise.

For those readers who did make it through the piece, what did you like about it? How did it provide answers? What could have been improved? As has been done so well here over, remember to limit discussion to the journalistic in question. What, specific to this article, was good or bad?

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