Religion, Atheism and Critical Thinking

To begin with, I have to say that I believe in God, but I do not believe atheists are going to hell.  In my opinion, there is little significant difference between believing in goodness and believing in God.  I am more confident in the eternal fate of an atheist who tries to be the best person they can than I am in the fate of a believer who muddles through life without making the hard choices that true goodness requires on a regular basis.

I believe I am on firm ground on this, by the way.  Changing your opinion is easy.  Changing your character is not.  As far as I’m concerned, character is what counts, now and forever.

So, when the New Testament, for example, talks about the need to believe in Jesus Christ, I see that belief as being measured by a person’s actions, not their opinions.  And if we cannot change our opinions after death, we are all in trouble.  Imagine being stuck with the opinions you have now for all eternity!  I know that a belief in God is not just any opinion, but is it so different that it cannot be changed after death?

My religion leads me to this view, of course.  While I am not an “active” Mormon at the moment, the church’s teachings still inform my beliefs and the idea that people can choose to convert after death is essential to the religion’s view of life, death and the eternities.  So, the arguments I have made here are really nothing more than a way of explaining and defending Mormon belief with generic terminology.

As a result of this belief, Mormons do not usually fear for the eternal fate of non-believers.  I am hardly alone in this perspective.  While individual Mormons may look at some of their loved ones and believe they are bound for hell, most Mormons are quite optimistic about the fate of the people who are dear to them.  The religion gives you a choice in how you see others.

The real issue I wanted to address, however, was the claim that religious people (especially Mormons) abandon critical thinking to maintain their beliefs.  I had to include the above paragraph so that I didn’t contribute to—or participate in—the atheist-bashing that is so common in American culture.

It is simply not true that religious people do not engage in critical thinking.  It is not even true that Mormons do not engage in the practice, no matter how many people may claim otherwise.  (For examples of Mormons using critical thinking, see Joanna Brooks and Jana Riess or the sprawling website By Common Consent.)

Someone who does not use critical thinking will encounter facts that counter their beliefs and ignore them.  Someone who uses critical thinking will encounter those same facts and see if there is some way they can be reconciled with their beliefs.  They ask whether it is their understanding of God and religion that is wrong, rather than rejecting the facts or abandoning their beliefs.  They ask whether they need to adjust and adapt their beliefs.  They ask whether rejecting one of their beliefs will really diminish the rest of them.

Someone who engages in critical thinking does not immediately abandon their beliefs, although they may do so eventually if they can find no way of reconciling or adapting their new knowledge to their former beliefs.  I’m not saying that critical thinkers never come to the conclusion that they must abandon what they previously believed.  It is clear that some do.  But the majority of critical thinkers with deep-held beliefs about God do maintain most of them, without rejecting the new facts they encounter.

In sum, you cannot divine a person’s character or their eternal fate by asking if they believe in God, and neither can you use the question to assess a person’s critical thinking skills.

 

 

My struggles with a new policy of my church

To begin with, I have to say that I love the doctrines of my church. I love the things found in our scriptures: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. I love the temple ceremony, which we are not supposed to say much about, but which basically teaches the same doctrines found in our scriptures.

While there are some members of my church who think every word of our highest leaders is gospel truth, it has been a long time since I believed that the leaders of my church were perfect or that everything they ever said was true. I have not believed it was necessary for them to teach absolute truth 100% of the time. I have not believed that God required them to be perfect or to always do his will.

In the past several years, however, my relationship with the church has become more and more strained. Personal events and local matters turned my involvement in the church into a burden and a source of pain, rather than a source of healing.

Then, at the same time as I was experiencing personal difficulties that pushed wedge after wedge between me and the church, its leaders were doing everything they could to support a political battle in the United States: the fight against same-sex marriage.

When the U. S. Supreme Court decided to end the battle over same-sex marriage in this country recently and required it in every state, it had already been legal in some other countries and some parts of this one for years, without any negative effects.

Initially, I opposed it as a huge experiment, but over time all of the non-religious arguments to stop same-sex marriage seemed completely disproven to me. I also knew that gay and lesbian people are no different from others except for the gender they are attracted to, so they have the same desire to have family relationships as other people. When only religious arguments remained in my mind, stopping gays and lesbians from marrying seemed like forcing other people to follow someone else’s religious beliefs.

So my views on this issue evolved, as President Obama said his did, but I did not expect the church to change its position on homosexuality or the acceptability of same-sex marriage. I did wish they could speak with more kindness and empathy, or even perhaps acknowledge the level of sacrifice that the church’s teachings require of people who experience same-sex attraction.

All of these things and more were behind a recent blog post I wrote about several passages from the Book of Mormon. One of the passages I cited was the one that said “Charity is the greatest of all and whosoever is possessed of it at the last day, it shall go well with him.” I complained that many Mormons seemed to misread this scriptures as “Chastity is the greatest of all….”

Then, just a few days after I posted that wish, the situation became worse. The church formulated a new policy for dealing with members who were married to someone of the same sex. The new policy was leaked to the public and a furor began.

One part of the new policy declared that anyone in a gay marriage was an apostate and their local leaders would be required to hold a disciplinary council to decide if they could remain members of the church, but what really pained me and some other members were the restrictions placed on the children who live with them.

Children living with same-sex parents can no longer be blessed as babies, be baptized or be ordained to the priesthood. (We bless babies after birth instead of baptizing them. We baptize children when they are eight years old or older. Boys are generally ordained to the priesthood when they turn 12).  Now minors who live with a same-sex couple cannot be baptized. They may only be baptized when they turn 18 if they say they believe homosexuality and same-sex marriage are wrong. This is not a statement that is required of anyone else.

After the policy became public knowledge and some members expressed their outrage online (including me), the church leaders made three attempts to calm the waters. First, one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was interviewed by the spokesman of the church. He tried to explain the reasons for the policy, but his words did nothing to calm the rising rhetorical tide. Instead, horror stories began to accumulate on the internet about how the policy was being applied, and some people speculated it would apply to many more situations.

The following week, the highest leaders of the church, the First Presidency, released a letter clarifying the policy and offering further justifications for it. They said it was aimed at children who lived primarily with a homosexual couple (which is how I had originally understood it). They said children who had already been baptized could receive the priesthood and continue forward. They said that bishops could contact the First Presidency if they had questions about special circumstances.

This letter didn’t help much, either, and hundreds of already-disaffected members of the church organized a mass resignation from the church (most people who leave the church don’t bother to formally resign their membership).  This propelled the news about the policy into the national and international media.

After another week, the First Presidency released a revised letter, which seems to be their final communication on the matter. This time they did not include any justifications of the policy and they added a statement that all children should be treated with love and respect. They also said that children of homosexual couples should be welcome at church.

I don’t know what someone reading about all this for the first time would think about their latest words. I know that it did not change how I felt. So, I would like to explain why this still bothers me.

As I think some people will already understand, I cannot see how you can treat children with love and respect at the same time that you tell them they cannot be baptized, especially when both they and their parents want that to happen. I don’t know how you can tell a child that the true church will not allow them to be one of its members without communicating to them that God does not want them, or at least that the church does not want them. I don’t know how you can say that to an adult without communicating the same message, for that matter.  To me, this seems like the opposite of love.

As a parent, as someone who worked at elementary schools for a dozen years and as someone who has taught children of baptism age at church, I cannot see how this policy can do anything but hurt children. The number of children involved will be small, but I do not want to see one child hurt this way. My understanding of the words and actions of Jesus Christ is that he would not want that either.

Even so, I have basically decided to remain in the church. Its doctrines mean too much to me and I have had too many deeply spiritual and deeply meaningful experiences in the church to walk away. Yes, some parts of my journey in the church have been difficult, but I think those parts come from the imperfections of human beings rather than from any doctrine. I claim the god-given right to be imperfect, and if I have that right then so do the leaders of my church.

In my church, speaking out against our leaders is a potentially serious thing and I am uncomfortable doing it, so I will finish with the words of blogger Rachel Held Evans, who wrote about a part of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck believes he will go to hell if he protects Jim, a runaway slave…and chooses hell over betraying his friend.

“‘Your feelings don’t matter,’ they say.

“‘Your feelings cannot be trusted,’ they say.

“‘Once you start listening to your feelings, over and beyond the plain meaning of Scripture, it’s a slippery slope to hell,’ they say.

“A part of me agrees. I want to be faithful to the inspired words of the Bible, not bend them to fit my own desires and whims. Being a person of faith means trusting God’s revelation, even when the path it reveals is not comfortable.

“But another part of me worries that a religious culture that asks its followers to silence their conscience is just the kind of religious culture that produces $200 rewards for runaway slaves. The Bible has been ‘clear’ before, after all—in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out entire people groups, in support of  manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of anti-Semitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.

“In hindsight, it all seems so foolish, such an obvious abuse of Scripture.

“…But at the time?

“Sometimes true faithfulness requires something of a betrayal.”

Four passages from the Book of Mormon that I wish more Mormons would liken unto themselves

One of the best-known verses from the Book of Mormon is this one, which the Book of Mormon says was written by one of its first and best prophets, Nephi:

Nephi is the founder of the protagonist group of the Book of Mormon, the Nephites. At this point in the story, his people are quite small in number and are separate from another small group led his oldest brother, Laman, who does not share the religious beliefs of Nephi and their father. In this verse, Nephi explains what he teaches his people from the scriptures and why.

“And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Nephi 19:23).

This verse is used fairly frequently to teach members of the church to apply the teachings of the scriptures to themselves. It is used to teach us not to just read the scriptures for intellectual understanding, or just to feel closer to God, but to find in them some relevance to our own lives. It is advice that is too often ignored, as too many members of my church read the scriptures only to feel the Spirit and stay close to God and not to find any new understanding in them, whether that understanding is practical or intellectual in nature.

So, here are four well-known passages from the Book of Mormon that I wish more members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would apply to themselves.

Passage Number One

The Book of Mormon says this chapter was written by Nephi and that Nephi had visions of the modern era. In his visions, he saw the Bible being brought to the Americas by the Gentiles and distributed to his descendants. He then saw his own words being brought out of the dust and delivered to the Gentiles. He did not care for their reaction.

“(3) And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible….” (8) Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word?….(9)…for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever….(10) Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words….(11) For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them….” (1 Nephi 29).

I included quite a bit from this chapter. It is one of the most-cited and most-remembered chapters in the Book of Mormon. It lays out the justification for the book’s existence and answers some of the criticisms of the book that are still being made today. I have included the points that I wish Mormons would pay more attention to and left out other points that Nephi made, where he says that God reveals the same things to different groups, especially to different branches of the house of Israel. Mormons don’t have any problem remembering those.

It is easier for all of us to remember the things that support our opinions, beliefs, feelings and convictions, and this chapter not only expresses the opinions and beliefs of Mormons, but gives voice to the same frustrations that many Mormons have felt since the book was published in 1829, although–consistent with Mormon politeness–that frustration is rarely expressed.

So, Mormons love this chapter and use it to tell each other how wrong their critics are. I wish they would turn and apply it to themselves a bit. Sometimes I feel that Mormons are identical to the people being criticized in this chapter, but instead of saying something like “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible and there cannot be any more Bible!” I think they say “The Truth! The Truth! We have got the Truth and there cannot be any more Truth! (unless the prophet comes out and says so.)”

I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints my entire life. I am now 47 and have been present at something like 2,400 Sacrament Meetings (the main worship service of the church). I have heard it all. One of the things I have heard far too many times is that we have “the fulness of the Gospel.” It’s not that this isn’t true. It’s that we misunderstand what it means.

Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon contains the “fulness of the Gospel.” We believe that God himself said so in at least one revelation to Joseph Smith. Some people point out that the Book of Mormon does not contain all the important things that were taught by Joseph Smith after the Book of Mormon was published. Here are two fairly well-written, but unnecessarily academic articles that explain why this is not a contradiction, one from FairMormon and another from famed Mormon apologist Daniel Peterson. Their point is that the “fulness of the Gospel” refers to the basic truths about Jesus Christ and what he taught. This is perfectly consistent with the origin of the phrase “the gospel of Jesus Christ”, which as many people know, meant “the good news about Jesus Christ.”

So, when we say we have “the fulness of the Gospel,” it definitely does not mean that we have all the truth about God that is important or good to know. We just talk and act like it does. We end up closing ourselves off to many precious and valuable truths that are known and loved by our neighbors, friends and family. We are too-often certain that if there is anything else we need to know, our beloved prophet will stand up and let us know during a session of General Conference.

General Conference functions as something of high holy days for Mormons. Outsiders rarely grasp its importance. Even some members might ask themselves why it is so important to them and why they enjoy it so much. It is just 12 hours of talks and hymns, after all, spread out over one weekend and a piece of another. Yet for Mormons it can be a deeply personal and deeply meaningful experience.

The Conference Center of the church holds less than 30,000 people and is located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Few members can attend the meeting itself, so it is broadcast live over TV and the internet. For most Mormons, one of the pleasures of General Conference is not having to get dressed up and go to church. You can attend church from the comfort of your living room and watch in your pajamas. If you wish, you can just roll out of bed–or not–and turn on the TV.

We look forward to hearing from our favorite church leaders, and especially our prophet and president of the church, currently Thomas S. Monson. Sometimes there are surprises, like when Gordon B. Hinckley announced the church would build dozens of small temples to serve members in far-flung areas of the world, or when Thomas S. Monson announced that missionaries could serve at younger ages. The changes these announcements brought to the church are difficult for outsiders to appreciate and they stunned the members who heard them.

Our passive viewing of General Conference reveals a common Mormon attitude about additional truth: we don’t need to do anything to receive it. We just need to turn on the TV or log onto the internet and it will be presented to us in a nice, easy-to-understand and possibly humorous fashion. This is very different from the way it has actually happened at any time in the history of our own religion.

God didn’t just appear to Joseph Smith and tell him what to say. Joseph Smith didn’t just go to God and ask. He struggled with the truth. He did everything he could to find it out on his own. He didn’t just open up the famous Gold Plates and read them. He tried to find a way to translate them by himself first. He didn’t just receive revelation, he read and questioned and thought first.

And he wasn’t alone. The Christian world was full of people who were seeking more, who were asking questions, who were thirsty for more of God’s word. Throughout his journey, Joseph Smith was accompanied by others who thought and debated and asked questions. They looked to him for the final answer, but they did not just sit and wait.

I wish modern Mormons wouldn’t just sit and wait. I wish it was more common for Mormons to think, question, debate and then ask. How can we expect to receive truth if we don’t do those things? Even more importantly, if we reject the truths that other people know, if we even fail to consider them, how are we worthy to receive any more truth from God? We aren’t. The fact that we don’t receive more doesn’t mean there isn’t more. It means we have stopped looking for it.

Passage Number Two

This passage comes from the beginning of the Christian church among the people of the Book of Mormon.  Most of the book’s stories take place in a long period that started around 600 BC and ended shortly after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In this portion of the book, the people somewhat resemble Messianic Jews or Jews for Jesus. They have less in common with rabbinical Judaism. The Book of Mormon says they lived centuries before Christ was born, but while they followed the Law of Moses, they also believed in an atoning savior who would die and be resurrected. After the visit of the resurrected Christ, they stopped following the Law of Moses and became more like Jewish Christians than the Christian Jews their ancestors were.  (The religious boundaries in the Book of Mormon are a little fuzzy and contribute to the difficulty Mormons have in drawing a line between the two religions.)

The dates in the text indicate that the following event happened more than a century before the birth of Christ.  In the early part of the Book of Mormon, government and religion were combined. Then, when a local king led his people astray, a prophet was sent to them to call them to repentance. He was burned at the stake, but one of the king’s corrupt priests repented, defied the king and his soldiers and led a secret religious movement that became a church and spread throughout the Nephite people. This priest was named Alma, which is apparently a Hebrew word and possible name meaning “young man”, and thus sounds like a rather anonymous pseudonym.

As Alma led his people into the waters of baptism, this is what he said:

(8)… and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; (9) Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death…that ye may have eternal life—(10)…what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?  (Mosiah 18)

This is one of the best-known passages from the Book of Mormon. It is read to every potential new member of the church before they are asked to be baptized. Mitt Romney even seemed to quote from it during his presidential campaign. It expresses some of the most beautiful things about our church and our beliefs. And by now, you probably can imagine where I am going.

We are asked to bear one another’s burdens and mourn with those who mourn. We believe we promise to do so. There are times when we rise up and do that. Those are the best moments in our church and countless members hold treasured memories of comfort and support.

Yet, more and more often, what we do is similar to this:

Instead of bearing one another’s burdens, we sometimes say “It is the individuals’ responsibility to care for themselves. We are dong people a favor by allowing them to be independent, grow and progress.” I have even heard a Relief Society President (a woman in each congregation who runs its charitable efforts and has other significant duties) express concerns about the church’s welfare program to an important leader of the church, saying it ran counter to her beliefs that people should take care of themselves.

Or we say to the discouraged and overwhelmed, “Forget yourself and go to work.” This was the advice a father gave to his discouraged missionary son. It worked well for that young man. He grew up and became a leader of the church, told everybody how wonderful the advice was and now it is almost doctrine. It is not universally good advice, however. It is unfortunate how often it is inappropriately applied. Too often, instead of bearing up each other’s burdens, we add to them with additional church responsibilities to administer and carry out church programs that are designed to support general needs, rather than focusing on the actual individual needs of our members.

Then, instead of “mourning with those who mourn,“ or “comforting those who stand in need of comfort” too often we tell people “If you obey the commandments, you can be happy whatever your circumstances.” We end up dismissing their sadness, their anguish and their grief and manage to blame them for it in the process. The strong implication is that if you are not happy it is your own fault and that you would be fine if you just followed the commandments more closely or had more faith in Jesus Christ. I wish this would stop entirely. The idea that we can be happy in any circumstance is untrue. We are not even meant to be happy in every moment. We are meant to experience the full measure of life’s emotions. Trying to be happy in every moment is unhelpful, at the very least.

Passage Number Three

These words come from a passage that describes the advice that a prophet named Helaman gave to his sons. It sounds like deathbed advice from a loving father. According to the Book of Mormon, Helaman was the great-grandson of Alma, who founded the Nephite church, and was the grandfather of the Nephi who led the church when Jesus Christ visited them some time after he was resurrected.

Here are his most-remembered words:

(12) And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.  (Helaman 5)

This is another well-known verse from the Book of Mormon. We cite it not just to encourage each other, but to show people outside of the church that we really do believe in Jesus Christ, that he really is the center of our belief. And he is, or at least he should be.

Too often, Jesus Christ is not our foundation. The church is. Too many members build their foundation on the church, its teachings, its leaders and its members. This is not a good idea. The church is made up entirely of imperfect people. If we emulate the leaders of the church, who are all good men and women, we will sometimes emulate their weaknesses and imperfections as well as their strengths and virtues. Then, if certain weaknesses and imperfections are common among the leaders of the church–which is not unexpected given that they have relatively similar ages, personalities, backgrounds and beliefs—those weaknesses will automatically multiply among members of the church.

It is Jesus Christ and his teachings that ought to guide us first, not our leaders or fellow members, no matter how inspired they may be. No one is so perfect that they can substitute for Christ.

Passage Number Four

The Book of Mormon says that this passage includes words Moroni wrote, quoting from a sermon his father Mormon gave in the temple. A quick explanation: Mormon was a Nephite prophet who compiled and abridged the records of his people, which by then covered a period of about 1000 years. He died leading the great final battle between the wicked Christian Nephites and the less-wicked non-Christian Lamanites. The Book of Mormon is named for him due to his efforts (he, himself was named for the place where Alma baptized the first members of the Nephite church).

Moroni was the son of Mormon.  He added to the work of his father while he was hiding from the Lamanites, who were killing every Christian they could find. If Mormon scholars are correct, he fled thousands of miles from Mesoamerica to the area of the Great Lakes in upstate New York, where he buried the record he and his father had engraved on gold-colored metal leaves. He then appeared to Joseph Smith as an angel many centuries later and led the young man to the place where he had buried his priceless record some fourteen centuries earlier. The Mormon attitude towards others’ skepticism of this story is basically that if it sounds impossible, so do general relativity and quantum physics. So there.

That small bit of levity aside, this is the passage that I really wish was more emphasized in the church.

(46) Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—(47) But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him. (48) Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.  (Moroni 7)

As non-Mormon Christians will recognize, this chapter repeats some of the words written by the Apostle Paul. Critics, finding Paul’s words in the Book of Mormon, accuse Joseph Smith of plagiarism.  Mormons, who believe the same God inspired Paul, Mormon and Joseph Smith, are not particularly concerned.

Instead, their repetition should make Mormons sit up and pay attention. Some things from the Bible are repeated in the Book of Mormon: a large section of Isaiah, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, words written by Paul about spiritual gifts, and some of the words he said about love. These are key things. Their repetition should underline them in Mormon minds.

Most importantly, please note that this verse does not say “Chastity is the greatest of all and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” It says “Charity is the greatest of all…and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” Listening to members talk these days, you would think the book  contained that first sentence.

Mormons quite rightly argue that chastity is a part of love, that if you love yourself and others, you will be chaste. But this glosses over the fact that chastity is only a part of love. It is not higher than love.

Sometimes, Mormons seem to read the words “charity is the pure love of Christ” and hear “charity is the perfect love of Christ.” They seem to believe that it is unattainable and they move on to something they can actually achieve. This is a misunderstanding of the scripture. If Mormon had meant to say “perfect love,” he could have said so. It is more likely that his use of the word “pure love” is simply a way of separating the love of Christ from other kinds of love, like romantic love.

That was not difficult in Greek, which was the language Paul spoke and wrote. Greek had a word for pure love like Christ’s: agape. And there is a reason the King James Version translates “agape” as “charity.” The translators of the King James Version learned ancient Greek as children and used it for most of their lives. They were practically native speakers of the language. Translating the more specific “agape” as “love,” with its multiple meanings, would not have seemed right to them.

The reason charity is described as the pure love of Christ in this passage from the Book of Mormon may be similar. It describes charity as the kind of love Christ had, as opposed to romantic love or other kinds of love, not the degree of love that he had. We do not have to be the same as Jesus Christ to have charity and receive the blessings promised in this scripture.

Bonus Passage Five

This is not a passage that is frequently quoted in the church. It is almost unknown, in fact. Neither does it express anything that members ignore. Instead, it sums up Mormon attitudes quite nicely.

At times it has brought me great comfort and, because it is so overlooked, I would like to mention it here. It is from a letter that Mormon wrote to his son Moroni while terrible battles raged between the despicable Nephite Christians and their slightly less despicable non-Christian enemies. According to the letter, Mormon wasn’t entirely sure he would see ever see his son again. In it, he describes the war crimes of the Lamanites and the even worse war crimes of his fellow Nephites. Those crimes are horrific and would disturb anyone in any war zone today or in any time and place.

But, after listing the worst of those crimes, this is the advice Mormon gives to his son, Moroni.  It is found in the last few pages of the book.

“(25) My son, be faithful in Christ; and may not the things which I have written grieve thee, to weigh thee down unto death; but may Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings and death, and the showing his body unto our fathers, and his mercy and long-suffering, and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever. (26) And may the grace of God the Father, whose throne is high in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who sitteth on the right hand of his power, until all things shall become subject unto him, be, and abide with you forever. Amen.” (Moroni 9)

If anyone is curious why the Book of Mormon actually appeals to people in Uganda or war-torn parts of Africa, it is not the positive attitude of the missionaries.  Instead, this chapter reveals the nature of book’s attraction and its relevance to people who might think God has forgotten them: no matter how awful your life is, here are some people who had it just as bad and worse, and here is how they managed.  It offers some reason to hope in the face of the greatest suffering we can imagine.

The Book of Mormon is one of the most under-appreciated books currently in print. It is not for nothing that Ezra Taft Benson, former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, repeatedly and frequently scolded the members of the church for not taking it seriously enough. Its words are profound. They are not easily absorbed in a single reading, or even a dozen readings. You do not even have to believe that its story literally happened to appreciate it (there is a whole church, The Community of Christ, that takes the position that the book is inspired, but not historically accurate in any sense).

I genuinely love this book and believe all people could find benefit by reading it and thinking about it, whether they believe it to be the word of God, like Mormons do, or total fiction, like everyone else.

My name is Allen Warner. I like to think. And I am a Mormon.

Love, Hate, Religion and Politics

Religion in the United States is a declining business these days. People are less likely to identify with an organized religion and membership in many churches is declining. My own church likes to say it is keeping its numbers steady in an era when other churches are declining. Personally, I don’t think that is something to brag about, given our above-average birth rates and impressive proselytizing efforts.

Conservative Americans have said for some time that liberal churches have declined because they don’t demand enough of their members and have loosened the moral code that Christianity represented. They used to point to their own growing numbers and claim them as evidence that their preachers were speaking deep truths that liberal preachers were ignoring or denying. I, myself, once believed this was true.

It seems clear now that such an analysis was a mistake, and a rather unfair judgment of liberal churches. Now that major conservative Protestant churches, like the Southern Baptist Church, are also in decline, and my own conservative church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can only hang on by having more children than average and sending out tens of thousands of missionaries, it seems that we may have been greatly and unkindly mistaken. I would like to offer my apologies to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and others for ever believing their brand of Christianity was somehow weaker or less appealing.

I would, however, like to offer a different analysis, and one that still takes liberal churches to task, along with conservative ones. I would submit that the problem with religion today is politics. Not the politics in Washington, D.C., but the politics in the pulpit.

There was a time when evangelical churches avoided politics. They apparently saw the whole business as corrupt. They woke up in the 1970’s and 1980’s when they decided that this necessary evil offered a way of saving the country’s moral soul. Today, we are told they are declining because they are out of step with society and are preaching hate. I, myself, had relatively recently accepted such a viewpoint…until I actually sat down and thought about it. (Perhaps, just perhaps, I have been too willing to believe conventional wisdom.)

Liberal churches, in contrast, heard their calling to politics during the civil rights movement, a generation or so before conservative churches heard their calling to save the country’s political soul. Liberal churches saw themselves as called to protect the weak and helpless. They did so, and they helped carry the day, but even though they were in step with society and preached love, their churches still declined.

I am convinced that the problem is not what politics a church preaches, the problem is being involved in major political issues at all. My church famously led the charge against gay marriage in California. Even though it stopped telling us how to vote on the issue or what position to take on it, at least one of our leaders manages to remind us during every semi-annual General Conferences that gay marriage is a horrible, awful development. And this is what leads the news reports about the 12 hours of talks, hymns and prayers that make up the meetings: the one talk or one comment about gay marriage.

When the church began its high-profile fight against gay marriage, a friend of mine from college who had already abandoned the church posted on Facebook that the church would lose members for involving itself in gay marriage, comparing it to the loss of members the church experienced when it adopted polygamy, which, as he pointed out, also involved the legal definition of marriage. It seems now that he was at least partly right. The church seems to have lost members in the United States since he posted that comment. The church is not saying how many have left, but it is clear to everyone that active members of the church have been leaving it in numbers not seen in generations.

I do not claim to know the will of God concerning gay marriage, or what he would want the church leaders to do or not do, but I am quite certain that some loss of members was inevitable once they decided to get involved in a high-profile political issue. I believe there is simply no way around it.

I don’t think it matters what kind of politics churches embrace; once they jump into the pit, they are going to get dirty. The involvement of the Roman church in the affairs of empires and kingdoms did nothing for its reputation, even if it did give the church protection and influence. The involvement of modern churches in the affairs of nations is not going to aid their reputations, either, whether they help carry the day or whether they only postpone the inevitable.

My advice to all religious leaders is this: pick your issues carefully, because even if you win, you will lose.

Mormons, Polygamy, the ERA and Gay Marriage

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken some controversial positions in its 185-year history. The church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered for one of them (polygamy, of course). The church became much more mainstream in the 20th century, but still manages to anger people.

After polygamy, the church came under fire for restricting blacks from the priesthood, for restricting women from the priesthood and for fighting gay marriage. The church has received its greatest criticisms when it involves itself in politics. So why does it keep doing it?

I can’t answer why the church takes the positions it does, but I think I can explain why it enters the political fray even though doing so will cause it to lose some current and potential members. The answer comes down to its experience with polygamy.

I don’t know how many times I have read a news article that said the following, almost word for word: “Mormons practiced polygamy in the 19th century, but abandoned it in order to obtain statehood.” This is not even close to the truth.

Mormons abandoned polygamy for one basic reason, and perhaps two more subtle ones. The clear motive for abandoning polygamy was the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which was passed in 1887. The law strengthened previous anti-polygamy laws. Among other things it disbanded the church as a legal entity; allowed the seizure of almost all its property, including churches and temples; threatened polygamists with jail and fines; required voters, jurors and officials to take anti-polygamy oaths; and, oddly, took the vote away from women (which Mormon men had given them in 1870).

The last item seems to show that Mormon women were not truly opposed to polygamy, even in the privacy of the voting booth. As hard as it is to believe, 19th century polygamy wasn’t really an anti-woman institution, at least not in comparison to the social arrangements available elsewhere in the country. For one thing, divorce was easy to obtain.  Women in polygamous marriages were active in the feminist movement, with the consent of their husbands and communities.

Leaving aside that debate, the Edmunds-Tucker Act was draconian. The church sued, but the Supreme Court ruled the law was constitutional on May 19, 1890. That decision has never been overturned.

On September 25 of that same year, the church, led by Wilford Woodruff, published the Manifesto that announced the end of polygamy. The decision prompted a few members to say he was a fallen prophet. They founded their own churches, including the FLDS Church, or Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that has been in the news so much.

Later, Wilford Woodruff defended the Manifesto. In one of his defenses, he claims that the Lord would never let him lead the church astray, but would take him out of his place. This is a non-canonical doctrine that is included in a footnote in the scriptures, but is accepted by a large number of faithful Mormons.

However, it is a different defense found in those same footnotes that interests me. Wilford Woodruff says: “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for … any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us….”

Wilford Woodruff says that if the church did not stop polygamy, the organization and its members would suffer greatly. This is the clear reason that the church ended polygamy. One of the more subtle reasons I referred to is a likely desire on the part of the members to fit in, let go of a difficult practice and stop being weird. The second subtle reason is that, if you accept Wilford Woodruff at his word that the Lord showed him these things and showed him how to end polygamy, then the Lord also wanted polygamy to stop. It sounds to me like the Lord told Wilford Woodruff if the church didn’t stop polygamy, he would let all these horrible things happen. To my ear, it almost sounds like a threat.

Whatever the more subtle motivations may have been, the church only abandoned polygamy in the face of draconian punishment by the federal government, and the law which authorized and encouraged that punishment is still considered to be constitutional. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knows better than any other institution what the limits to religious freedom are in the United States. When Mormon leaders talk about religious freedom, they are almost speaking from experience.

I believe this is the real motive behind the church’s heavy involvement in the fight against gay marriage. The church was banned once because its marital practices were out of step with the nation’s. Its leaders could hardly be unaware of the possibility that such a thing could happen again, especially with one of its top leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, being a former state supreme court justice. I think this is also one of the motives behind its fight against the ERA in the 1970’s and early 80’s (being afraid that it might be forced to give women the priesthood by court order).

Again, I am not claiming any special insight into the reasons the church opposes gay marriage or why it doesn’t want to ordain women to the priesthood. I am only saying that its political involvement seems to stem from experience. I believe that church leaders are afraid that the church could come under fire the way it did in the 19th century.

Those events happened 125 years ago, but the way the church is organized makes it an event that isn’t quite so distant. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles serve for life, like Supreme Court Justices, but without the possibility of retirement. Traditionally, the most senior Apostle is called to be the President of the Church.  Current and recent leaders are not far removed from the legal battles over polygamy.

Thomas S. Monson is currently the President. He was born in 1927 called to be an apostle in 1963. When he was called, David O. McKay was the President of the church. President McKay was born in 1873 and was called as an apostle in 1906. He led the church from 1951-1970.

President McKay lived in the time of polygamy. He was called to be an apostle by Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of Joseph Smith. Brigham Young, Jr. was an assistant counselor in the First Presidency at the time. At least five of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had served before the church abandoned polygamy. One of the more recently-called apostles was Reed Smoot, who had also been elected to the US Senate and had endured lengthy congressional hearings  before he was seated. The hearings centered on polygamy.

President Thomas S. Monson, current president of the church, is only one step removed from Reed Smoot, Brigham Young, Jr. and Joseph F. Smith, among others. He worked closely with someone who worked closely with them. He is only two steps removed from Brigham Young. Recently deceased apostles Boyd K. Packer and L. Tom Perry worked with people whose experiences stretched back a little less, but not much.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long institutional memory. The draconian measures enacted by the US Congress in 1887 are not ancient history for the First Presidency and the senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve. These are things that touched some of their close friends personally.

It is no coincidence that the church pushes for religious freedom. Its senior leaders may not have known the legal persecution the church endured in the 19th century, but the President of the church and its senior apostles all knew people who did. They seem quite reluctant to bring polygamy into the conversation, but the church’s experiences with the United States government hang like a constant shadow over the issues at hand.

I have my own opinions on the political stands of the church. We are not required to agree with them and I don’t. But I think that people should be a bit more forgiving of the church’s political involvement on laws that might someday affect its practices. For the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, religious freedom is not an excuse or a political ploy. It’s almost personal.

A Man of Sorrows, and Acquainted with Grief

Great Mysteries of Heaven

What’s the difference between God causing something to happen

And God allowing something to happen?

This all-powerful being could stop every misdeed

And right every wrong.

No ill would ever occur if he were to free his hand,

Yet he stays it

And allows woman and man

To choose their own course.

He allows us to face the deliberate temptation of demons

And to elect to follow them,

Harming those that lie in our way,

And all this that we might be proven

And that we might learn

And grow.

But wait!, a voice cries,

He does intervene,

Prompting his children in whispers of spirit

To heal each others’ wounds,

But not always,

At least, we don’t always listen.

We can never know if God has whispered in someone’s heart,

To mend the tears in another’s soul,

Or if He chose to refrain,

And abstain.

We can only have faith

In his ne’er-ending love,

And know that he either advocated our temporal happiness,

Or that, in some mysterious way,

We needed sorrow more.

by Allen L. Warner

Everyone who believes in a loving, all-powerful God must confront the question of why he allows or perhaps causes such grief and sorrow.  This is a part of our answer as Mormons: that grief and sorrow can lead to blessings in the end.  Perhaps God himself does nothing to cause sorrow, but only takes advantage of it to teach us and help us see, to refine us and purify us.  Perhaps it is a test or a chance to grow and become more than we would otherwise be.  Perhaps we suffer because of our own choices, beliefs or desires (or attachments as Buddhists would describe them).  Some people would say there is no higher purpose for suffering.  Even if there isn’t, we may still agree with the famous words of Friedrich Nietzche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

It’s amazing how comforting words like that are…after the sorrow is past.  In the middle of it, none of those concepts seem to take away the pain.  Afterwards, we find comfort in perspective.

How My Religion is Like Being a Parent

A Sunday Post:

Being a parent is a pretty constant business.  You don’t get a vacation from being a dad or a mom.  It’s a lot of hard work, but you do it because it means something to you, because it’s important and because you thrive on the little rewards that occasionally come up: the unprompted and unexpected expression of appreciation, a warm feeling as you see your children succeed in something you helped teach them or the chance to share the joy they’ve found in their own lives with a little help from mom and dad.

My religion is kind of like that.  I know this isn’t just true of my religion and I know that it’s not only children and religion that inspire those feelings.  Dedicating yourself to anything meaningful to you probably has the same result.  My religion just happens to be one of the major ways I find those rewards.

If anyone reading this doesn’t know, I am Mormon and belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  We Mormons sometimes get kind of sensitive to criticism, but one criticism we embrace wholeheartedly is that our religion takes a lot of time, effort and discipline and a certain measure of sacrifice.  We are perversely proud of that fact, it seems.

I don’t want to go through the list of things we do or are expected to do.  Most people in the church fall short in at least one of them, anyway.  Let’s just say that being Mormon can require a lot.

At times in my life, the demands of my church have seemed a bit too much to me.  Life is supposed to be enjoyed, after all.  I have wondered if it was actually worth it to be Mormon.  I have thought about hanging it up and moving on.

Then, like being a parent, something happens that makes it all seem worthwhile.  It may be an overwhelming feeling of acceptance and worth, a knowledge that I am doing something good for others, an experience of hope or healing, a sense of peace, an ability to see good in the world or an idea that I am a better person because of my faith.  Like being a parent, the costs are easy to identify, but the rewards are hard to see, much less describe.

I expect the same is true of any religion or any endeavor that people willingly sacrifice for.  As people say, if it was easy everyone would do it.  They could add that if it didn’t bring rewards no one would do it.  Truthfully, I don’t always like the work and effort it takes to be involved in my church, but I do like the rewards, so I stick with it because it means a lot to me.