Posted on behalf of Kathleen Petty, who wrote it but was called away by a family emergency.
Kathleen Petty writes:
I am sure most of you are aware of the article last fall in Newsweek about the church. I was interested in how much space Newsweek allotted in the letters section to response. It was a lot, and the letters, positive and negative, seemed to give a fair picture of how the church is perceived by others. There were at least three letters that disputed the Church’s claim to be a Christian church. One letter said we aren’t Christian because we have allegiance to scriptures other than the Bible. A second said we can’t be Christian because we believe man can progress toward godhood. A third said we claimed to be Christian as part of a nefarious scheme to lure people into conversion.
That we aren’t Christian is a fairly recent accusation. Thirty years ago when I was in college I don’t remember that it ever came up. And while there were plenty of complaints about Joseph Smith when the church was founded, that he wasn’t a Christian wasn’t one of them. In a way, it’s a strange accusation. After all, who gets to decide who is and isn’t a Christian? Who controls the definition? It’s not as if the pedigree of Christianity is pure. It combines a little of whatever was going around during the four centuries after Christ. (Sterling M. McMurrin, “Comments on the Theological and Philosophical Foundations of Christianity,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 25, No. 1, [Spring 1992] p. 37.)
It’s as if somebody said that a person who fixes and eats only raw food can’t be considered a cook, because “cooking” implies the application of heat. If there were a will toward conciliation, everyone could come together around the idea of “food preparation.” And if there were a will toward conciliation, everyone could come together around the mission of Christ, or the idea of redemption, but among the people who don’t consider us Christian, there is no will toward conciliation. They don’t want us in the club. I wonder if we should want to be in the club or care if we aren’t.
To be fair, maybe we have proprietary ideas about who gets to be called a “Mormon,” not that there seem to be a lot of groups vying for the privilege. Do the polygamist groups call themselves “Mormon?” Does the Community of Christ want to be considered “Mormon” anymore? How would we feel if some wacky break-off group said it was “Mormon?” What do you have to believe to be considered a Mormon at the most basic level?
In 1991 there was a group of essays in Dialogue discussing whether or not Mormonism is a mainline religion. (“Mormonism Becomes a Mainline Religion: The Challenges,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24, No. 4, [Winter 1991] 59-96.) The first essay by Mario S. de Pillis said the Church was becoming mainstream based on four criteria: the socioeconomic class of its members, the Church’s international presence, the growth of its bureaucracy, and the church’s acceptance of its social environment, meaning the Church accepts the five basic institutional arrangements of American society– the state, the local community, local schools, the family, and the capitalistic marketplace. (It is interesting to note that at one time or another our Church hasn’t been congruent with one or another of those five basic institutional arrangements.) A second essay by Marie Cornwall took exception, saying despite those definitions, Mormons are still regarded as marginal by the general population–”more accepted than Moonies and the Hare Krishna followers, but less tolerated than Pentacostals, Baptists, and members of the Church of Christ.” (p.69.)
Since polygamy ended at the turn of the last century, the Church has been working hard on its image in order to be accepted by the broader community. I was interested to note in Gregory Prince’s biography of David O. McKay that the church’s building program was motivated partly by the desire to give the Church a more respectable and established look–no more Sunday services on the third floor of rented halls. I think everyone has noticed how much greater the public emphasis on the role of the Savior in our Church has become, to counteract its reputation for being a weird sect.
The more prominent and successful, the more “mainstream” we become, the more scrutiny we come under. For example, with a series on HBO about a polygamist (“Big Love”), the less likely it is going to be that we can skirt that part of our history. Probably wisely, the Church’s response has been the simple statement that we no longer practice polygamy and will excommunicate anyone who does. That stops short of repudiating polygamy; it ignores how difficult, controversial, and muddled stopping polygamy was. Most church members are not well educated about how many people practiced polygamy or why. I also think most of us assume polygamy will be part of life in the hereafter. The only person I know of who confronted the doctrine of polygamy head on was Eugene England in a 1987 essay called “On Fidelity, Polygamy, and Celestial Marriage.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, No. 4, [Winter 1987] p. 138.) He argued that polygamy is not an eternal doctrine, but was an Abrahamic test for the Saints of that generation.
We talk a lot of free agency, and making good choices, but it is always in the context of passing the life quiz to return to God. I don’t hear very often about how learning to be agents and choose for ourselves is part of becoming like God. Presumably we are supposed to be learning to become a Person with all the answers. Among ourselves, we might make casual reference to becoming like God (“In my world, there won’t be any mosquitoes,” or “I want to talk to the committee who designed backs”), but how many Sunday School lessons or talks have you sat through recently about that topic, not as a collection of attributes but as part of an “active retirement,” so to speak, on the other side.? Have you ever had a lesson that explored why becoming a god is so shocking to other Christians? How many lessons relate the importance of genealogy to how we conceive of the next life, except as connected to the idea of families being together? Together for what end? Have you had many lessons that compared our idea of what the afterlife is like to what others believe?
We emphasize the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s prophetic role. The Book of Mormon is controversial because of its origin, not because of its content. Joseph Smith’s really radical ideas about man and God, the nature of man and God, and man’s destiny, came at the end of his life. It’s these ideas that other Christians don’t like; it’s these ideas that we tend to soft pedal. But it’s these ideas I believe we ought to embrace the tightest. I fear that in the name of trying to present a less controversial image, we might trade our birthright for a mess of pottage.