It seems to me that we expect too much of non-members. I once attended a meeting in which a non-member scholar was criticized for reading the footnotes in the scriptures as if they were canonized. It is an easy mistake to make; one which I would imagine an awful lot of church members make. How was a minimally informed interested observer to know that the footnotes, while nice, are not considered authoritative? Nonetheless, this commentator was dressed down for his ignorance.
Obviously, in writing about this, I am writing about Andrew Sullivan, whose motivations, in spite of the accusations bandied about, remain unclear. Furthermore, I am writing it about that pastor from a couple of weeks ago who stumbled upon an anti-site and used it, and her own collected cult knowledge, to offer a depiction of the church that relied too heavily on long unmentioned and unused doctrines of the 19th century. Let’s assume, just for the moment, that these people are making honest mistakes and set aside the vast secret-combination theories.
Is it any wonder? Our beliefs are hard to catalog to begin with; for instance, the canonicity of the Journal of Discourses or the King Follett Discourse have not yet truly been worked out. For outsiders, these are the beliefs of our earliest leaders and, therefore, they must be important to us. How do we go about explaining that, for the most part, the Journal of Discourses is entirely unread in the church (and that most Mormons believe it is with good reason)? How do we explain that the statements made just 30 years ago about birth control, miscegenation, and the appropriate manner of dealing with homosexual desire no longer apply? In a church with an open canon (one that both grows and shrinks), how is the interested outsider supposed to keep up?
Some have done it; Jan Shipps and Douglas Davies are both examples of outsiders who have made a life’s work of the study of Mormonism and they seem to understand the nuances. However, we cannot expect every non-member who writes about or investigates us to put in the kind of time these scholars have (especially when most church members haven’t).
For most people, our baseline beliefs (continuing revelation to a modern prophet, scripture restored by angelic intervention, etc) are so bizarre that there is no reliable standard for judging what sounds right and what sounds ridiculous. I don’t know how many of you remember stories about Mormons having horns; members joked about people believing those stories in my ward growing up. If I started up a rumor that Mormons worship a living potato in the Idaho Falls temple tomorrow, I would guess that within a few years it would be accepted as fact (albeit a weird fact) by a good majority of the populace. There is no baseline of plausibility for non-members to use; therefore every rumor and every fact has an equally likely chance of turning out to be true.
I remember the first time I heard about the garment, I adamantly denied that there was such a thing. I laughed it off. Garments sounded too weird to me and I have been a member all of my life. I don’t really know when I accepted their reality, possibly when my older brother went on a mission. However, initially it was just another weird rumor, like babies being sacrificed within the temple.
How should we address this? I am really not sure we can. The best that we can do is to note that the basic doctrine that everyone must believe in order to be a Mormon is that Jesus is the Lord (and that the restoration of the Priesthood is important) and that beyond that we have very little evidence and very little need for theological conformity, even within our own tradition. Of course, this makes any statement suspect, no matter what the source, which is an idea that I am not personally comfortable with. To echo Richard Bushman’s call of a couple of weeks ago, do we have a better way to explain to Andrew Sullivan and the other potential outsiders out there what it is that we believe?