A guest submission by B. Bowen, a good friend of BCC.
That Mormonism has been placed under the contemporary American microscope is old news. First the Olympics. Then “Under the Banner of Heaven” and Warren Jeffs. Harry Reid’s assumption of the role of minority and then majority leader in the Senate. The Napoleon Dynamite phenomenon. And, of course, the Romney campaign has provided bountiful fodder for bloggers, pundits, and mainstream media outlets for months now (speaking of which, Battlefield Earth? What have you been smoking, Mitt?).
Much of the chatter surrounding Romney has focused on questions regarding what Mormonism is really all about and what it would mean if a Mormon became President. How authoritarian is it? Where are Mormons’ loyalties really centered? Will the prophet control the White House if Romney is elected? (Aside: these are similar questions to those asked regarding the Reed Smoot Senate hearings — what does that say, if anything, about the Church’s progress in the public eye?)
As we all know, this week PBS aired a comprehensive Frontline documentary on Mormonism that sought, in part, to answer for the broader public the question behind the “Mitt questions”: what is this Mormonism, really? Indeed, in the program’s teaser ads that aired prior to Monday, the phrase “Mormons Believe ____________.” flashed momentarily on the screen, followed by a voice-over saying something to the effect of “it’s time to find out the truth about the Mormons.”
Of course, as the documentary makes clear, it is far easier to ask the question, to draw up the blank space that follows “Mormons believe” than to fill it in. The inherent difficulty of categorizing, labeling or even describing a faith system to which millions of individuals direct varying levels of allegiance renders even the very attempt to fill in that blank unreliable, subjective, and inexorably misleading.
But folks tend not to like complexity. And even those who do must use shorthand to communicate effectively. So when the Church is discussed, particularly in the media — and even more particularly in online media, where comments from readers are invited and facilitated — the question of what Mormons believe is answered with surprising (at least to me) felicity and regularity. “Mormons believe that the Indians are actually Jews.” “Mormons believe that everyone will be Mormon in the afterlife.” “Mormons believe that before 1978, God prohibited Blacks from holding the priesthood.” Et cetera. And when the blank is filled in, whether by a respected author, a random Joe Commentor, or by some church authority or celebrity, I find myself cringing and, almost as often, thinking to myself, “I don’t believe that.” Granted, I’m a confessed heretic of the highest order, but even in my most orthodox moments I bristle at the suggestion that as a Mormon I, by definition, believe such-and-such a thing.
The Church, of course, has numerous reasons to define what it thinks Mormons believe, and it often does so. General Conference is a cornucopia of “this is what we (read:you) believe.” The last time I attended church the Elders’ Quorum president was extolling the virtues of some handbook I’d never heard of that explains how LDS families should function. You can’t go more than one or two sacrament services without hearing about the Proclamation on the Family. And thanks to Lavina Fielding Anderson and Dialogue, I recently learned that the Church, ever true to form, has even published a new Encyclopedia-of-Mormonism-esque handbook of LDS beliefs, conveniently arranged alphabetically from “Aaronic Priesthood” to “Zion.” (Her summary of the handbook, with commentary, appears in the Winter 2006 issue.)
The media’s use of shorthand and the Church’s correlation efforts notwithstanding, the question still remains, for me, somewhat unanswered. Among the wide variety of doctrines associated with the faith, which among them do Mormons actually believe, and which do they just let sit out there in the ether, without ever fully incorporating them into their personal belief systems? Perhaps better stated, what teachings don’t Mormons believe, despite the fact that the Church (or conventional wisdom) says that they should? Put yet another way, when someone says “Mormons believe _____________,” what blank-filler makes you cringe?