This guest post is from my friend, Jim Burklo, who is Associate Dean of Religious Life at USC. We were on a panel together last year at a conference sponsored by the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy (presentations are on youtube, here and here). This is a slightly abbreviated version of his report of his visit to SLC. I would really like it if we made it through at least a few general comments about the perspective offered by a friendly visitor before we get sidetracked by the single paragraph on Prop. 8. Thanks.
For an exotic cultural and religious experience without leaving the borders of the United States, pay a visit to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints!
With my boss at USC, Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life, Jerry Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, Tammi Schneider, dean of religion, and Deborah Freund, president, Claremont Graduate University, I went to Salt Lake City this past Thursday and Friday to meet with top leaders, known as “General Authorities”, of the Mormon church. We were guests of the church, invited by the interfaith representatives of the LDS in southern California. I’d describe this older couple as retired people but that category is essentially meaningless in the Mormon world. These two gracious people work virtually full time for the church. They set the tone for the impeccable hospitality that was afforded to us throughout our trip.
From the airport in the morning we were whisked south about 50 miles to Brigham Young University in Provo. It sits right at the base of huge, rugged, snow-dusted mountains. Yellow autumn leaves fluttered as we walked among the clean-cut, conservatively-dressed students. We met with a group of scholars from BYU for the morning. Their eagerness to dialogue with us was palpable. One professor and I chatted briefly before the formal discussion. He and I blog at Patheos.com, an interfaith website. He wrote an intriguing piece recently about family as an alternative principle of social organization in contrast both to statism and to capitalism. He’s one of the “out” Democrats on the BYU faculty. His presence was a reminder of the diversity of thinking among Mormons, which is a surprise to many outsiders. Another professor reported something that intrigued me greatly. He said that when LDS young people drop out of the church, they give up religion altogether, and they don’t join the ranks of the “SBNR” – spiritual but not religious. Perhaps Mormonism is such an all-consuming experience that its people see it in all-or-nothing terms. A professor of history described his work in evangelical – Mormon dialogue, part of the LDS effort to be understood as a truly Christian church. A professor of Islamic studies answered my question about how other faiths are presented at BYU and by the LDS church. I pointed out that evangelical Christians have textbooks that outline the world’s faiths, with explanations about how all faiths but their own version of Christianity are wrong. “We don’t do that, and if any leader does that publicly in the LDS church, the higher-ups will put a stop to it,” he said. LDS current and historical experience of being very misunderstood by the rest of the society has made them sensitive to misrepresentation not only of their own faith, but those of others. He and other Mormon officials suggested that Islam, in particular, bears many similarities to LDS faith. Later that day, the president of BYU told us that many of the few non-Mormons at BYU are Muslims, because their parents like the fact that there are strict rules against drinking and premarital sex.) I asked a professor of law if the LDS has anything like canon law, as is found in the Catholic Church and many others. He said it does not, because the church is based on continuing revelation. I then asked all the scholars if this is a reflection of the lack of systematic theology in Mormonism, and they generally agreed it was the case. BYU teaches religion to undergraduates, and teaches religious education, but it is not a seminary and has no graduate program in religion. We learned that, by default, the public universities in Utah have some of the functions of seminaries for Mormons, as centers for the critical academic study of the LDS faith. Just before lunch, one professor smiled and said, “We’re weird, we Mormons. But that makes us interesting, don’t you think?”
From BYU we went to the training center nearby where tens of thousands of Mormon missionaries are trained for service each year. Young men go two by two for two years, and young women go two by two for shorter periods, all over the world to spread the Mormon faith. The young men wear their distinctive white shirts and narrow neckties and engraved plastic nametags. The young women wear long skirts and dowdy shoes. At the center they maintain a grueling schedule of language study and other training. I asked the center manager and a former Elder of the Quorum of the Seventy, the leadership body just under the Presidency and the 12 Apostles, whether the main value of the missions was in conversion of others or was in the spiritual formation of the “elders” and “sisters” who go on the missions. In so many words, they made it clear that it was the latter. Many missionaries make few conversions in the course of their missions. But they come back with organizational and language skills, global cultural awareness, self-discipline, and a much deeper commitment to their religion.
Back in Salt Lake City, we had dinner on the top floor of the LDS-owned Hotel Utah, with views of the city, Temple Square, and the glorious mountains. We dined with two Elders of the Quorum of the Seventy and their wives. I asked how they reconcile the fact that Mitt Romney disavows his LDS faith as a factor in his run for the US presidency, while Elder Dallin Oaks, another member of the Seventy, gave a major speech recently complaining about the erosion of religious freedom in America. They cited the attacks on Mormon facilities and nasty verbal attacks on Mormons after Prop 8 was passed in California. “On behalf of the interfaith community, I apologize that all of us did not rally against those attacks as vigorously as we should have,” I said. When they said that gay marriage was an erosion of the influence of religion, I said that I perform gay marriage ceremonies and advocate for its legalization with my denomination, the United Church of Christ. “Which of our denominations will prevail in influencing the government’s policy? In either case, it seems to me, and to my progressive Christian colleagues, that religious influence and freedom in American society are very alive and well!” This made them sputter a bit. I said that same-sex marriage will be legalized inevitably, no matter what he or I think about it. So we must find other ways for each of our faiths to find acceptance and understanding for our particularities on this issue. They said it’s not inevitable for gay marriage to prevail. But then they admitted that was true only for the short term, because young people overwhelmingly support it, so one day it probably will be legalized. This admission greatly surprised me. In the end, all of us at the table agreed that we can work together to promote religious literacy so that all of our faiths can be understood: ignorance breeds intolerance. The LDS church suffers, as do all our religious traditions, from the lack of religious literacy in the wider culture.
That evening, we listened to choir practice in the Mormon Tabernacle, an old oval building with a metal roof which has unusually good acoustics inside. The “amen” of one of their songs was particularly heavenly, as it floated and faded in the beautiful old hall.
On Friday we visited Welfare Square, the Salt Lake hub of LDS humanitarian and relief efforts locally and globally. It is a huge complex including spotless warehouses, a cannery, a dairy processing plant (the cheese was excellent), an employment service, a store where Mormons needing assistance can be sent by their local bishops to get food and clothing, a giant thrift store open to the public, and a tall gleaming-white grain elevator filled with wheat for emergency use. This complex supports the internal welfare system of the Mormon church as well as its massive, highly-organized worldwide disaster relief and assistance programs serving primarily non-Mormons. At Welfare Square we repeatedly were told proudly by staff people about how quickly the church can mobilize big squads of its members to engage in humanitarian work both for people inside and outside the Mormon fold. The worldwide service mission program of the church impressed all of us in the tour group very much. It gave me a case of “holy jealousy”, wondering how my own United Church of Christ could match it!
Later in the day we visited the church’s vast convention center, with over 20,000 seats, where it holds its international meetings. In the lobby of the convention center, Varun and I were excited to find a framed “thanka” image made by a Nepalese artist, depicting scenes from the Book of Mormon in Tibetan Buddist style and with Tibetan Buddhist sacred imagery throughout. An example of wonderfully creative religious syncretism, it was very unlike any other art we’d seen in LDS facilities.
We had lunch in the Hotel Utah with the official church historian, who is an Elder of the Seventy, his assistant, and professors from the University of Utah and Utah State. We learned about the enormous scale of the church’s records, which in recent years have become much more available to the public and to the scholarly community. The scholars in our tour group asked lots of questions about the methods the church uses to maintain its physical and digital archives, which are among the largest of any institution. The historians indicated that the church’s expertise in this area is often tapped by other organizations. I asked about the role of history in the church. “What do you learn about the future of the church from studying its past?” The answer: “We rely on our prophets for that!” But with further questioning the church historians agreed that effectively, there is a sort of “case law” that has built up over the years, and that the top leaders of the church consult the historian’s office about how present issues can be compared to past decisions. Afterward, I got into an engaging chat with them about the Mormon concept of revelation. Many Christians strongly believe in guidance from the Holy Spirit, and other religions emphasize similar experiences. But it seems to me that the LDS church has a pretty specific culture about revelation, both for its leaders and its members.
We then toured the Temple Square visitors’ center. Things have changed greatly since I went through it last as a child, on a family cross-country trip. Then, the emphasis of the visitors’ center display was on Joseph Smith receiving the Book of Mormon. Now the focus is on the Mormons’ virtual worship of a very particular ideal of family life. The tour starts with sitting in front of a big statue of Jesus, listening to his words quoted from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. From there you go to a series of rooms that are furnished like rooms in a suburban home. At each stop you see a clip from a film of touching scenes from the life of this archetypal white Mormon family of Dad, Mom, and three young kids, accompanied by tear-jerking music. The last room’s clip ends with the statement that only through marriage in a temple can families be sealed together for eternity. From there you go into a room with a scale model of the Salt Lake temple. (The real thing can be entered only by Mormons in good standing with their bishops.) Then you can go on to see more in the visitor’s center about the history and doctrines of the LDS church.
Clearly the Mormons have recast their marketing to de-emphasize their more unusual and controversial aspects, and aim their appeal toward people who worship a very particular form of family life. The household dioramas and film clips say at least as much in their omissions as they do in what they include. Apparently the Mormons have figured out that their beliefs are not the deal-closers. The people and the lifestyle are the attractions. Their beliefs and doctrines are the price, not the prize, of admission.
Even the typeface for the name of the church on its buildings and literature reflects a big change in the way the LDS presents itself to the outside world. It now puts JESUS CHRIST in bold capital letters, to emphasize its identity as a truly Christian church.
We visited the church’s family history center, and all of us had a great time looking up our genealogical records on its computer terminals. I learned that my last name may be older than I thought. We were told that “Burklo” was the spelling of our ancestor’s name, Buchloh, that came from an error by a clerk in the Union Army after the Civil War. But it appears there was at least one Burklo born in 1803. The church’s genealogy program is used by people all over the world, Mormon and “gentile” alike. For Mormons, it is important because members can baptize their ancestors into the faith by proxy at LDS temples. The more names they know, the more connection to their family they can have in the afterlife. At the Church History Museum, we got a tour by its director. I was riveted by the displays of personal journals of the Mormon pioneers, with pencil drawings of Western landscapes. The church strongly emphasizes the privations suffered by its people in its westward migration to the Promised Land of Utah, led by Brigham Young, their Moses. We were told later that even Mormons in Argentina conduct re-enactments of migrants pulling hand-carts across the prairie.
We had our closing dinner with another member, or Elder, of the Seventy, and his wife at the Lion House, where Brigham Young (from whom this Elder was descended) lived with his many wives. The couple didn’t flinch in talking about Young’s polygamy. The Elder has worked for the church all over the world, particularly in Latin America. I asked him about retention of converts in the church outside the US, which I have read is problematic: lots of people get baptized into the church, but many drop out. He explained that retention is an issue in places where there are not enough local wards to accommodate new members, and in places where the church has not had time to develop strong leadership. I asked if this culture of the church did not identify people excessively with America. They said that people make it their own, and don’t think of it as particularly American. Toward the end of the dinner, the Elder told us he’d talked to the Elders who had met with us the night before, and that the topic of gay marriage had come up. He then announced with a bit of bravado that he had led the LDS effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. I think that left us speechless. But after dinner, as we were about to go to the airport, I asked his wife what was the most important misunderstanding that non- Mormons have about the church. “That we aren’t Christian,” she said. “Well, you and I have that in common,” I said. “Because I perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, and because I take the Bible seriously because I don’t take it literally, I’ve been told by evangelicals that I’m not Christian, either. So I have some idea of how you feel!” I wish that I had quoted to them this passage from the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, which functions as one of the church’s sacred scriptures. I discovered it while reading a book about LDS doctrine on the airplane home: “Whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man.” (D and C 49:15)
My most important learning from this fascinating short visit, besides being very impressed with the warmth, friendliness, and wonderful hospitality we were shown, was that Mormon leaders are hungry for their church to be understood and accepted as a mainstream faith. This makes them strong allies for all faiths in promoting religious literacy, religious liberty, and interfaith cooperation. They are very sensitive about any perceived threat to their faith from the government or the wider culture. I believe that many of their concerns are unfounded, but given the church’s history of being persecuted, it’s best for interfaith activists to go out of our way to be sensitive to their worries and find creative ways to reassure them. We have big differences, but we also have important common causes in which they can be remarkably effective partners.