The Mormon Moment

Thoughts from a Mormon living in the Moment

Posthumous Baptisms are a Sign of Respect in the Mormon Faith

First, let me just apologize now for the tone I am about to take in this post. It will not be dignified, and will probably be quite polemic. The recent media frenzy over baptism for the dead – something I personally hold as sacred – has really gotten under my skin. So, here I go venting some of my frustration.

The hoopla has now expanded from being over Jewish holocaust victims to other prominent figures of the past. A recent NPR article talks about the outrage over the proxy baptism of Jan Karski, a Catholic who witnessed the holocaust and provided information to allied forces. E. Thomas Wood, who wrote a biography on Karski, has expressed his disdain on the matter expressly (even if he is generally ignorant on the practice): “I know what his faith meant to him, and I know he would be outraged at this effort to appropriate his mortal soul for another religion,” adding “Attempting to convert him to another religion after death strikes me as precisely the type of intolerant act he stood up to oppose throughout his life.”

Really? It pains me that during this “Mormon moment,” people are more interested in peddling this smut rather than taking this opportunity to try and better understand this largely marginalized minority. But enough of my personal lamentations. Let’s dissect Wood’s comments:

Karski would be Outraged?

For clarification, it should be pointed out that baptism for the dead has absolutely nothing to do with anyones mortal soul. The person is dead; that is, they are beyond the realm of “mortality” in the view of Mormons (and, I imagine, most other religious persons). So no one is trying to “appropriate his mortal soul for another religion.” Wood’s ignorance is already piercing through his indignation.

With that point made, it now seems worth asking: assuming there is life after death, you really think Karski would care? Let’s play out a few scenario’s:

1. If the Catholic Church is true: Presuming that the Catholic faith is correct, and are therefore right about what happens in the afterlife, then Karski is currently enjoying himself in heaven, has a glorious union with God and is experiencing unspeakable joy. I highly doubt he has any concern whatsoever that some misguided mortals did some non-efficacious ordinances on his behalf. If anything, he (being unified with God) probably was touched by the love and concern these people demonstrated for his eternal soul (more on that below). Or, perhaps if God is the “unmoved mover” who is without “body, parts, or passions,” as some Catholic theologians have taught, then I don’t imagine that Karski (again, being unified with God) would be feeling anything at all. Regardless, it is doubtful that the act means much of anything at all to him, and certainly not “outrage.” I just don’t imagine that kind of reaction from a person in a heavenly state.
2. If some Evangelical form of Christianity is true: More specifically, if the variant form of Evangelical Christianity that condemns Catholics is true (since others would not result in a substantially different result than number one). If this is the case, Karski is currently suffering endless torment in hell, because despite his noble acts, he chose the “wrong Jesus” (as some say of both Catholics and Mormons alike). I seriously doubt that what some stupid Mormons did in their temple on his behalf is of any concern to him as he burns in hell. If anything, he is perhaps regretting the fact the ordinances were not efficacious and failed to save him from his tormented state.
3. If the Mormon Church is true: In this case, then Karski is probably enjoying his time in spirit paradise, grateful that someone on earth had enough concern for his fate to perform these ordinances. Or, perhaps he rejected the act. Okay, fine. He has that agency, and if that is the case, then the act has no impact or meaning, and he may thus be suffering in a state of spirit prison. However, I prefer to think that some so noble on earth would have the ability to appropriately discern in the next life and make the choice to accept the act (remember, we are speaking hypothetically as if the Mormon faith is true).

We could multiply the number of scenario’s based on any other belief about the afterlife (or lack thereof), but I think this is sufficient. I can’t think of a single situation wherein Karski would be “outraged” that this happened. In fact, the only scenario in which I imagine he even gives a crap at all is if the LDS position is true, in which case he is more than likely grateful rather than “outraged.” Just because it outrages you doesn’t mean it outrages the deceased (for whom you presume authority to speak on behalf of; I guess now we are both acting vicariously for the dead. Ironic, isn’t it?). And this is what strikes me as bizarre about the whole baptism-for-the-dead tantrum being thrown by the general populace right now: if you don’t believe the Mormon faith has any power over the afterlife, why the heck to you care who they have baptized for the dead? Seriously folks, there are people who are committing some seriously heinous crimes out there, and you all want to get your panties in a bunch over who the Mormons have baptized by proxy? Come on!

Intolerant Act?

I find it entirely hypocritical that ignorant religious bigots have the audacity to crusade under the banner of “tolerance.” Where is the tolerance for the Mormon belief and practice regarding the deceased in all of this? Furthermore, I haven’t got that slightest idea how proxy baptism could – if accurately understood – be thought to be “intolerant.” Allow me to explain the beliefs and practices involved.

You see, we Mormons believe that God prescribes certain ordinances which must be performed by certain authority. When this happens, we believe the “gate” for salvation has been opened. You can think what you want of this belief, but that is what we believe. Now, we fully realize that the vast majority of people who have lived and died will have never had access to these ordinances and authority. This is where baptism for the dead comes in. We believe that because God wants everyone to have a chance at receiving these ordinances, he reserves final judgment, and instead sends everyone to a spirit world, where they are given the opportunity to learn about the gospel and choose to accept it. But, they still need the ordinances by proper authority, which we believe must be preformed while living in the physical world. Therefore, we believe it is necessary for us to be baptized on their behalf.

Now is that really so malicious? More to the point, is that really “intolerant”? Forgive me if I am just naïve, but the notion, held by some of other religious faiths, that all who disagree with them are consigned to eternal hell strikes as far more “intolerant” (though I’m not sure that is really an appropriate word to use about what people think of the afterlife). To the contrary, I find this concept quite tolerant. I find in it a God who is patient and tolerant with his children’s shortcomings, realizing that they all will come to understand him at a different pace, and that some of them may need more time than this mortal life will afford. I see in it a God who is understanding of people’s individual circumstances. I also see in it a people (those “sinister” Mormons) who are genuinely concerned over the salvation of those who have gone before.

In short, I tend to agree with Krister Stendahl, the former Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, former dean of Harvard Divinity School, and a well-respected New Testament scholar. Stendahl became well-informed about baptism for the dead – not the just LDS version, but also the role it plaed in early Christianity. Commenting specifically on the LDS version, Stendahl said “it’s a beautiful thing.”

It is a beautiful thing. It is an act of love and compassion on the part of those performing the ordinance in behalf of the honored and revered departed. In my not-so-humble opinion, people who find out that their ancestors or historical figures they respect have been posthumously baptized by the Mormons ought to pleased to know that someone cared enough about that person to do what they believed was in their best interest.

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[As an afterthought, I wonder if anybody has done the proxy work for Stendahl? Would it “outrage” some people if this prominent Lutheran theologian had been baptized vicariously? I think it is quite ironic that some people would probably be incensed over something Stendahl himself almost certainly would have seen as a gesture of love.]

The Conspiracy is Simple: A Great Satire Related to My Last Post

In my last post, I talked about how Mormon’s are not taken seriously and how everyone is busy talking about us as if we were not here. Shortly after writing that, I discovered this great satire by John Mark Reynolds, an evangelical pundit who has, for a long time, been friendly to Mormons. His post conveys exactly what I was trying to express.

Reynolds lays it on thick from the very beginning, stating, “The conspiracy is simple: Mormons want to be treated like human beings and demand their ideas get respectful attention.” From there, he goes on to “expose” this conspiracy by enumerating various reasons we should “fear” Mormons. Here are a few examples:

First, fear Mormons, because non-Mormons are not allowed to attend all Mormon meetings. Other groups do this but they are not Mormons.

Second, fear Mormons, because Mormons often talk to other Mormons using Mormon “code.” This includes developing specialized terms for Mormon ideas. Every other group does this, but none of these other groups are Mormons.

Third, fear Mormons, because Mormons can be found in every area of life and often seem just like REGULAR people, but this is a ruse because most people are NOT Mormons.

Fourth, fear Mormons, because many do not like being mocked. Many non-Mormons don’t like it either, but those people are not Mormons. Mormons should feel lucky to be mocked, because at least non-Mormons are paying attention to Mormons. In fact, Mormons should thank non-Mormons for the mockery, since it shows the media know Mormons exist.

Fifth, fear Mormons, because more than a few feel that as citizens they should be able to run for office and win as open Mormons! Other groups also feel this way, but they are not Mormons.

Reynolds then relates his own life history with Mormons as a “cautionary tale” of what happens when people are not made aware of this dark conspiracy. He talks about growing up with a crush on Marie Osmond, having friends in elementary school who are Mormons, enjoying the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and admiring the athleticism of Steve Young.  He even mentions enjoying Jell-o salads, despite knowing they are a favorite of Mormons.

Reynolds notes that “My parents did nothing to stop this Mormon-like behavior, thinking with the hopefulness of many parents in denial that all this was just a phase that would pass.” But before long, it was too late. The conspiracy was so vast that even some of his academic friends and colleagues were (gasp) Mormons!!

I cannot possibly do this great piece of satire justice, so I suggest you check it out for yourselves! A true masterpiece!

Umm… Hello…I’m right HERE you know!!! And I heard THAT!

I’m quite sure it has happened to all of us at some point. Perhaps it was when you were a teenage, and as you are standing right there, your dad turned to your mom and they just started talking about how difficult you are, saying things like, “I just don’t know what are going to do with him,” as if you weren’t in the room. And there you are, the headstrong, and of course “mature” teenager, who is ready to make your own decisions. You deserve to be a part of that conversation, but instead you stand off to the side, jaw dropped in utter amazement as you scream, “Hey, I heard THAT!!… HELLO…I’m right HERE…I CAN here you, ya know!” You are not being taken seriously, and of course you don’t like it.

Right now, that same scenario it being played out on a national scale. Rev. Jeffress made comments that launched national conversation about Mormons which rages on today, but most people in America talk about Mormons as if we aren’t here; as if we weren’t listening.

Pete Kotz, of the River Front Times, offers a sarcastic “guide” to whether or not Mormons should be hated. The Salt Lake City weekly reflects on how mocking Mormons is an “American past time” even as they publish their own satire of the supposed “convenience” of Mormon revelations.

Even folks who fancy themselves as “sticking up for the Mormons” are not taking Mormon’s seriously. David Poltz insists that Mormon’s beliefs are “hooey” but that it’s okay because so are the claims of every other religion. Eric Zorn, of the Chicago Tribune, likes this “hooey” defense of Mormons, stating that “This strikes me as just the right question to ask,” to which one commentor replies, “At least the older religions have the excuse of being older, i.e., having untraceable beliefs that were shaped centuries (or millennia) before the rise of rationalism and science. Mormonism was formed in the 19th century, by a man who was arguably either deluded or a con artist.” (Notice that Joseph Smith really being a prophet is not an option).

Ummm…Hello…WE CAN HEAR YOU!!! Seriously, we are RIGHT HERE!!

All of this means that Mormons are not being taken seriously. Ya know, I get it, really. I mean, how do you take a group of people seriously when they insist that God and Jesus came talked to a 14 year old American farmboy? This seems pretty farfetched, and some wonder how a rational person could possibly really believe that. It is on those grounds that some have questioned how fit a Mormon would be for the White House. But many practicing Mormons posses graduate degrees and are respected scholars and scientists in their field, and unlike nearly every other religion, Mormons show increased participation in their faith as they get more education. All of this suggests that it is quite possible to be both a rational person and a believing Mormon, but this challenges peoples stereotypes. I would suggest, given that rational people do believe in the Mormon faith, that those who cannot fathom a rational person believing in the claims of Mormonism are revealing more about themselves and their own narrow view than anything else.

The best evidence, however, that Mormons are not being taken seriously is the behavior of right-wing religious and political commentators, who insist that Mormons are not genuine Christians, and that no “real” Christian should vote for a Mormon.  In the midst of all this, are any of these pundits afraid that their preferred candidate won’t be able to carry the “Mormon vote”? Of course not. Now, granted Mormons are only two percent of the US population, but they vote in bunches if not quite blocks, and carry a strong influence in western states such as Utah (6 electoral votes), Idaho (4 electoral votes), and Arizona (11 electoral votes).  No, it is not a big of a block as the all-important South, nor do Mormon’s have quite the influence in Arizona as they have Utah and Idaho, but it maybe strong enough. Combined, the “Mormon vote” could potentially carry a total of 20 electoral votes – certainly enough to impact the outcome of the election. Nobody is worried about this, not because of the supposed small influence of Mormons, but rather because they fully expect any republican presidential candidate to carry the Mormon vote, no matter what. In essence, they are saying, “No Christian should vote for a Mormon, but we expect all you Mormons to vote for the candidate that we choose.”

It is not just in elections, though. While the nation discusses Mormons in the public sphere as if they weren’t listening, Mormons are expected to continue to go to work, support their families, be involved in their schools and communities, and in some cases be leaders in business, and otherwise doing things that contribute to the greater good.

But when a Mormon decides they would like the chance to serve this country at the highest level, well, then I guess that’s out of line. Everyone reacts like their son just came home with a bad report card and still asked if he could take the car for the weekend. Dad rolls his eyes as he turns to mom, who shrugs her shoulders, and thus they begin to discuss the kid right there. Meanwhile he grows irritated as he realizes he is not being taken seriously. “Helloooo…,” he says, “You know I can hear you?”

Bottom line is this: we Mormons are real, we are right here, and we can hear you. We have a lot to say about ourselves, and feel like we deserve to be part of this conversation. Many of us are speaking up right now, and I invite you to listen to what we’ve got to say. You don’t have to agree with our beliefs, but please take them seriously (that’s not to say a little teasing is out of line). Joseph Smith made some serious claims, which have some serious implications, and they merit some serious attention. And puh-leeez, stop sitting there talking about us like we aren’t in the room. After all, I’m right HERE, and yes, I heard THAT!

Problems with the Ever Persistent Christian Question

As Mormons continue to be featured in the media, one question that continues to recur is “Are Mormons Christians?” For most Mormons, this seems like a strange question, and in my opinion accusations that we are not Christian are completely unfounded.

To illustrate some of the problems with the arguments made by those who continue to insist that Mormons are a non-Christian cult (ah la Rev. Jeffress), I’m going to go through that argument Richard Abanes makes in the book One Nation Under Gods – A History of the Mormon Church (New York City, NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003) in his chapter titled “Is Mormonism Christian?” So, to be clear, I have not read most of the book.

Here, I do not necessarily intend to refute the arguments that Abanes makes (though that may happen to some degree as a by-product of my comments), but only to point out problems I noticed with his arguments and research.

Misrepresentation of Scholars Opinion

After a brief introduction to the chapter, Abanes kicks things off by calling expert witness Jan Shipps to stand and testify against the Mormons. “According to Mormonism expert Jan Shipps – emeritus history professor at Indiana-Purdue University – Latter-day Saints may at best be able to trace their roots to Christianity, but after that must be considered members of a new religion.” (pg. 376) Abanes source it the online transcript of PBS’s “Faith in Transition: Road to Salvation” reported by Richard Ostling. Abanes essentially just rephrases Ostling, who says, “Historian Jan Shipps says the church has Christian roots but is a new religion.” Problem is, both Ostling and Abanes are putting words in Shipps’ mouth.

Her own comment on the transcript stops short of actually saying that Mormonism is a different religion from Christianity. “In the early years the Christians thought they had found the best way to be Jewish, and 300 years later, they realized they were not Jews. The Mormons started out thinking they had found the very best way to be Christians; that they are the restoration; they are the restored church; they are the restored priesthood.”

Whether she continued from there to say that Mormonism is a new religion or not (and it just got edited out), we don’t know, but I would assume that if she actually said what Ostling said she said, it would have been included. It could be argued that it is implicit in the comparison to Christians starting out thinking they were Jews only to later realize they were not, and I don’t dispute that Shipps does regard Mormons as new religious tradition – but does that mean that she does not regard them as Christians? Shipps answers the same question Abanes is asking in her own article,“Is Mormonism Christian? Reflections on a Complicated Question.” In that article, Shipps answers quit differently than Abanes, “My point is that both [LDS and RLDS] are forms of Christianity, yet both differed from the Christianities that existed in 1830 – and they still do.” (BYU Studies 33:3, pg. 443)

So, apparently, Abanes’ “Mormonism expert” does not agree with his own conclusions, and Abanes has misrepresented her position. Shipps’ BYU Studies article was published ten years before Abanes’ book, and is accessible online. Abanes either knew about it and choose to ignore it, or he didn’t know about, which reflects poor research on his part. Neither of which is a very flattering circumstance for Abanes.

Contradicting Himself

The next problem comes when Abanes says, “What they [LDS] do not wish to publicly recognize, however, is that the ‘Christ’ in which they believe is not the ‘Christ’ of Christianity.” (pg. 386) going on to say, “Contemporary Mormons, however, refuse to acknowledge what past LDS prophets and presidents proudly admitted: i.e., the LDS concept of Jesus is vastly different than the concept of Jesus accepted by Christians.” (pg. 386)

While Abanes fails to provide an example of this from a past LDS Prophet/President, he does offer this earlier in the chapter, “Most recently (June 4, 1998), while speaking to 2,400 Latter-day Saints in Paris, LDS president Hinckley confessed that Mormons do not believe in the same ‘Jesus’ in which Christians believe.” (pg. 379) He then quotes from the LDS Church News report of the event. In his “Postscript,” Abanes reports another statement from Hinckley to the same effect, “Ironically, it was none other than LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley who admitted in April 2002 that Mormons do not believe in the same ‘Jesus’ revered throughout Christendom.” (pg. 447) The manipulation of context regarding Hinckley’s comments aside, like Abanes, I find this “ironic,” though probably not for the same reason. The irony I find in this is that it directly contradicts Abanes own argument that Mormons “do not wish to publicly recognize” that they believe in a “different” Jesus. Hinckley was the President of the LDS Church when Abanes’ book was published, and both the comments he quotes from Hinckley are publicly accessible. Evidence of that fact is that Abanes himself had access to them. The LDS Church News is a public publication, and is available online. LDS General Conference is made open to the public, and publicly broadcast on TV, radio, and internet streaming. The talks are printed in LDS publication the Ensign, which is also publicly accessible, and they are also made publicly available on the LDS Church website. The Church couldn’t do much more to “publicly recognize” something than to declare it in General Conference. Oh, the irony!

Failure to Refute Opposing Arguments

Another glaring problem with Abanes treatment of this issue is his failure to interact with apologetic and scholarly refutations of the very arguments he is making. For example, Abanes utilizes much of the criteria developed by Walter Martin to “prove” that the LDS Church is a cult (pg. 399 – see footnotes 66 and 68). However, way back in 1991, Stephen E. Robinson, in his book Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1991), effectively demonstrated that such criteria can just as effectively be turned around on the New Testament Christians[2]. Evangelical theologian Craig L. Blomberg agreed with Robinson, saying “Prof. Robinson has demonstrated that Walter Martin’s definition of a ‘cult’ applies equally as well to the original Jesus movement as the origins of the LDS… Unless the term ‘cult’ is to be so broad as to be meaningless…then it should be reserved for the kind of small, bizarre, fringe groups sociologists more technically label cultic…As applied to contemporary Latter-day Saints, the term is technically incorrect.”[3]

This is just one example of how Abanes neglects the faithful LDS responses to this issue. There are a great deal of arguments in Robinson’s afore mentioned book, as well as in Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word (Salt Lake City, UT: Aspen Books, 1992), which deal directly with many of the claims that Abanes is making. These are probably the two most comprehensive responses from Latter-day Saints to the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, yet they go completely untouched and unmentioned by Abanes. While Abanes may feel that everything published by faithful Mormons is skewed and biased (pg. 467), that does not excuse him from needing to respond to the arguments they make. To simply insist that arguments are not valid because they are made by people with “bias” says nothing of the argument itself and is a form of the ad hominem logical fallacy.

In the one instance in which Abanes does mention the response of Latter-day Saints, he hardly responds to their arguments, and in fact just brushes them off. Abanes writes:

Noteworthy is the fact that when Mormons seek to justify their claim of Christianity they never mention doctrinal beliefs, but only external appearances and labels. In 1998, for example, apostles Boyd K. Packer and Robert Millet stressed that Mormons are Christians because: Latter-day Saint hymns contain the name of Jesus; prayers and sacraments invoke the name of Jesus, the name of Jesus appears in the Book of Mormon, and the church has “Jesus Christ” in its official name. Exactly what Mormons believe about Jesus, however, was never mentioned. Why? Because that would have clearly placed Mormonism in a non-Christian light along with every other religious belief system that acknowledges “Jesus Christ” in a decidedly different way than Christians (e.g. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, etc.). (pg. 391)

There are several problems here aside from the fact that Abanes erroneously identifies Robert L. Millet as an “apostle” for the LDS Church. One is that the previously mentioned works by Robinson, Peterson and Ricks deal with the very doctrinal beliefs Abanes says are “never mentioned” when Mormons “seek to justify” themselves as Christians. Another is the fact that that LDS hymns, prayers, ordinances (sacraments), the testimony of the Book of Mormon, etc. are direct reflections of “exactly what Mormons believe about Jesus.”

The biggest problem however is the fact that it simply does not refute the arguments made by Packer and Millet. This is what Packer, Millet, and the rest of us Mormons would like the critics to explain: Why, exactly, are non-Christians singing hymns of praise to Jesus Christ? Why are they praying in His name? Why do they call their church after Him? Why do they have a whole volume of scripture that stands as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ”?

These are the kinds of questions Abanes needs to answer in order to respond to the argument being made by Packer and Millet. Instead, he just brushes them off and puts the Mormon understanding of Jesus in the same ballpark as the way Buddhist, Muslims, and Hindus view Christ. So, then, tell me – are there Buddhists singing praises to Jesus’ name? Are Muslim ordinances preformed in the name of Christ? Does Hindu scripture testify of Jesus as Savior and Redeemer?

Conclusion

I could go on with more of the sweeping generalizations, errant logic, and faulty assumptions that Abanes makes in this one chapter of his book, but this is quite long enough. I have read the arguments made by several others, and Abanes is fairly representative of the whole, and some of what you see in the media is even worse. One the thing the media has not done is draw any attention to the comprehensive responses of Robinson, Peterson and Ricks on this issue. Folks should keep this in mind as they read yet another headline about how so-and-so says Mormons are a non-Christian cult.

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Notes:

1. Stephen E. Robinson, “The Exclusion by Name Calling,” Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1991)

2. Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pg. 193

The Moment is NOW!!

No question the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “having a moment.”

-          Walter Kirn, “Mormons Rock!” Newsweek, June 2011

            And, it would seem, that moment is now. Mormons are in the spotlight like never before, and everyone is eager to have their say in this “Mormon moment.” Whether you are friend or foe, pro or con, love ‘em or hate ‘em, everyone seems to sense that when the dust settles, come what may, this moment is going to be influential in shaping public perception of Mormons for a long time.

            The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes this, and have tried to capitalize on it – from Michael Otterson’s (an LDS Church spokesperson) regular posting to the “On Faith” blog with the Washington Post to placing an “I am Mormon” billboard on Times Square. Critics have also sought to have their say on talk shows and internet columns often trying to paint Mormons as weird and non-Christian.

            As a Mormon living in this “Mormon Moment,” I didn’t want sit idly by and watch this moment pass. So here, I’m going to be offering my take on the coverage of Mormons and Mormonism in the media. Topics will include not only discussion of Mormons in the news media, but also how Mormons are being portrayed in recent movies, books, TV, and music. Basically, whatever form of media is used to comment on Mormons/Mormonism will (hopefully) get some coverage here.

            With the recent comments by Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, things are really heating up in this Mormon Moment, so I’ll be looking to generate content ASAP. Please check back soon (and often) for interesting commentary on the recent controversy.

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