Friday, May 27, 2011

Mormonism: it's (un)Complicated

I have discussed the variants of Latter-day Saint excommunicated groups such as the FLDS and RLDS in my alphabet soup post.

However, there is also disparity within the faith.  Recently, the LDS blogosphere has gone wild over presidential hopeful John Huntsman telling Time's Melinda Henneberger when asked whether he was Mormon, "That's tough to define."

Matthew Bowman and Joanna Brooks, both apparent unconventional breeds of Latter-day Saints, have attempted to explain away Huntsman's complicated relationship to my faith by attributing it to a generation gap and diversification as the faith grows and responds to modern culture.

I disagree with both.  Variants of faithfulness have always existed, and are of no recent vintage (to use a very non-Mormon analogy).  Enter Morris Udall in his presidential bid, circa 1975.  In a letter an Oxford don showed me to decipher Mormon jargon, a would-be supporter writes to Udall and asks whether he is a "Mormon," whether he "honors his Priesthood," and goes to church and holds a position in it.  Udall replies by saying:

"Rather than respond categorically, let me set forth the plain facts and perhaps you can help me determine the kind of answer to give other concerned LDS members who raise questions of the kind contained in your letter."

He then goes on to say he has a long lineage of Mormon pioneer heritage, was baptized at 8, and was ordained as an elder in high school.  He takes pride in his LDS heritage, but rarely attends LDS services since he enrolled in the army at 20.  He did not join any other church, and believe his name was still carried on the rolls of the church.

Sound familiar to Huntsman's ho-humming?

When someone tells me they know a Mormon, I cringe, waiting for them to tell me about whether they are what I would call a "good Mormon." Such an appellation is defined quite simply as one who believes

1) Jesus Christ atoned for their sins
2) God is their spiritual father
3) Joseph Smith was a prophet (meaning he was called of God to be a conduit for the restoration of Christ's primitive Church)
4) The Book of Mormon is revealed scripture (which implies that one accepts the Bible - can't accept the former without the latter)
5) That the current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now Thomas S. Monson, is a prophet

and then lives as if they believe it, following commandments old and new.

There has always been a spectrum of those who fall somewhere between a "good" Mormon and one who is merely kept on the records of the Church.  It's only complicated if somewhere along the way you have lost the faith to keep living it.


  1. I don't think there's any reason to think Huntsman is any less Mormon than you or I. It was a silly way to answer but the issue he was trying to address is how religion and politics have been so completely collapsed into each other for so many Mormons, especially in Utah (see Ben Park's recent article in Patheos on this). The perception that many outside the faith have gotten as a result is an unflattering picture of Mormons as monolithically extreme Skousen-type political animals. Huntsman is perhaps trying to decouple his image from this stereotype, especially because he is genuinely inclusive of all religions in his constituency, which he showed as governor in making the rounds visiting other religions' services. He also occasionally still found time teach an Aaronic priesthood lesson in his local ward as well.

  2. John - Without disclosing his personal details, I'm afraid I know a little too much about his church attendance and habits within the family to know that it unfortunately is complicated for him, and often depends on expediency. I also don't understand how your religious-political analysis translates into not answering a direct question of whether he is Mormon - help?

  3. Saying "It's complicated" could have been meant as "I'm Mormon but not like you just thought when I just now said 'I'm Mormon'". All in all, I think he needn't have done it -- saying "Yes, I'm Mormon" and shrugging his shoulders could have approximately the same effect.

    It is actually interesting to contemplate how he could give such a straightforward statement without thereby being painted as one and the same as the Jon McNaughton-type of Mormon (see Ben Park on this: For you and me, we can just say "Yes, I'm Mormon" if someone asks us that, realizing that it is possible that the person might very well have thereby formulated such an opinion of us. The stakes aren't very high. But in running for President of the United States the stakes are extremely high and it becomes a more serious concern to avoid the being lumped together with such outspoken Mormons. (This is with regard to centrist, relatively secular general election voters, not with regard to Evangelical Christian primary voters for whom any kind of Mormon is the wrong kind of person for President,

    Huntsman has done a better job of expressing that he is Mormon but nevertheless values others' spiritual insights and paths in subsequent interviews.

    He has also had a different experience in how he has had to present Mormonism/the Church to non-members of the faith. In Taiwan, the default religion was not some form of Christianity and so he did not have to present the Church/Gospel as an us vs. them proposition to the extent that Romney and others (including me) have had to in places where most people are lapsed Christians of some form or other.

    Also, we have the 1978 First Presidency Statement expressing appreciation for the inspiration and contributions of the historical religious figures of other faiths that was current when Huntsman went on his mission in 1979. With such a background, I can see why Huntsman comfortably positions his Mormonism into the pluralistic fabric of modern US society.