Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Loving Religious Freedom

Being a rather mainstream Protestant Christian (I'm a Methodist), I've not had a lot of exposure to other Christian practice. Methodists are very open (have you heard our motto "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors"?). Our Communion, for example, is open to all who wish to be in right relation with God. You don't have to be a member of the Methodist church or any church. You don't have to be baptized or confirmed or confessed. All are welcome at God's table.

I love that.

I've attended Catholic Mass several times and deeply resented being excluded from Communion. I've rebelliously taken Communion in Protestant churches where I didn't, technically, qualify to do so, but for some reason, I just couldn't bring myself to break the rules in a Catholic church. Perhaps its all that study of the medieval Catholic church, the Inquisition and all. But I just couldn't bully my way to the sacrament.

When it comes to Mormons, I was pretty much an ignoramus. I worked with Mormons when I lived in Idaho, but they never talked about their faith at work, except to say that polygamy wasn't the norm anymore. In fact, they sort of resented that assumption about Mormonism, that they are all polygamists.

Our real estate agent had told us there were certain Boise communities we didn't want to live in because they were predominantly Mormon. He said that unless we converted, they would shun us. I had no idea if this was true or not. Like so many religious groups, I suspected that the Mormons were often misrepresented and misunderstood.

But we didn't take any chances, and moved into a house across the street from a retired Lutheran minister and his wife, and next door to Catholics.

But that location didn't teach me anything about the Mormons. I've not read any of the popular books about Mormons and polygamy. The whole concept of polygamy is distasteful to me, no matter how Old Testament it is, and the activities of radical fringe groups make me want to huddle on my fence in the middle. Also, what we hear in the mass media, sensationalist as it is, lacks a broader, sympathetic perspective and can't be relied upon as educational.

So when three Mormon missionaries came to my door two weeks ago and asked if they could pay a visit to share their faith, I said sure. Maybe it was wrong of me to think from the start that this would make excellent blog material, and lots of people thought I was crazy to have them come. (Thank you, Karen, for understanding!) Still, I was happy when the three missionaries arrived. I didn't expect to learn everything about Mormonism in an hour, but I did expect to get a little fuller picture of the whole thing.

We spent a wonderful hour together sharing our different perspectives, and I learned a lot that I thought I'd share with you. If any of my readers happen to be Mormon, please weigh in on any of these points in the comments.

1. I had thought that all Mormon churches were temples and that non-Mormons were not allowed in. This is NOT TRUE. There are Mormon temples that have very limited access to non-Mormons, but their churches are open to all. Their services are three hours long and have three parts: a communal time, Bible study grouped by age, and a third hour segregated by gender.

2. As a scrapbooker, I see lots of scrapbook pages in magazines by Mormons (who practically invented the industry). I was always struck by how sincere and family-centered these pages were. The emphasis on family is deeply appealing. But the strong dividing lines between the sexes, and the fact that power is officially held by men and not by women, disturbs my more feminist tendencies. For instance, men are expected to go on a mission at age 19. For women, it's voluntary and the age is 21.

3. Joseph Smith wrote 13 Articles of Faith which lay out some of the doctrinal elements of Mormonism which differ from mainstream Christianity. For me, there were several big standouts in these Articles. Mormons do not believe in the Trinity (a Three-in-One God), instead seeing the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three distinct and separate entities. They also do not believe in Original Sin. They do believe that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, and they believe in modern prophets (such as Joseph Smith) who carry on the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament.

4. My favorite of the articles is this: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may." One of the missionaries stated clearly and strongly that she was proud to live in a country that guaranteed religious freedom to everyone. This runs counter to the reports that Mormons shun those who will not convert. Of course, lots of Protestants and Catholics don't practice what they preach, either, but I found it surprising and refreshing that Smith felt strongly enough about this to include it in the Articles of Faith.

5. Methodism emphasizes Christ's teachings on love, and the three missionaries certainly talked a lot about Heavenly Father's love for us all, every one of us. That's a message I think all flavors of Christianity should strive to make our common ground.

I'm not a convert. The doctrinal differences (particular with regard to the Trinity) and exclusion of women from the official structures of power are barriers my conscience can't cross. Furthermore, the idea that the Bible is incomplete and that a bunch of gold tablets no one is allowed to see hold its continuation strikes me as, well, awkward. I believe that once God became incarnate, the need for modern prophets in the Old Testament sense of the word disappears.I have a hearty skepticism of anyone claiming prophetic status and immediately start looking for their ulterior motive.

But that's what I believe. Others believe differently and are entitled to do so. I am in total agreement with the missionaries in my deep and abiding gratitude to live in a country where I'm allowed to believe and practice my faith without prejudice, and where religious difference need not be cause for alarm.

I also hope we never stop talking about and defending religious freedom. Too many times, even in this country, people's freedom to worship as their conscience dictates (as long as that worship doesn't violate another's rights and freedoms) is challenged. Death threats are called in to mosques, legal actions are taken against businesses that put up Nativity scenes, books are burned.

I love and value my religious freedom. How can I not love it for others, too? So here's a big thank you to those three Mormon missionaries who shared their faith with me.  I hope we can agree to disagree and trust in God's love to handle the difference.


  1. I find it a bit ironic, that the past several days I have been doing a bit of extra research and reading into the Mormon faith and then you do a blog post on it. My best friend in high school was/is Mormon, and I actually attended a few of the "classes" that the missionaries offer, in an attempt to better understand them, 15yrs ago. Growing up in the Midwest, it was not a predominate religion in the area.
    Now, living in Arizona, it is much much more common, and several of my neighbors are Mormon. As my husband continues to put his life on the line for what we believe in this country as basic rights, and the right to freedom of religion, I too value this for myself and others.
    They do seem to have wonderful family core values that are sometimes lacking as such a forefront of other religions. I would love to continue conversations with my Mormon neighbors, for a broader understanding, as long as they are respectful to my faith at the same time. I am glad that you had such a positive experience with the missionaries. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, with the missionaries, or Mormon neighbors. For us, it has been in this neighborhood and I am thankful for that.

  2. Thanks, Patti!

    Cyndy, thank you for sharing your experience on this topic, as well as for your service (and your husband's) to this country.

  3. My husband's family is predominantly Mormon. And although I have some issues with a few of them - generally speaking they have all embodied a wonderful, warm, caring, family-centered system of values. Now, don't get me wrong, there are some things about their religion that I don't agree with (also specifically in regards to their treatment of women) but in general I have found them to be less judgmental and clique-y than most Catholics (and Lutherans) that I grew up with. In my family it was enough to *say* that we would be there for each other (follow up not being their strong suit) through thick and thin. I've watched DH's nephews and nieces do some really (astonishingly) kind things for one another - on a regular basis!
    This is what I want my boy to learn. To really embody the family values he sees in action. Will I convert? Oh no. But I hope I am a good enough parent to encourage him to take the best of their religion/values AND the best of mine.
    I think it's a wonderful thing that you did. And brave, when you only hear 'bad' things about them. Hear, hear!

  4. Through the years, God has brought people into my life with religious beliefs ranging from spiritualism to Orthodox Judaism. I’ll talk to just about anyone about nearly everything. As you probably already know, I am a conservative Christian who believes that the Bible alone, and in its entirety, is the objective truth, so the conversations I have had with people of these varying beliefs have been nothing short of fascinating. And within the pages of the Bible, I see that I am to “speak the truth in love”; with a readiness to explain and defend my faith, and a graciousness when I do so. Sometimes I am met with unreasoning hostility, but usually not. This may sound very simplistic, but everything we’ve been taught since we were children about showing courtesy and respect while stepping forward and speaking up applies here and can assist us as we share with others.

  5. I agree that religious freedom is wonderful, and worth fighting for. I feel that this should absolutely include the freedom to not practice any religion. Freedom, emphasis on FREE.

    Also, this was a fascinating post. I was totally uninformed about Mormons myself. Now I am slightly less uninformed (now *that* sentence was an exercise in awkwardness).


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!