January 07, 2008

What Is It About Mormon Missionaries?

by PG

A central claim of Noah Feldman's Sunday Times magazine essay on Mormonism is that Mormons have had to be secretive about the precise content of their faith in order to avoid persecution: "If 19th-century Mormon secrecy was a matter of survival, 20th-century Mormon reticence was a form of soft secrecy, designed to avoid soft bigotry. Revealing Mormon teachings would no longer have led to lynch mobs or federal arrest, but it certainly would have fueled the kind of bias that keeps politicians out of office."

Yet the face of Mormonism many Americans first encounter is one that Feldman only briefly mentions: "The church’s most inviting public symbols — pairs of clean-cut missionaries in well-pressed white shirts — evoke the wholesome success of an all-American denomination with an idealistic commitment to clean living." How can a missionary be secretive about his faith? In particular, attempting to convert people in a Christianity-dominated America requires missionaries to do exactly what Feldman declares Mormons haven't done, i.e. develop "a series of easily expressed and easily swallowed statements summarizing the content of their theology in ways that might arguably be accepted by mainline Protestants. To put it bluntly, the combination of secret mysteries and resistance in the face of oppression has made it increasingly difficult for Mormons to talk openly and successfully with outsiders about their religious beliefs."

I think the first Mormon I ever met was when I was taking a summer course at Trinity University in San Antonio. Being a college student, he simultaneously professed both skepticism toward and pride in his religious tradition. The only thing he told me about it that I remember is that God has a wife, but that we do not know Her name because God does not want us to take it in vain as we do His. I have no idea whether this actually is accurate Mormon theology, but I found the notion quite charming (Hindu gods don't always get along so well with their spouses). The next Mormons I met were two different pairs of missionaries while I was living in Northern Virginia before law school. They were all very nice and in both instances I would have been happy to talk theology with them had I not been on my way elsewhere.

Admittedly, a Hindu agnostic poses a different conversion project for a Mormon missionary than does the average American, who is a Protestant, but had it been my roommate who had come to the door, that would have been precisely the set of beliefs they would have faced. She was baptized and raised in the Methodist church, and was a believer in the vague way that twenty-somethings often are when they'd like to sleep late on Sundays but also intend to raise their children in some kind of organized religious tradition.

Thus the idea of Mormons as incapable of talking about their religion with Protestants just seems obviously wrong. Certainly a Mormon missionary and a Protestant evangelical might be at odds as each seeks to convert the other, but this isn't due to an inability to communicate the tenets of each one's faith. The mission mandates Mormons to be ready to discuss their faith with people who don't understand it. Indeed, this requirement ensures that they will be much more capable of doing so than I am at trying to explain a polytheistic religion that has no founder, to anyone coming out of the Abrahamic Western religions.

January 7, 2008 04:16 PM | TrackBack
Comments

You're absolutely correct. I started to read Feldman's article yesterday but quickly lost interest. I'll try reading it again.

Posted by: Alma at January 7, 2008 06:16 PM

I agree. People who want to bash, or argue religion, will find LDS reluctant to talk to them and may interpret this as being secretive. We don't believe such conversations are useful and contentiousness does not invite the presence of God's spirit. Hence we will walk away.

However, if LDS perceive someone as open and interested in learning something new, we will talk their ears off.

Posted by: Brenda Brady at January 8, 2008 03:48 PM

Mormon missionaries don't tell the whole truth about mormonism. It's the "meat before milk" reasoning. Once the "victims" are hooked, they will find out what the Mormon church is really about, up to a point. E.g., the Mormon missionaries won't tell about the three versions of the "first vision" of Joseph Smith. To be fair, most missionaries and Mormon run of the mill members don't know too much about the really unsavory parts of their religion.

Posted by: Daniel at January 9, 2008 12:30 AM

Daniel,

If there is a particular historical aspect of one's religion that one not only doesn't follow but isn't even aware of, I'm not sure how you can see that aspect as relevant to a new convert. Some Americans only know my family's faith (Hinduism) through its depiction in Indiana Jones or in Jack Chick tracts, where the only thing shown is the Thuggee sect of Kali worshipers who engaged in human sacrifice. Of course, this is not the practice of Hindus today, many of whom won't even eat meat, much less sacrifice another human being. If I explained my religious tradition to someone and didn't mention Thuggees -- or the now-forbidden practice of sati, in which Hindu widows in northern India were burned alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands -- would you think that I wasn't "telling the whole truth about Hinduism"?

Telling someone about the contemporary practice of one's religion instead of its whole historical background is the most effective form of communication about faith, particularly if one is trying to persuade someone that this is a good practice to join. All large religions have some unsavory aspects in their history; what matters is how they are practiced today. Certainly if someone is interested in the history of religion, she should be encouraged to investigate it and there should be no attempt to cover up the bad parts, but there is no obligation for a missionary to describe practices or beliefs that are no longer current.

Posted by: PG at January 9, 2008 11:02 AM

I think you will find that you are quite wrong. I am a Mormon and I think you will find me willing to answer anything. You are right that when someone argues with us we (sometimes) walk away. Usually not because we are secretive but because We consider the doctorine of Christ to be sacred. We wont argue it because the spirit of the lord will not reside in a situation of conflict. As Jesus put it "don't cast your pearls before swine." If you have any questions please by all means direct them to me. I will answer anything.

Posted by: Josh Flint at January 28, 2008 05:19 PM
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