A criticism I’ve heard about Mormonism on the internet is: “What’s unique about it isn’t good, and what’s good about it isn’t unique.” While it’s true that Mormon culture has some flaws, and that other religions share some of its good points, I can’t agree with this observation. Still, I think something about this phrase is worth further investigation. For those who stay, some might say (like I would) that “what’s unique about it isn’t bad, and what’s bad about it isn’t unique.”
First of all, the phrase revolves around some subjective elements:
- What’s good. What’s good to me might be bad to you and vice-versa.
- What’s unique. This one depends mostly on experience outside the church and a personal assessment of both Mormonism and society at large.
While the idea hinges on the perception that the good things within the church can be easily found elsewhere, it also doesn’t address the obvious problem that there can be bad things that are unique elsewhere. So starting with my own list, here are some things I personally think are unique about Mormonism that are not bad (meaning the positives outweigh the negatives):
- American values. I can’t think of another church so fully entwined in the American dream and the values of individuality and hard work. While many Protestant sects come close, they have roots outside the U.S., and those influences creep in. Mormonism is uniquely American in its culture and values, which is one reason it appeals to a very specific subset of people outside the U.S. Even our very business-like meetings have a stripped-down American no-nonsense quality to them. On the downside: we sometimes confuse American values with the gospel, and we don’t translate well among people who don’t espouse those same values.
- Temple. The temple has pluses and minuses, IMO. But on the whole I would say it’s not bad. The temple itself is ritualized and awkward to initiates and parts are sexist, but a religious rite in such a business-like church makes that rite the object of contemplation. There are some strong positives associated with these ideas (being part of a continuous human family, progressing as individuals, striving to enter God’s presence, and imagining ourselves as the hero of our own personal spiritual journey) that exist in Mormonism in a unique combination. On the downside: the temple can divide families when some can’t attend, it is weird (to say nothing of garments), and it comes across as secretive.
- Lay Clergy. The fact that we can’t just sit there passively like veals in cages, but at any time we might be asked to provide the sermon, to teach a class, to help someone move, or to help run one of the ward organizations is something that requires us to maintain our commitment to the church and our fellow (and prospective) members. It is also something often cited by former Mormons as having benefited them greatly in their lives: comfort from a young age with speaking in front of others, shaking hands, and looking people in the eye. On the downside: people can feel like callings are busy work or they may feel unappreciated and taken for granted. The lesson manuals are often very bad or little more than an attempt to indoctrinate.
- Missions. This is pure genius, IMO, to solidify the commitment to living our religion and create future leaders, to say nothing of the secondary benefit: the addition of members through convert baptisms. Plus, missionaries gain world and life experience that helps them in their future careers through leadership, sometimes learning a language, and simply having more responsibility and commitment than your average college age kid. Comparisons in other religions: Jesus camps and Peace Corps. Jesus camps are like going to camp but with lots of singing about Jesus. The Peace Corps is outstanding, but it’s not really religious and it’s not that common to join. On the downside: there are terrible stories of numbers-focused missions who did ill-advised things, and girls are often not given this experience because they feel pressured to marry young instead.
- Tithing. Other churches have donations, and people donate or don’t. We expect it and have you talk about it annually as if the bishop were H&R Block. My own view is that detachment from reliance on our own wealth is a great thing to learn, and really being committed to ongoing donations is a good way to achieve that. On the downside: there is a lack of transparency about how tithing funds are spent.
- Word of Wisdom. I’m somewhat neutral on the Word of Wisdom as a health code. Tea drinkers often live into their 90s, and every other week red wine is good for you or bad for you again. Smoking is kind of a no-brainer; even France has embraced clean air (what’s next? embracing politeness?). And Mormons certainly don’t seem to be immune to a very real health threat: obesity. Even so, not partaking of these things doesn’t hurt and certainly helps some people. If for no other reason, Mormons aren’t blowing $5-$6 on a latte every morning or spending thousands of dollars beefing up their wine cellar. Rather than drinking our money, we are donating it to the church, some of which goes to help others. On the downside: Mormons make a mountain out of a molehill over the Word of Wisdom while scarfing down no-bake cookies and funeral potatoes with abandon.
- Chastity. We certainly aren’t the only ones doing the chastity thing, but we manage to do it (or more properly not to do it) without doing stupid stuff like chastity pledges or purity balls (which really sounds dirty). And whenever I have met someone who actually waited until 30s or 40s even to have sex, it has always been a Mormon. We seem to have a bit more staying power on the whole. On the downside: We have some weird notions of sexuality as a result of this overnight transition from nothing goes to anything goes.
- Family Focus. We talk about families a lot: past (through genealogy), present, and future (for those who are single or haven’t had children). We are more family focused than the Brady Bunch, although Catholics may have us beat on family size since they don’t believe in using birth control. We’re also devoted to practical programs to keep families together, like Family Home Evening, an idea so good (at least for game manufacturers) that Parker Brothers co-opted it! On the downside: some families put church ahead of relationships or try to substitute hierarchical structures for personal intimacy.
- Theosis. I totally love the idea that we can progress to become gods and that God is actually human, not some otherworldly being we cannot comprehend, but a real father to us. On the downside: I love it in theory anyway. There are a few people I can think of who would make pretty mediocre gods.
- Ongoing Revelation. This beats the alternative, IMO. The idea that we can correct previous interpretations of doctrine gives me hope in our ability to progress, even if . . . On the downside: that progress is glacially slow and seems to follow societal trends about 30 years later. Sometimes it takes a while for people to ask the right questions or to be able to hear change, and if we want to appeal to people of all ages (with our family focus, how could we not want that?) then, we have to find the middle ground between grandma and grandkids. It’s certainly a tough middle ground to find.
- Behavior Focus. This is another one that beats the alternative, IMO. Churches that only ever talk about grace without talking about cleaning up your own act are magnets for unsavory characters. On the downside: we can get caught up in a checklist mentality.
- Focus on Education. We really do believe in learning (if not in being intellectuals) and in finishing education. Despite our church’s sexism, I never got the message that finishing my education was not important because I was a woman. On the contrary, I have been told from a very young age that college education was critical to success for all. And among Christian faiths, Mormons are the most educated (Jews and Muslims are up there, too). On the downside: most of our education is at BYU where boundaries for intellectualism are clearly delineated.
- Pre-christ Christology. It’s a clever idea, that the OT Jews were actually Christians. It adds a nice sense of continuity, whether it is ret-conned or not; it certainly does make those otherwise oddball characters seem more understandable, empathetic and modern. On the downside: it’s one reason people view the BOM as anachronistic.
- Additional Scripture. This takes some of the pressure off the Bible to be the be-all-end-all of God’s word, a scrutiny under which it never holds up that well. On the downside: Newly revealed scripture is still subject to change and re-interpretation.
Two “unique” things that simply aren’t a part of our daily Mormon lives anymore can be somewhat relegated to the dustbin of social experimentation do fall into the “not good” category for me:
- Polygamy. As far as I know, Mormonism is the only Christian faith that ever practiced it. It’s not surprising due to the pre-Christ Christology aspect. We think Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Mormons. Notice that none of the early church leaders asked if they should go be nomads in the desert or eat locusts. We ask the questions we want to hear I guess.
- Communal Living. Others have tried it. Ours, after some nasty stumbles, settled into a comfortable yet strongly encouraged tithing instead, more of a virtual law of consecration. And the good news is we all get to keep our own stuff and live in our own houses. Hurrah!
IMO, these are the things that are definitely not good, but are also not at all unique to Mormonism:
- Sexism. There are clearly roots of sexism in the church and the current focus on gender roles is obviously a division of labor based on sexist stereotypes, but there is a lot of tempering of male privilege in the church also. Many other churches have a similar problem with sexist undertones, thanks to Biblical passages that were designed to tone down the prominent role of women in the early Christian church (according to Bart Ehrmann anyway). Michelle Bachmann even had to admit she would submit to her husband, and she’s running for POTUS, for crying out loud! And society at large is still struggling to overcome this.
- Judgmentalism. Clearly Mormon mothers have nothing on Catholic or Jewish mothers for applying guilt. The judgmentalism within our communities is usually more friendly and superficial than elsewhere, and often due to lack of exposure. True, we judge people for some very oddball specific things because of our behavior standards, but we are encouraged not to judge even though human nature often wins out.
- Conservative Values. Pretty much anything that is right wing can be categorized (in my mind anyway) as being someone’s political opinion mingled with scripture. Same with anything left wing. Only when commentary deviates from American political party norms do I sit up and take notice. And at least we are not anti-science like some other conservative faiths out there, and we claim to be politically neutral which is a big step to becoming politically neutral.
- Authoritarianism. Mormons really struggle with too much respect for authority and not enough willingness to confront bad behavior. But they share this trait with pretty much all conservative societies and a big swath of the population at large. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but those in leadership positions usually don’t do anything to get actual gain in the church, just praise. IOW, we are more at risk for swelled heads than lined coffers.
- Perfectionism. Obviously, there are many members whose focus on outward appearance leads them to try unsuccessfully to be perfect or at least to appear perfect, and sometimes families can look a little Stepford-like. But again, it’s not unique to Mormonism. Maybe we’re just better at perfectionism!
- Emotionalism. I’m not a big fan of all the boo-hooing and sentimental stories at church, but Mormonism is clearly in the mainstream there. That’s probably just a discomfort with religious outbursts in general.
There’s also the good stuff that’s common: teachings of Jesus, being service oriented, steeples, uncomfortable chairs, potluck socials, and generally being nice people. Many of our hymns are common to other Christian sects, and they are often sung equally badly by our congregations.
- So, what do you think is unique and good in the church?
- What do you think is unique and bad (or uniquely bad)?
- Is there anything you would add to my list? Would you take anything away?