MEDIA FADS quickly slip the bonds of memory, but try to recall one clip from last year’s highlights reel. It’s the one where nearly everybody in the press proclaims a “Mormon moment.” Talking heads repeat it like they’re saying a rosary to avoid dead air time. Religion writers and editors curse the phrase, but duly work it into their copy for a cottage industry of articles and books introducing Americans to Mitt Romney’s entirely homegrown yet somehow exotic faith.
The moment has now passed, but for a while there, Mormons were bigger than, well, let’s just say Methodists to avoid outright blasphemy and legal action from Yoko. For my part, I figured that a) since Mormonism was going to be in the news quite a bit; b) since my job is to cover religion journalism; and c) since I am nobody’s idea of a saint, Latter-day or otherwise; it would be a good idea to grab some firsthand experience with the religion.
So one Sunday, unannounced and with notebook in hand and caffeine coursing through my veins, I showed up at the local Mormon ward and occupied a pew. It was a novelty for both of us it seemed—the congregation and me. I had never seen Mormons at worship and they had never had a bona fide journalist plop down and start taking notes.
The culture shock experienced over the next few hours was not just a personal quirk, I hope. My involvement with churches has been broad and ecumenical. The son of a Baptist minister, I converted to Catholicism as an adult and along the way visited plenty of Orthodox and countless Protestant congregations of various inclinations. I have attended Mass in ugly modernist cathedrals; listened to lily-white Presbyterian choirs punch it; and seen black Pentecostals running down aisles, filled with the Spirit. My visit to the Mormon ward was far removed from all of those experiences.
The closest analogy might be something along these lines: Imagine that you are an observant Jew attending a Christian church for the first time. There are many things that you will recognize, including concepts and even scriptures, but they will be recast in a way that is weird, in fact, utterly foreign to you.
Sure, members of this relatively new faith will use the same Hebrew Bible, but they will call it something different, the “Old Testament,” which hints at a divide. They also use other authoritative books, and their method of interpretation has little to nothing to do with your own tradition. They have transformed the Passover meal into something barely recognizable to you. They profess faith in a messiah, but their idea of him is different from your own hopeful notion of the savior of the Jewish people and the world. They affirm the truth of your religion to a point, but insist on a newer, fuller revelation from God that has superseded yours, and invite you to join them in this final dispensation.
My visit to the Mormon ward was a bit like that, and included one young missionary’s well-drilled attempts to proselytize me in the break between the “church” and “Sunday school” portions of the morning. Latter-day Saints don’t go in for compulsion in religion, just really strong and persistent suggestion, so we kept it civil. (Missionary: “If you pray about this, God will show you.” Journalist: “Yeah, I’ll get right on that.”)
One thing outsiders usually don’t understand about Mormonism is that, outside the official power structure in Salt Lake City, it’s mostly a religion of earnest amateurs. The white-shirt, black tie-wearing, backpack-toting missionaries (known as “elders”), pastors (“bishops”), and bishops (“stake presidents”—yes, it’s confusing) don’t draw salaries and serve for fixed terms. There is thus a real sense, shared by both audience and speaker, that the guy up there talking is one of us, just trying his best to struggle through life’s hardships and faith’s mysteries.
“I’M NERVOUS TODAY,” the young local bishop told us that Sunday morning in the throat-clearing before his message, and also, “I love you and care about you.”
His nominal theme concerned the Internet. “We are a Facebook nation,” he said, and though that is both a good and bad thing, he thought it best to issue “a little bit of a course correction.” Mormons should not focus too much on social media and “impede the Holy Ghost.” He wasn’t telling us to log off, mind you, just to be more provident with our time and effort: “We need to be more careful, that’s all.”
That said, he moved on to a topic very much on the minds of the congregation, in light of the new scrutiny that came with the Romney candidacy: “What do people think about Latter-day Saints?” The bishop said most Americans probably thought of four things: family, teetotaling, disaster preparation, and the long-barred practice of polygamy.
He turned the criticism on its head. Hadn’t Jesus Christ taught us to prepare for calamity? And hadn’t the Apostle Paul taught us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, thus making drunkenness and caffeination a form of desecration? (The LDS version of communion consists of bread and water.) The bishop prefaced this defense with a quotation from the Mormon scripture Doctrine and Covenants declaring Latter-day Saints the “only true and living church on face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord your God, am pleased as punch”—if I wrote that down correctly.
Theological brickbats aside, the only remotely objectionable things about the service were some of the uncool white-guy attempts at humor, as when the stake president said in his brief remarks he was tempted to “Like” the bishop’s comments about Facebook. The decor of the chapel, with no cross, no images, no shiny objects, and an unobtrusive electric organ, was designed to focus attention on the speaker or singer. Around me, people either listened intently or thumbed through their Bibles and other Mormon scriptures.
After service ended, it was off to class. Since I was a newcomer, the “Gospel Principles” course beckoned, wherein the teacher issued a full-throated defense of those things that make Mormons different. Take baptism, by proxy, for the dead. “No one can baptize himself,” he declared, which was a distinction I hadn’t ever considered. The thing people really object to about the ritual, he said, is the vicarious, second-hand nature of it, but “If you believe in Jesus, you believe in vicariousness.”
The teacher, a young man with a wife from South America, marched us through the Mormon story. It’s a fascinating admixture of the Protestant critique of Catholicism with the Catholic critique of Protestantism. The early church, the story goes, was pure and true. Unfortunately, following martyrdoms and collusion with earthly powers, it became hopelessly lost and there was left “no kingdom of God on the earth.”
This created a real crisis of authority, because a great chain of leadership, called apostolic succession, was part of Jesus’s plan. Try as they might, Protestants couldn’t find the missing link. And then God spake unto Joseph Smith and—presto!—Mormonism fixed the problem. Also, it turns out Jesus came to America at one point.
I came up to talk to the teacher about one item after class. He had called the Nicene Creed incomprehensible, so I told him, “Look, I’m Catholic. I understand if you don’t agree with it, since you don’t believe in the Trinity and all that, but please tell me what is so hard to understand about the Nicene Creed?” We struck up a conversation. He admitted, “Either we’re right or you guys are.” Then he thought about that and added, “Please don’t quote me by name.”
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