Bill Long 1/3/05
Religious Values/American Values
Six years ago the husband-wife journalistic team of Richard and Joan Ostling subjected the rapidly-growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to a sympathetic but probing review. Their book, Mormon America, unearths little in the way of new material but presents a story that helps explain the idiosyncracies and commitments of this latter-day people of God. It is certain that a highly prosperous, growing church has no reason to consider outsider, or even many insider, comments; thus I can be confident that nothing I say here will get much notice outside of shouting range. Yet, I have three points to make in this and the following mini-essays.
By 2005 almost any American who is alert has developed some kind of impression of the Latter-Day Saints. Many think of young men in white shirts going two by two on bicycles to evangelize. Many more think of Ken Jennings, the razor-sharp Jeopardy champion from 2004. Others recall Steve Young, the 49ers quarterback or Dale Murphy the Atlanta Braves slugger from the previous generation. Less charitably but no less true historically, stories about plural marriages and exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood until 1978 are also embedded in the American mind.
Reading the Ostling's book, submitted to me as part of a research project by one of my LDS students made me crystallize some thoughts regarding the Saints which have been floating around in my mind for several years. I would like to put them in terms of three propositions--propositions that, to use Jungean terminology, have a bright as well as a shadow side.
An Exlusivistic Faith
One of the signs of Western religion is the belief that you are the chosen people and that outside of your community there is no salvation. The Jews first believed this, though liberal elements in their community looked to a universal God drawing people to Himself as early as the 6th century B.C.E. Early Christians believed that their way of salvation was exclusive. As the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel says, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me (John 14:6)." The Catholic Church, before 1963, had a Latin phrase that captured their commitment to exclusivity: Extra ecclesia salus non est--no salvation outside of the church. Militant and not-so-militant Protestants have also believed that there was no salvation apart from the Christ that they preached. The LDS Church fits into this long tradition of belief--that they, too, have a corner on religious truth that is just a little bit more true than everyone else.
The only thing is, it is not cool in mainstream America to believe anymore that your group and your group alone has the goods on God or the way to God. Or, to put it in the more technical language of theology, exclusivistic theological claims have gradually been worn away by the acids of liberal American democracy.
But here is the rub. Once you adopt the mainstream American creed, that either there are many ways to God or that no one way has the exclusive guide to God, the intensity of your missionary effort will wane. Maybe not immediately. Maybe not within a generation. But within a century it will. A belief in the universal salvation of the world or in the fact that each religious tradition is a separate way to the one God "cuts the heart" of missions, as one Congregational theologian remarked in the late 19th century.
Thus, the LDS emphasis on missions and proselytizing is both a source of their strength and an affront to the dominant values of America. On the one hand (and this is spoken by one who spent many college hours evangelizing people door at an Ivy League university), missionary activity usually solidifies relationships with fellow believers and even occasionally gets converts from the people with whom you talk. When you come back together and share the "battle stories" about people's response to the Gospel, you are usually encouraged.
But the true meaning of proselytizing is that ultimately, in your heart of hearts, you believe you are not simply sharing the good things you believe God has done for you; you are saying to people that their value systems and belief systems are incomplete. Unless people come to a fuller knowledge of God, which you the missionary no doubt will be happy to supply, people are uninformed, mistaken, living in downright ignorance or heading straight to Hell.
So, here is the first postive/shadow side issue with respect to the LDSs. On the positive side, there is deference to authority and courtesy galore, manifest in a proselytizing spirit. But, when push comes to shove, do they believe the rest of us are going to Hell unless we are enlightened by their Gospel? I certainly believed that this was true during my college days when I looked at my fellow students. It was only the gradual realization of my limited grasp on truth and my own contribution to the sin/pain of the world that dissuaded me from thinking that I had a message that could save them. The exclusive claim to truth, then, is the first issue that I would bring before an LDS person if I had a chance to do so.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long