Category Archives: World Religions

Mormons: Perceptions and Politics

This transcript of a panel discussion — with a large set of (for me, at least) fascinating slides — is well worth reading. It not only deals with Mormon attitudes on various key political issues, it also deals with how others view Mormons as well (in a political context). I particularly found this slide interesting:

Here’s the discussion around the slide:

DR. CAMPBELL: On the Faith Matters Survey we asked a question about civil liberties. We asked people to make a choice. Do they think it was more important to protect civil liberties or was it more important to protect personal security? And so on this question you would expect conservatives and Republicans to be more likely to favor safety over civil liberties, but actually among Mormons you find exactly the opposite. Mormons are actually more likely to take the civil liberties side of that question than they are the safety and security side.

PARTICIPANT: How was that question asked exactly?

DR. CAMPBELL: People had two choices and two choices only. So we forced them to make a tradeoff. The way it was worded was personal security versus civil liberties, and the lead-in to the question made a reference to terrorism so that we wanted them to be thinking about the debates over homeland security and such.

I’m reminded of Orson Scott Card’s comment in Saintspeak: The Mormon Dictionary:

Johnston’s Army An expensive military expedition sent in 1857 to quell a Mormon rebellion that wasn’t taking place. Ever since, Mormons have suspected that the federal government was not their friend.

There is a libertarian undercurrent among US Mormons, mostly because they want the US government to leave them alone. ..bruce..

Why the Catholic Church is upset with “New Moon”

After having seen “New Moon” on Friday afternoon with my sweet wife Sandra, I was a bit startled in late night browsing to read the following article (hat tip to Big Hollywood):

The latest movie in vampire saga Twilight is a ‘deviant moral vacuum’, the Vatican said yesterday.

New Moon, which opens in Britain today, is a ‘mixture of excesses aimed at young people and gives a heavy esoteric element’, a spokesman added.

The blockbuster opened on Wednesday in Italy and took £1.8million at the box office.

Monsignor Franco Perazzolo, of the Pontifical Council of Culture, said: ‘Men and women are transformed with horrible masks and it is once again that age-old trick or ideal formula of using extremes to make an impact at the box office.’

Huh? “Deviant moral vacuum” for a series that gets mocked because of the lack of premarital sex among its youthful characters? And I’m not entirely sure what “heavy esoteric element” means or why it would be a reason to condemn a movie. After all, the Vatican (as far as I can tell) had nothing to say about “2012” which actually depicts the violent death of the Pope and the rest of the Catholic Church leadership, along with hundreds of people being crushed by the collapse of St. Paul’s Basilica. Given all the films that are out there, with plenty of morally objectionable content, why would the Vatican choose to unload on “New Moon” of all things?

Then it hit me: the Volturi.

For those of you who haven’t read the series/seen the films, the Volturi are in effect the global rulers of all vampires and the only ones who can and do enforce (via death) a small set of rules — intended to keep the existence of vampires a secret — upon other vampires.

And, by the way, the Volturi live in Italy, where they rule from a large secret domed chamber. And they sit in throne-like chairs wearing formal antique clothing (see photo above).

Now, I don’t think that Stephenie Meyer had the Catholic Church in mind (at least, not consciously) when she invented the Volturi. The Volturi don’t act like religious leaders, and they don’t live in Rome but rather in Volterra (an actual small ancient town in the Tuscany region of Italy). But I suspect that someone at the Vatican saw the film, drew certain inferences, and was not happy, particularly given Meyer’s well-publicized LDS (Mormon) background. I also strongly suspect that if the Volturi had lived somewhere other than Italy that the Vatican would have had nothing to say about the film. ..bruce..

P.S. The movie itself? Meh. Better done than the first one, but the first 30-45 minutes seemed to drag. On the other hand, the 2nd book was the weakest of the four.

Another reason I’m glad we’re not “Christian”

Of course, by “Christian” I mean “Traditional Christianity”, which is the phrase often used by Evangelical and Catholic churches to define Christianity in such as was as to exclude the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  And as far as I can tell, “Traditional Christianty” tends to start with the first Council of Nicea, so as to avoid all those pesky beliefs and practices of early Christians which suspiciously resemble LDS beliefs and practices.

But I ramble. Here’s my latest reason why I’m glad we’re not “Traditional” Christians:

Let’s look at all the ways that this cartoon does not apply to LDS doctrine and beliefs:

First, we don’t believe that Earth is the only planet on which God has placed His children. Instead, we believe that He has created “worlds without number” and that “the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.” So God didn’t wait “14 billion years” for anything, but started populating planets long ago.

Second, we were all around back then, when this universe was being created. We knew why is was being created and what our role in it would be.

Third, even on our specific planet, Earth, God didn’t wait until Abraham or Moses and then “tell some desert people how to behave.”  He started with Adam and continued with Enoch. Furthermore, we believe that God has spoken to various groups at various times throughout human history, not just those recorded within the Bible.

And, of course, fourth, God is not a glowing ball of lightHe is our Father and we are His children.  ..bruce..

“Could Pat Robertson Be Mormon?”

Paul Abrams over at the Huffingon Post has a snarky and somewhat ill-informed article in response to comments that Pat Robertston apparently made about heaven. To give you an idea of the silliness of Abrams’ piece, here’s an excerpt (the bracketed, italized section is in the original and seems to suggest that Abrams didn’t exactly quote Robertson accurately in the preceding sentence):

Without hesitating a nanosecond, Robertson half-chuckled his answer, telling the viewer in no uncertain terms that if he thinks he is just going to spend eternity lying in a lounge-chair on a cloud, well, he’s got another thing coming. The Lord has a lot of work for him to do, he might give him (the viewer) a planet to manage, there are 200-300 million of them. [Btw, this is not an exaggeration, Robertson actually talked about lounging on a cloud and millions of planets to manage, and lots of work the Lord has for him].

Robertson knows this (and all else) because, as you all know, once a year Robertson spends a day with the Lord. Now, I must admit that I have always found it curious that the Lord, who is the Lord of the entire universe, measures time-cycles by how long it takes for one of his stars, the sun, to orbit the Earth, oh, I mean the Earth to orbit the sun–sorry, I forgot that we have revised that certitude–but I am not surprised that the Lord created exactly one planet for every US citizen, so each of us knows that there is an eternity of work in Heaven (and, let’s face it, not all of you are going to get there, and some of you are illegal immigrants, and the Lord will be damned if those people are going to get a planet to manage!–although, Lord knows, they do work cheaply.). . . .

Come to think of it, God himself (or herself, or itself?) is not exactly doing a hot job of managing this planet, so how could lowly me, or even Heavenly me, be expected to do any better? We’ve got wars, piracy, diabetes, cancer, poverty, drug-resistant superbugs, John Boehner handing out tobacco-lobbying checks on the House floor, socialism and the prospect of Arnold Schwarzeneggar making another film when his time as Governor expires (can’t you get him a third term, or a US birth certificate—anything?).

Illegal immigration? US citizens only? I’m not sure how Abrams made that leap, particularly given the fact that — whatever criticisms I have of Evangelical Christianity — they are most definitely a world faith and do vastly more humanitarian work in developing nations than Abrams and his ilk ever dreamed of attempting. Abrams then goes on to point out that “I always thought that it was the Mormons who received planets to manage in Heaven”, making Robertson a “closet Mormon.” Abrams then decides that this means that Robertson must be planning to support Romney in 2012, after having supported Giuliani in 2008.

I think that Abrams was trying to write a witty, satirical piece, but mostly he comes across as someone who is mostly interested in scoring cheap laughs by mocking others without learning enough to say anything really clever or actually applying any semblance of logic to his leaps.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that I actually appeared once on “The 700 Club” and was interviewed by Robertson. It had to do with Year 2000 issues (I had testified three times before Congress on the matter and was working with Fannie Mae on its corporate-wide Y2K remediation efforts). That, of course, is not to be construed as an endorsement of or agreement with Robertson or “The 700 Club”, either their collective theology or their approach and operations, and I’m sure Robertson would feel the same about me. But at least in my experience he took the time to learn what he was talking about.  ..bruce..

LDS bishop tackles truth, Evangelical Christianity

From a posted news item:

Today, many people generally view Evangelical Christians as a people with strong family values and clean living, according to the bishop of the McLean 3rd Ward (Latter-day Saint). Some also believe they are just one of many Christian denominations.

But that view is the result of a multibillion dollar campaign over the last couple of decades by Evangelical Christians who have attempted to present themselves in such a way, according to Bishop Todd Phillips of the McLean 3rd Ward.

Many Americans, including Christians, see Evangelical Christians as “just another branch of Christianity who talk about Jesus all the time and likely do a better job at adhering to family values than most Christian do in churches in America,” Phillips told hundreds attending service on Sunday.

That perspective, however, is in stark contrast to just 50 years ago, when Evangelicals were seen as “conservative, backward religious zealots who didn’t dance or drink, and lived in the South, intermarrying, handling snakes and doing tent revivals,” Phillips said.

“They were also marked by many as extreme right-wingers out to destroy even the concept of political, religious and social tolerance.”

They were perceived by Catholics and most Protestants as a fringe Christian denomination at best and a cult at worst, he noted.

As part of a seven-week series of talks during Sacrament meeting, Phillips was attempting to answer the question of whether Evangelical Christianty and biblical Christianity are the same.

Oh, wait! That’s not what the news item said at all! ..bruce..

The nine billion blessings on the food

A common discussion among Latter-day Saints (and among many other Christians as well as believers in other faiths) is the all-too-easy tendency for prayer to devolve into mechanical recitation as opposed to, well, talking with God. That’s why this website (hat tip to Futurismic) caught my attention:

Information Age Prayer is a subscription service utilizing a computer with text-to-speech capability to incant your prayers each day. It gives you the satisfaction of knowing that your prayers will always be said even if you wake up late, or forget.

We use state of the art text to speech synthesizers to voice each prayer at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person praying. Each prayer is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen.

The website is well done, if a bit home-grown looking, and fairly complete. It let me go through the entire process of buying a one-time prayer and paying via Paypal (and, yes, I got the payment confirmation e-mail from Paypal), so it’s not (entirely) a joke. And for all I know, they may well have one or more computers set up with voice synthesizers.

Many of you will of course be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God”, though the stated intent here is merely petitionary prayers, not bringing about the end of creation. They have sections for specific religions: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Unaffiliated, with corresponding prayers and “special package deals” (no, really).

They don’t have “Mormon” or “Latter-day Saints” on the list of religions, and when I clicked on the “Other Religions” button, a page came up with this wonderful headline: “We apologize but other religions are not yet supported.” What is both funny and a bit sad is that I suspect most of us could come up with a standard template for LDS morning and evening prayers, as well as blessings on the food.

So here’s the questions/challenge for all of us: what distinguishes our prayers (personal and family) from those that could be set up and recited by a computer?  ..bruce..

Some thoughts from a Catholic as well

E. D. Kain at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen has also taken note of Michael’s Spencer’s prediction of the collapse of Evangelical Christianity and added some thoughs of his own from a Catholic point of view:

Now my personal take is that the disintegration of the highly political evangelical movement which Andrew [Sullivan] identifies as Christianist would be overall a very good thing. But if Evangelicals drift over into the Catholic Church I do think there is cause for concern.  I think one thing the Church absolutely does not need is a large population of biblical literalists and fundamentalists swelling its ranks.  The problem with protestantism in general, to my mind, is its lack of mooring in history and tradition, something that really forms the foundation of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

What the Catholic Church does need is a Vatican III.  What could help save Catholicism, which I think in the long run stands a better chance of survival than evangelical or even mainline protestant churches, is a reform in its priesthood.  It’s time to allow priests to marry.  This prohibition on marriage in the priesthood is foolhardy, and one of the major stumbling blocks not only in recruiting new priests, but in winning back public trust of the Church itself.  Beyond that, the Church needs more transparency.  I think there is a case to be made against total transparency, but with all the scandals that have beset the Church in the past few decades, from child molestation to cover-ups, the only way to quell the slow uproar over these seemingly never-ending revelations of deceit is to open up.  Let us see what’s going on behind the veil of obsfucation.  The wrong thing to do would be to take the Church away from Vatican II reforms.  The right thing to do would be to move toward a relevant Vatican III.

Of course, what neither Spencer nor Kain address is what happens if some significant percentage of those Evangelicals move into the LDS Church (as opposed to the Catholic or Orthodox Churches).  ..bruce..

[UPDATE: Here’s a post to discuss possible futures of the LDS Church, particularly in America.]

LDS history and organization: a cautionary tale from the Catholics

Within the LDS Church, we continue to debate publicly and agonize privately over issues in LDS history (hagiography, naturalism, etc.) as well as occasionally getting our knickers in a twist over perceived or real issues in LDS leadership, both local and general. However, I think we sometimes lose perspective at just how open our history is and how self-correcting our organization is.

I write this because while doing my usual scan of the blogosphere this morning, I stumbled across a series of posts having to do with a Catholic order — the Legion of Christ — and the parallel lay organization, the Regnum Christi Movement. I claim no particular knowledge of or familiarity with either group or their respective context within the Catholic Church. But what is clear from the posting I’ve read today is that the founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marciel Maciel, who died about a year ago and who is very much venerated by the LC and RC membership, is now acknowledged to have fathered at least one child out of wedlock (on top of earlier accusations regarding sexual abuse of young men).  This appears to be quite devastating for those who have been defending Fr. Maciel’s name for some time (mostly in light of the earlier accusations). Here are some more links to discussions on this issue: here, here, here, here and here.

I write none of this to somehow attack the Catholic Church or its beliefs; to the contrary, the Catholic Church itself appears to be doing its best to deal honestly and appropriately with these issues, which really exist in organizations outside of itself. Instead, I think there are two important lessons here for us, one in terms of LDS history, the other in terms of LDS organization.

First, the sense I get from the various postings on this subject is that Fr. Maciel was revered by LC and RC members to a degree that even the most zealous Joseph Smith fan might flinch from. To quote from the New York Times article:

In Catholic religious orders, members are taught to identify with the spirituality and values of the founder. That was taken to an extreme in the Legionaries, said the Rev. Stephen Fichter, a priest in New Jersey who left the order after 14 years.

“Father Maciel was this mythical hero who was put on a pedestal and had all the answers,” Father Fichter said. “When you become a Legionarie, you have to read every letter Father Maciel ever wrote, like 15 or 16 volumes. To hear he’s been having this double life on the side, I just don’t see how they’re going to continue.”

Of course, we’re studying writings of Joseph Smith in Priesthood and Relief Society, and the LDS Church is now putting out 30 volumes of of the Joseph Smith papers. But the recent trends in “faithful” LDS historical scholarship have almost all been towards frankness (Rough Stone Rolling, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball) to an extent never seen before. There has been much debate in the Bloggernacle and elsewhere about “inoculation” and openness in LDS history; I think that the issues surround Fr. Maciel suggest the need to continue that openness.

Second, for all the grousing that goes on about the “Mormon hierarchy” or, on occasion, the lay nature of most LDS leadership, I think that the host of problems and the apparent divisiveness that appear to surround the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, particularly in light of the new information about Fr. Maciel, underscore the danger of such ancillary priesthood orders and lay organizations. While an undergrad at BYU (1970s), I remember having a discussion with one of my professors about some friends who were starting an independent scripture study group. The professor said — half-joking, half-serious — said, “You realize that’s how most apostate groups get started, don’t you?” Those friends didn’t apostatize, but I certainly ran into my share of such groups that had while I was at BYU, both as a student and as a teacher (cf. C. S. Lewis on “the lure of the Inner Ring“).

Try this thought-experiment: imagine organizing a group independent of the LDS Church explicitly (and strictly) led by Melchizedek priesthood holders, focused on the Restoration gospel, publishing its own books and materials, training its own personnel, and carrying out specific priesthood functions parallel to and independent of the Church. (Right now, depending upon your age, you may be thinking either of the Freeman Institute or one of the many Utah-based multi-level marketing corporations, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) Now imagine a lay (or, as we would say, “auxiliary”) organization specifically for families that reports to and is guided by this group, again all operating completely independent of the LDS Church itself.

Right about now, “train wreck” may be what is passing through your mind; it’s certainly what passes through mine.

We grouse at times about the quality of teaching and leadership within the LDS Church, about the arbitrary decisions often made by bishops and stake presidents, about the uniformity imposed by the Correlation Committee, and the simplicity of the “Sunday School answers”.

Yet, I think those are all either tremendous strengths or, at worst, acceptable issues that are much better than the alternatives.  While we all at times feel a wish to remake the Church in our own likeness and image, it is not at all clear that this would be a good thing for anyone but us, and possibly not even for ourselves.  In short, the next time you’re tempted to grouse about the Church, be careful what you wish for.  ..bruce..

Study: religion correlates with greater self-control

An interesting article in the New York Times on New Year’s resolutions discusses the role of religion:

[Dr. Michael McCullough’s] professional interest arose from a desire to understand why religion evolved and why it seems to help so many people. Researchers around the world have repeatedly found that devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.

These results have been ascribed to the rules imposed on believers and to the social support they receive from fellow worshipers, but these external factors didn’t account for all the benefits. In the new paper, the Miami psychologists surveyed the literature to test the proposition that religion gives people internal strength.

“We simply asked if there was good evidence that people who are more religious have more self-control,” Dr. McCullough. “For a long time it wasn’t cool for social scientists to study religion, but some researchers were quietly chugging along for decades. When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”

As early as the 1920s, researchers found that students who spent more time in Sunday school did better at laboratory tests measuring their self-discipline. Subsequent studies showed that religiously devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers, and that religiosity repeatedly correlated with higher self-control among adults. Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins.

But which came first, the religious devotion or the self-control? It takes self-discipline to sit through Sunday school or services at a temple or mosque, so people who start out with low self-control are presumably less likely to keep attending. But even after taking that self-selection bias into account, Dr. McCullough said there is still reason to believe that religion has a strong influence.

Read the whole thing. The self-selection issue is an interesting one and has some theological implications (“we will prove them herewith”); it also ties into enduring to the end. On the other hand, we believe that Christ’s atonement gave Him the power not just to forgive us but to change our very natures — to make us better than we are. I think our start is quite simple — “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” — but we have to follow where the Lord leads us.  ..bruce..