Mormon beefcake

by Henry on March 3, 2009

From the Chronicle of Higher Education

Brigham Young University has rejected an appeal from a student who had completed all the requirements for a degree but saw his diploma withheld last year after he published Men on a Mission, a calendar of buff Mormon missionaries without shirts, the Associated Press reported.

The student, Chad Henry, was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the university, over the calendar last July. In September he was told that, to receive his degree, he would need to be reinstated as a member of the Mormon church.

Which reminds me that anyone who hasn’t read Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s wonderful account of how she came to be excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints really doesn’t know what they are missing.

{ 57 comments }

1

Matt 03.03.09 at 9:38 pm

Funny that he was excommunicated over it. I wonder if there was some worry about who, exactly, was viewing these calenders, and maybe if they were not, perhaps, of the wrong gender, that sort of thing being a touchy subject. My own story isn’t as colorful as TNH’s, but has some funny parts anyway.

2

Bill Gardner 03.03.09 at 9:50 pm

Very weird, given that you do not need to be LDS to be a student there (e.g., Jim MacMahon).

3

John Quiggin 03.03.09 at 10:10 pm

Indeed, I didn’t know what I was missing. Thanks for that link.

4

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 03.03.09 at 10:16 pm

Given that (as Bill Gardner points out) you don’t have to be LDS to attend BYU, it’s hard to imagine that the outfits that accredit universities wouldn’t be concerned about this. Perhaps I’m naive, but it does seem like a violation, at least in spirit, of how something recognized as a “university” (and granted that status by secular society) can comport itself.

5

Matt 03.03.09 at 10:22 pm

My recollection (perhaps Russell can help out here) is that, LDS or not, when you attend BYU you must agree to follows “Church Standards”.* This can be pretty nebulous, but it includes not drinking, on or off campus, not having a beard, not smoking, no sex outside of marriage, and so on. It probably includes not producing material that will get you excommunicated as well, and I’d guess that anything that will get you excommunicated is not following church standards.
*note that this doesn’t apply if you’re a huge star quarterback. Then you can chew tobacco and get the bishop’s daughter pregnant and not be kicked out of school.

6

Russell Arben Fox 03.03.09 at 10:30 pm

I have no desire to get into arguments about my church or my alma mater (especially since my fondness of the latter is only moderate, at best), but for what it’s worth:

1) We don’t know what he was excommunicated for, Matt. Church disciplinary courts very rarely make any kind of public statement. Maybe he was excommunicated for making the posters. Maybe he was excommunicated because he, like Teresa, had no faith in and thus no desire to sustain to a bunch of uptight, self-righteous lay leaders. Maybe he was excommunicated because he was sleeping around. We don’t know.

2) BYU has significantly tighted its religious and moral standards of admittance and graduation since Jim McMahon’s time, Bill and Patrick. You have to receive regular ecclesiastical endorsements to stay at the school, from semester to semester, year to year, contract to contract (yes, it covers faculty too). I have no idea what the Honor Code says these days, but I would be flabbergast if there wasn’t very explicit language in there stating that former Mormons who had left the church through excommunication wouldn’t receive their diplomas.

3) Henry, we generally don’t capitalize the “d” in “day.” It’s “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Thanks.

7

kid bitzer 03.03.09 at 10:38 pm

“we generally don’t capitalize the “d” in “day.””

that may well be the most intriguing fact i’ve learned on the internet today.

why not just go whole hog and write it as one word: “latterday”?

(i can certainly understand why you’d want to avoid “latter day-saints”, which would make them sound like day-laborers).

8

Keith M Ellis 03.03.09 at 10:42 pm

Can Patrick or someone who knows a lot about Mormons and Mormonism explain to me the seemingly paradoxical experience by me (and echoed by many others I’ve talked with) that, although the Mormon religion is exceptionally regressive and apparently intolerant, almost all of the Mormons I’ve known have been exceptionally nice people that gave me the strong impression of being truly good?

What I’m trying to get at is that this is interestingly in contrast to my experience of people of other faiths who have roughly the same very culturally conservative values; the typical culturally conservative evangelical, for example. They’re angry and alienated, mistrust everyone not like themselves; and, more to the point, aren’t nice to people who aren’t like themselves. The Mormons I’ve known, however, have almost been uniformly nice. They gave the impression of tolerance, though I know that can’t be true, essentially, given their beliefs. (And I’m including many people here whom I knew to be devout.)

Does it have something to do with being a minority and often mistrusted religion in American culture? Even though it’s not nearly so marginalized as it once was?

I’ve had better, more productive, more friendly, and more intellectually rigorous conversations with Mormons about matters of religious belief and related matters than I have ever had with the numerous Protestant cultural conservatives I’ve known. And yet, both the belief system itself and many of its very conservative values are the kinds of things that I tend to attribute to (what I perceive as) being the cause of the common vices of other kinds of religious conservatives—the things I already mentioned, which can be generalized as a sort of indiscriminate hatefulness.

Is there some imperative to be friendly to outsiders, perhaps for proselytizing reasons?

I’ve been puzzled about this for years and years.

9

Russell Arben Fox 03.03.09 at 10:47 pm

Beats me, kid bitzer. Blame it on Joseph Smith’s limited 19th-century backwoods education in English grammar. The church, as per what we believe to be revelation, was originally just called “The Church of Jesus Christ,” but as Smith came to believe that some additional language was necessary to emphasize that the church claims to be in continuity with the community Jesus originally formed, but is still distinct from it in the sense of having been revealed and reconstructed in the last days. Hence, “Latter-day.”

For what it’s worth, the name rarely comes through well in translation; the literal meaning of the words we used to say the church’s name in Korean is “Jesus Christ’s Church of the Saints of the Last Day.”

10

kid bitzer 03.03.09 at 10:48 pm

that’s my experience too, keith.

relatedly: mormon missionaries in third world countries have sometimes been observed doing actual good, i.e. positively improving the lives of the people in those countries. this too is somewhat anomalous for the broader category.

hypothesis: part of what makes your typical mormon more tolerant than other religious conservatives is the fact that they have to learn–really learn–a foreign language. i have run into mormons (and ex-mormons) who were fluent in some languages that were pretty damned difficult and out-of-the-way.
(this hypothesis is a weird sort of meta-sapir-whorff: if you learn multiple languages, then you ipso facto imbibe multiple outlooks. i don’t believe it; i merely speculate).

11

kid bitzer 03.03.09 at 10:50 pm

okay: so mr. fox knows korean. case in point.

12

Matt 03.03.09 at 10:59 pm

Here’s two thoughts on the “nice” issue. First, despite its roots in New York State and some time in the mid-west, Mormonism is really a western phenomena. And, people in the west are “nice”. If you spend much time in the east or in some parts of Europe or the like, it can freak you out how nice people in the west are- very friendly and helpful. It gets down-right oppressive after a while. So, some of it is that. More speculatively- Mormons don’t really believe in hell. As I recall it, the worst place most people could end up (the telestial kingdom) is very nice. So nice, you’d kill yourself to get to go there if you saw it. Or at least late 19th century Americans would. Maybe now days people wouldn’t. But, believing in endless lakes of fire, people being stabbed by demons and eaten and shat out over and over, and that you’ll take joy in it and that God likes that sort of thing, well, it doesn’t help your niceness level very much. But if you don’t think God is taking pleasure in torturing most people for all eternity, maybe you’ll be nicer, too. It helps one’s outlook, anyway, and makes the who religion less dismal and unpleasant. There’s a sort of culture of service, an idea of being good neighbors, and trying to love others, too, that’s taken fairly seriously. It’s most actively directed at fellow members, but not only. Those things add up.

13

mollymooly 03.03.09 at 11:04 pm

@Keith M Ellis: you are including devout and not-devout-but-still-Mormons; what about lapsed or excommunicated Mormons, or those now actively hostile to Mormonism? Are they as nice? Maybe it’s all the assholes who leave.

@kid bitzer: “part of what makes your typical mormon more tolerant than other religious conservatives is the fact that they have to learn—really learn—a foreign language. ” Isn’t it just men who do missionary work? I imagine travel broadens their minds, even without the language-learning.

@Matt: is that western niceness or just small-town niceness? Are urban Mormons as nice as rural ones?

14

Russell Arben Fox 03.03.09 at 11:05 pm

There are probably any number of naturalistic or sociological explanations for that question, Keith, and then there are devotional explanations. The naturalistic or sociological explanations would be things like: yes, as a proselytizing church, with a great many of us have served missions for the church, there is a great emphasis on and presumbly some skill at presenting oneself as tolerant and open-minded and developing “relationships of trust,” as the old missionary manuals used to say, even if the culture or language or customs seem bizarre or evil to you. Or maybe: the particular theological and ecclesiastical structure of the church–post-polygamy, anyway–has encouraged members of the church (though that may be changing as the church leadership finds itself more and more often committed to stereotypically conservative “culture war” positions) to be active and optimistic participants in the better elements of modern life, to accept science and capitalism and education and the pluralism they inevitably produce. Or maybe: the history of church, filled as it is with story after story of the years of persecution and hostility, ending with the church being driven pretty much to extinction before it caved to government pressure, has engrained into Mormon practice a sensitivity to exclusion, as well a belief that the best practical response to hostility is to get along by emphasizing commonalities, and not pick fights where unnecessary. Or also: as a church built around a lay leadership, with the overwhelming majority of the work that must be done to keep the whole operation running being provided by volunteers, there’s an intense community spirit which develops, a constant awareness of the need to pitch in and help out others when they’re overworked or ill or in trouble, and that communitarian sensibility results in a general desire to try to do the same in our neighborhoods, workplaces, etc.

The devotional explanation, of course, would be that, well, we’ve got the Holy Ghost, and the gifts of the spirit, and they bless us so as not to be assholes quite as often as we might be otherwise.

15

Russell Arben Fox 03.03.09 at 11:14 pm

Matt, correct: our doctrine basically rejects the whole fire-and-brimstone thing. Christ’s atonement saved us all; the only people who aren’t covered by it are those who obtain (in this life or the next) a full and complete knowledge of God’s love for them, and then reject it. Everyone else is going to enjoy salvation; the only question is, what kind.

Mollymooly: women are called to serve proselyting missions, but not as often as men are. For men who want to be serious about their membership, it’s pretty much mandatory come age 19 or 20; for women, it’s considered more a nice devotional option.

Never thought I’d have a conversation like this on Crooked Timber. Now I have to run, as I’m responsible for a youth group at my church building tonight. No joke.

16

Phil 03.03.09 at 11:27 pm

Or also: as a church built around a lay leadership, with the overwhelming majority of the work that must be done to keep the whole operation running being provided by volunteers, there’s an intense community spirit which develops

Whatever it is, it’s not that. My grandparents on one side were Plymouth Brethren, and they were as closed-minded, self-righteous and ungenerous as you like. “We’ve got the Holy Ghost and you can’t have any!”

Actually I think the devotional explanation, or at least a sociological version of it, is probably the strongest. I’ve only met a few LDS people, but yes, they were all genuinely nice people – they reminded me in that respect of some of the better Anglicans and Catholics and Marxists I’ve known. Faith does have that effect, sometimes. Perhaps the question is why it so often doesn’t.

17

Dave Maier 03.03.09 at 11:30 pm

You have to admit, that’s a great title for that calendar. Also, I entirely endorse the idea of “day-saints.”

18

Ben Alpers 03.04.09 at 12:00 am

Put me down as someone else who shares previous posters’ lifelong experience of Mormon personal decency toward those who don’t share their faith. I too think that this makes (most) Mormons I’ve met* rather unlike (most) theologically conservative Catholics and Protestants I’ve known.** I’ll also admit to having a lifelong sociological/historical fascination with Mormonism, though I’ve never really been able to put my finger on why I find them so much more interesting than other religious movements with which I have no personal connection. Thanks, too, to Russell Arben Fox for acting as an excellent native informant throughout this thread.

______________________

* It might be worth noting that I’ve never met Mitt Romney.

** In this regard Latter-day Saints also compare rather favorably with analytic philosophers.

19

Henry 03.04.09 at 12:11 am

The contrast between the evident niceness of the people doing the excommunication and the not-niceness of the act of excommunicating itself is what gives Teresa’s essay its oomph, I think. Patrick – this touches on issues of university governance that I only know about vaguely, given that I don’t teach at a religious institution. I am more familiar with it on the faculty level – there are lots of places that make it clear that any professor they hire has to be Christian/Protestant-of-a-particular-brand/whatever, but whether they are accredited by other institutions than secular ones etc, I don’t know. I did see that either IHE or CoHE published an article recently on trying to reconcile academic freedom and Christian mission – I will try to dig it up.

20

Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 03.04.09 at 12:21 am

I’ll echo the other commenters in that most Mormons I have met have been very decent people.

Possibly it’s because of a recent memory of persecution of their faith.

I feel guilty, though, because I find Mormonism as a religion (rather than as a social grouping) somewhat hard to take seriously, givne the account of how Joe Smith found the scriptures and that that archeology and genetic analysis make its scriptures scientifically falsifible. It seems too forced, too strained, probably because (like the Koran), its scriptures are the work of one man rather than (like the Bible and Torah) the work of multiple authors edited over time to remove the more blatant inconsistencies. It still needs to find its Aquinas. But it has shown itself to be very flexible, and goddamn they are nice people.

21

BillCinSD 03.04.09 at 12:23 am

1. Put me down as not so fast my friend on the whole LDS are almost always nice people. While I had many very good LDS friends when I lived in Utah, I also knew quite a few people who would become friendly, then never want to talk again after they were convinced that I would not convert. This also happened to many of my friends (especially those with children).

2. The only women I knew that went on missions, were in their mid- to late-20s and unmarried.

3. The three LDS members that I knew had been excommunicated were all for living with a member of the opposite sex before marriage, and all were from Orange County CA (which used to have more LDS members than Utah)

22

Keith M Ellis 03.04.09 at 12:55 am

While I had many very good LDS friends when I lived in Utah, I also knew quite a few people who would become friendly, then never want to talk again after they were convinced that I would not convert.

Yeah, I try not to overlook that. But I grew up in Eastern New Mexico where Mormons are visible, but a minority. And so a portion of those I’ve known (probably half I’ve known in other environments than my childhood and where the above might apply) live around people who are mostly not Mormon and they don’t expect to convert them. Yet, they still were noticeably nicer people than, say, the Baptists I knew.

Probably like others who have commented here, I’m an atheist since early adulthood and so I generally feel like a stranger in a strange land. Every believer I meet, which is basically everyone, is someone to whom I’m an outsider. And I was an open-minded, intellectually rigorous “seeker” from childhood through adolescence, so I’ve been accumulating interactions with other people concerning their beliefs my entire life. Thus, it’s not a trivial number of interactions and therefore I don’t think that my general comparative observation about Mormons is unreliable.

23

Martin James 03.04.09 at 12:58 am

I’ll venture a little more negative interpretation of the “nice” phenomenon.

In some ways many Mormons view non-mormons as being outside their status hierarchy. Since you don’t “count”, all of the envy-driven reasons not to be nice go away. This applies mainly outside of Utah.

Non-mormons that move to Utah can experience culture shock at not having the usual status granted to them in social situations. You can be smart, rich and beautiful and socially completely irrelevant once you move to Utah (REAL UTAH ie. the part that’s not Salt Lake or Park City).

24

rea 03.04.09 at 12:58 am

I’ve only met a few LDS people, but yes, they were all genuinely nice people

In my youth in the West, I met a fair number of Mormons who were arrogant and hostile, although of course by no means all Mormons fit that description.

25

Bruce Baugh 03.04.09 at 1:05 am

My experience growing up in a community with a strong Mormon presence is that the proverbial niceness is quite real and worthwhile, but that it can drop awfully fast when one’s actions threaten what the local community sees as Mormon interests. The nearly-annual debate on curriculum matters could bring out a lot of nastiness; so, and much more personally so, could (for instance) being a pregnant teenager. It’s possible (I think) to convey the message “this isn’t up to the standards we profess” without the active cruelty I saw directed against sinning friends and dissenting parents.

26

BarryG 03.04.09 at 1:36 am

As an outsider to this site, I have to say I’m struck by how *nice* and *civil* the commenters on Crooked Timber all seem to be. Not like those snarky, nasty ones on Matt and Kevin’s blogs. Oh, and I agree about Mormons being nice.

27

Kmack 03.04.09 at 2:00 am

@ 10: “hypothesis: part of what makes your typical mormon more tolerant than other religious conservatives is the fact that they have to learn—really learn—a foreign language.”

Is this some kind of ploy to invite the obvious observation? The Mormon Church and many of its members played a major financial and organizational role in successfully promoting the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, in California.

What’s the relevance of personal “niceness” here, and how did that diversion get preposterously parlayed into a claim about Mormon toleration? Many evangelical Christians–if not many Republican activist ones–seem “nice” enough.

28

kid bitzer 03.04.09 at 2:09 am

well, exactly, kmack. no one here is saying that the church itself is an enlightened institution. personally, i think it’s an abomination.

but that, i take it, is exactly the background fact which makes the personal decency of the individuals worthy of note.

29

Matt 03.04.09 at 2:32 am

mollymooly- I want to say that “niceness” is a general mountain-west thing. (The mountain west is importantly different culturally from the coastal regions, I think. At least the coastal parts of California and the Western parts of Oregon and Washington are quite different from Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, western Montana, Maybe Colorado, too, but I don’t know. In most of that area there are not too many “big” cities, but in the cities there are (Salt Lake, Boise, Reno, etc.) it’s just as, maybe more, “nice” than in the smaller towns. Or at least that’s been my experience. This area has some real cultural pathologies, too- the stupid form of libertarianism you find there, in places that could barely exist without massive government spending on dams, roads, etc. is awful. But the “niceness” seems a real mountain west trait to me.

Two other points about Mormons being “nice” is that there’s a culture, and a lot of pressure, to have a sunny disposition and look on the bright side and the like. This can be good, but there are a fair number of people who come to find it really oppressive, who feel like they _must_ be cheerful, no matter how they really feel. Also, I think that not drinking helps to some degree. I like a good drink and I think that completely not drinking is bad for most people. (I think Kant was quite right on this.) But, lots of being jerks for lots of people is mixed up with their drinking too much in many different ways, and you mostly avoid that with Mormons. Again, none of this explains all of it, but I think these sorts of things add up into a fairly general phenomena.

30

Keith M Ellis 03.04.09 at 2:35 am

What’s the relevance of personal “niceness” here, and how did that diversion get preposterously parlayed into a claim about Mormon toleration? Many evangelical Christians—if not many Republican activist ones—seem “nice” enough.

What kid blitzer wrote. Except that I’d reiterate my claim—coming from someone who has almost always been surrounded by a majority of evangelical Christians and Republicans—that, no, comparatively to Mormons, not that many have seemed that unusually “nice”.

Believe me, I’m furious about the LDS’s backing of Prop 8. As well as their many official unusually regressive policies. That’s exactly why I find it remarkable that most Mormons I’ve known I would easily classify as good people, while this certainly is not true of other groups with comparable values. That’s what’s so strange. I think they’re good in spite of their regressive, intolerant values and I’m extremely curious about why this is the case.

It goes right to the heart of an aphorism I made up and repeated often when I was young, but don’t mention much anymore: most people don’t believe what they believe. My point is that I’m not sure that peoples’ beliefs reliably correlate with their goodness. Goodness has everything to do with you relate to people on a one-to-one basis. It should have everything to do with your politics in a democracy, too; but, unfortunately, I don’t think it does.

It seems to me that, for example, the same homophobic and misogynist values one sees in the LDS and in conservative cultural evangelicals are actually quite disimmilar on how the relate to how they relate to the individual member of LDS and conservative evangelical churches. For many of the evangelicals, these antagonist and intolerant values are the chief attraction of the faith; I don’t think that’s the case with Mormons. I think Mormons are Mormons in spite of the fact that these values are antagonist and intolerant…I suspect they wish they could convert everyone so that they could avoid the conflict. Most of the outspoken cultural conservatives, however, particularly evangelicals of the Roberston/Falwell ilk, I strongly suspect would always find enemies and people to be intolerant of. So even if the values vis a vis belief and faith are the same, I don’t think they’re the same as the personal values and temperaments, if you see what I’m getting at.

31

Russell Arben Fox 03.04.09 at 4:10 am

Martin James wrote:

In some ways many Mormons view non-mormons as being outside their status hierarchy. Since you don’t “count”, all of the envy-driven reasons not to be nice go away….You can be smart, rich and beautiful and socially completely irrelevant once you move to Utah (REAL UTAH ie. the part that’s not Salt Lake or Park City).

…and Bruce Baugh wrote:

My experience growing up in a community with a strong Mormon presence is that the proverbial niceness is quite real and worthwhile, but that it can drop awfully fast when one’s actions threaten what the local community sees as Mormon interests.

I think these two comments together articulate a pretty wise observation, one that is certainly applicable to the majority of the members of my faith in America (I wouldn’t want to extend this observation to Mormons outside America, as the specific cultural contexts differ greatly), but which is also probably applicable to any number of secure, separated or partially separated communities. The bulk of the Mormon faithful are pretty intensely committed to their congregations, to their families, and to their vision of how they are to receives God’s blessings in their lives. This translates into a lot of time and energy (case in point: I have just returned, fifteen minutes ago, from two and half hours of activities and meetings at my church, and that’s pretty regular for a Tuesday night), and social estimations follow from that. So much of our focus in on our communities that it may well be the case that we don’t feel it as “costing” us much to be nice and generous and tolerant of neighbors and strangers, because they’re not competing with or contributing to our little world. Of course, occasionally, they do–and when they do, it doesn’t surprise me to a lot of very efficient and perhaps harsh closing of ranks.

One of my perennial frustrations as a Mormon who is on the political left, and somewhat heterodox as well, is that so much of the social conservatism of our faith (much of which I agree with) is unarticulated and casually assumed: not the product of engagement, but rather simply sustained in the ambiance of all our busy activity. Lately–arguably stretching back to the ERA in the 1970s, but only really getting thrown into high gear by the struggle over same-sex marriage over the past decade–some of our church leaders have been enlisting and motivating members of the church to take part in these culture war battles collectively. The great majority of American Mormons, for any number of reasons, have long voted in conservative Republican ways, but only as individuals; not usually as a coordinated block. This is changing, and yet glue which holds this collective action together is not, for the most part, an articulated, elaboration of a Mormon cultural or political point of view–because to do so would be contentious, difficult, and not nice. Rather, it’s being promulgated as just a good moral citizen type of citizen thing…with, as one might imagine, an accompanying (and frustrating, to me anyway) expression of obliviousness and shock. Why do the Californians think we’re spreading hate? We don’t hate anybody! And honestly, I believe that’s true–not just in a theo-political sense (though that, of course, in arguable), but also in the feelings of those Mormon voters and donors who helped to push Proposition 8 into the win column. I really think their surprise at the backlash and the protests (which is such an un-nice thing to do) is genuine.

I feel somewhat pretentious saying so, but I tend to think the Mormonism is, as a public actor, still pretty immature. Proposition 8 will, perhaps, be a bit of a reminder that the grown up democratic world of cultural and political choices and occasional zero-sum arguments is important and enriching, but rarely simply nice (as valuable as that virtue assuredly is).

Sorry for the length, but I’m working on a project on the whole Proposition 8 thing, and these ideas are much on my mind lately.

32

Russell Arben Fox 03.04.09 at 4:17 am

Goodness has everything to do with [how] you relate to people on a one-to-one basis.

You make an interesting observation, Keith, but everything in it boils down this this assumption. Good people, you assume, can’t really believe in something that would result in less than good things (as you define them) happening to people a one-to-one basis, even if they say they do believe those things, because their personal goodness–their one-to-one niceness–puts a lie to those beliefs. Yet I think your basic assumption is highly contestable. I, for one, think it is entirely possible and reasonable for goodness to reside in, for example, a state of approval before God, that will not necessarily always result in one-to-one niceness. You can disagree, of course, but your disagreement would have to involve contesting the premises of that belief and defending your own, rather than just shaking your head in disbelief.

33

chuk 03.04.09 at 4:49 am

As a ex-mormon I really enjoyed Teresa’s essay, and could certainly identify with a lot of her experiences. My falling out with the church actually had a lot to do with nobody ever explaining to me that faith is something that isn’t caused. I just went a long waiting for a faith causing event. By the time I realized that faith is something that pretty much by definition isn’t supposed to have a reason behind it (at least in the real world), I was already well on my way to becoming a scientist (how many 10 year olds that you know worry about causation?).

As far as the niceness of the LDS… as they prefer to be called… I have to agree with a lot of the comments I’ve seen so far (the pros and the cons). On the other hand, I’ve also come to worry a great deal about how this church will play itself out in the future. I’m afraid that it’s a bit of a powder keg. There’s an awful lot of end days, regrouping and libensraum like talk in their theology, and I worry that if the shit ever hits the fan in the states, they’ll be among the first and most well equipped to barricade and declare political autonomy, quite likely at the expense of the people that live with and near them.

On another note, as a sociologist (in training), the LDS church is a masterpiece of organizational efficiency (Teresa’s story alludes to this when she tells of her file with them). I’d love to see some scholar explore this further. I still have too much baggage with the church to do it myself.

34

lisa 03.04.09 at 4:53 am

“Can Patrick or someone who knows a lot about Mormons and Mormonism explain to me the seemingly paradoxical experience by me (and echoed by many others I’ve talked with) that, although the Mormon religion is exceptionally regressive and apparently intolerant, almost all of the Mormons I’ve known have been exceptionally nice people that gave me the strong impression of being truly good?

What I’m trying to get at is that this is interestingly in contrast to my experience of people of other faiths who have roughly the same very culturally conservative values; the typical culturally conservative evangelical, for example. They’re angry and alienated, mistrust everyone not like themselves; and, more to the point, aren’t nice to people who aren’t like themselves.”

I wonder if the following claims are really all that surprising:

First, it may seem strange but it is possible to belong to a religion with some doctrines that are intolerant (e.g., all people who don’t believe as we do or act as we say are all going to hell) and even believe the doctrines of that religion and be extremely kind to all those heathens/heretics/hell-bound people. I agree with you that this isn’t what a person would expect unless they have regular contact with these people, who are unlike ourselves. The whole story is a little bit more complex. First, they are supposed to be kind and loving toward others if they are Christians–there are other ethical requirements for Muslims. I don’t know the specifics there. But ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims I’ve met seem both like good people and nice to infidels (or at least me). Many religions have strains of tolerance and intolerance, both ethical condemnation and ethical reverence for human beings as such. Their standards for personal behavior toward others usually require treating others well, whatever their ultimate destination after death. In pathological cases, religion functions like nationalism or similar things and yes, then you could be in trouble if you aren’t a believer. But in daily life, not so much.

Do you actually know a bunch of culturally conservative evangelicals? Were they really all like this? In my experience, they are not all like this, particularly when dealing with actual humans rather than abstractions. Abstractly, they may think certain people are committing horrifying sins but when they deal with those people, they are not necessarily inclined to be cruel or openly condemning. There are even some reasons internal to the religion not to be such but also, I don’t think they are quite so morally ‘other’ as some people seem to think.

I think that the anger, etc. is often caused by particular subcultures, rather than an artifact of a particular religion one belongs to. There is a subculture of angry right wing paranoid that overlaps with some of the evangelical subculture. But then there are many other subcultural groups with those traits. In my experience, certain academics can be bitter, rage-filled, intolerant people who can’t stand anyone unlike themselves, e.g., Muslims and Christians. Or various others they don’t like–chaos theorists or libertarians or whatever. My hypothesis is that the thing that makes people angry and intolerant is some kind of perceived wound to themselves, rather than their beliefs per se. The problem is that there are a lot of right wing people who take up Christianity as a kind of perceived victim status and have all kinds of crazy views. But this is not a necessary feature of belonging to the religion. I think it really oversimplifies to say that the antagonism is the main attraction to the faith. For some people it is. For other people it isn’t. Maybe go to L.A. and visit a Guatemalan evangelical church sometime and see why they joined ? Or even a suburban megachurch? The reasons are very diffuse and complex.

This is not to say that the potential is not there for a scary us/them kind of Christian nationalism. Or that fundamentalists don’t attempt an unjustified dominance over others in politics–as occurred in Prop 8. Or that there are not many problems associated with religious fundamentalism in society and politics. I think James Ellis is right that people’s beliefs don’t always correlate with their goodness. Sometimes you can even explain why, although I don’t think I managed to do that.

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nick s 03.04.09 at 5:13 am

What makes LDS institutions and culture interesting, at least from my outsider’s perspective, is that it offers a sorta-kinda way to imagine what the apostolic church looked like in the first few centuries A.D. Except with databases.

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roy belmont 03.04.09 at 6:25 am

Everyday niceness, from people whose needs are being solidly met, and promise to be met for some time to come not to mention for eternity, should be an expected attribute.
The biology of it’s right there. Dressed up in dogma but it’s there.
Mormon success at meeting the biological needs of its fellowship is unquestionable.
You’d expect it especially when that niceness is produced within a non-threatening interchange.
I’ve met Scientologists who were nice. Proselytizing but genuinely nice, to me.
And racists who were nice, to me.
Thugs, cops, priests, drug-addicts, rabbis, whores, Baptists, famous musicians, even politicians, in my experience can be genuine and nice, in the right circumstances, to the right people.
I had lunch with an LDS elder of some repute who was more than superficially polite, and a very pleasant conversationalist. And he picked up the tab.
I like it when people are nice to me.
Possibly the Mormon tolerance of sexual deviance and gender heterogeneity has broadened significantly in the 21st century. Possibly it has not.
I didn’t notice much, in the Prop 8 campaign here in California, of a message of “Tolerance yes, but marriage no”. It was just “No, we’re saving marriage, and too bad for you”.
Some recognition of the long ugly history of Judeo-Christian bigotry and injustice suffered by gays and lesbians and other sexual outliers would have gone a long way toward improving things, and given credence to the LDS p.r. of being warm and loving folks.
The 19th c. Mormons were not only not “nice” to the Native American populations of the lands they coveted, and took, they were as violently, murderously intolerant as it’s possible to be. There’s blood all over Utah from that.
But once it was over, and the stink from the carnage had evaporated, and the history had been erased or covered up, nice folks. Genuinely nice. Prosperous, content, confident, nice.
That dark foundational part of their presence as a successful community hasn’t been seriously and officially addressed, not with the contrition and remorse and humility it requires. Mostly because there’s no one outside powerful enough to force them to do so, and because doing so from within would threaten the core of their existence as a community.
The source of that benevolent confidence is a conviction of their rightness, demonstrated and confirmed by their prosperity.
It’s not unique to the LDS by any means, that fundamental hypocrisy. It mirrors the larger society’s inability to confront its own dark path to what it saw as God-given dominance and prosperity. There’s a lesson in that mirror.

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glenn 03.04.09 at 6:55 am

All religions are cults, really, but Mormanism, to me, seems more cultlike that most. It’s probably the only large, recent cult that has obtained social and cultural tolerance, if not
acceptance. This is somewhat surprising, since the level of BS and requirement of suspension
of objectivism is much higher for Mormanism that most other religions. Lets face it: one just has to believe in magic. Most of the Mormans I have met have been young men (boys, really) on missionaries. They present a good face, are very formal and, yes, nice. But I’ve always had moments of dread and reminisces of The Stepford Wives. They seemed more automotons and unthinkers than real flesh-and-blood emotional humans.

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Gabor 03.04.09 at 6:55 am

Chuk wrote:

“On another note, as a sociologist (in training), the LDS church is a masterpiece of organizational efficiency”

Organized it is, but I would hardly describe it as efficient, with two near-universal male priesthoods, parallel sacred and temporal management, and countless gremiums at local, regional, and church-wide levels. The function of this huge apparatus is not efficiency but the ever-tighter binding of individuals into the heirarchy by means of distributing offices with onlt the appearance of a distribution of decision-making. The Roman Catholic Church, which makes no pretense of distributed authority, gets by with only three levels of management (local priest, diocene bishop, universal pope) and leaves temporal and sacred control entirely in the hands of the priesthood. (The fulltime staffing of the Vatican (population 900), controlling a church of roughly a billion believers, is roughly on par with that of the LDS church, with only a fraction of the membership. Despite this efficient structure, the RCC has recognized the value of allowing decision-making to often appear slower and more cumbersome than it actually is; a deliberate tempo is often particularly useful in maintaining control and silencing debate or dissent among lay members of the church.

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ejh 03.04.09 at 8:20 am

Does anybody know how one gets onself excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church? I’ve been looking into this for some time and never really got anywhere. Is there somebody one can write to, who will perform the ceremony on request?

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Daniel 03.04.09 at 8:53 am

Religious types are often “nice” if by “nice” you mean “conventionally polite and solicitous as long as they get their own way”. That’s why everyone gets so surprised when they turn “nasty” upon no longer getting their own way. Salesmen (which I suppose is what missionaries are, of a sort) are also really nice people, as long as you realise that you have to deal with them within a certain set of boundaries, and with a realistic attitude toward their likely honesty (William Burroughs was sooooo right about that one).

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Piotra Gerviovski 03.04.09 at 9:40 am

To ejh: Well, you can’t get yourself excommunicated. If you were, let’s say, a left wing priest, or you were part of the Liberation Theology movement, the Catholic church would kick you out ASAP. The funny thing is that if you try to do something to get excommunicated it wouldn’t work. It is only if you are a threat to them that they’ll expel you.
There is a way to get out of the Catholic church called apostasy, in which you renounce to the faith of the Catholic church. The process it’s not difficult, but usually they try not to acknowledge your decition, so you may need to write them several times or visit them in person. In Spain (were I’m from) there is a quite important movement of people trying to apostate, as we were baptised when we were babys and therefore without our consent. I’m sure if you look up in Google you’ll find groups supporting apostasy in the USA.

In a more general note, thank you all for all the interesting information and productive discussion about Mormons.

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SJ 03.04.09 at 10:51 am

“Is there somebody one can write to, who will perform the ceremony on request?”

There probably isn’t in most circumstances. Catholic excommunication runs along the lines of criminal law, and requires proof of action and intention.

You can confess to something serious enough to get excommunicated, but even if it’s a real rather than fake confession (i.e., you can prove that you really did something worthy of excommunication), that’s not enough, because the act of the confession undoes the “crime” to a large extent.

You would need to add something else, e.g. an intention to repeat the offence (which so far only gets you up to a voluntary renunciation of the faith), plus an intention to do something afterward that’s prohibited to those who have renounced, e.g. continue to act in a capacity as a Priest, or continue to receive Communion.

That might elicit a warning that if you persist in this course, you might be sanctioned. Then if you can show that you have, in fact, persisted in this course, that might get you all the way to excommunication.

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SJ 03.04.09 at 11:02 am

P.S. There’s another answer to the question, which is “your Bishop”, who’s the person with the authority to actually do it.

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dsquared 03.04.09 at 11:14 am

EJH: I think the easiest way is to find an excommunicated archbishop and get him to consecrate you as a bishop. Hurry though as they’re beginning to get a bit thin on the ground.

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Bill Gardner 03.04.09 at 12:04 pm

There is more than just ‘niceness’ at stake.

I lived in SLC in 1983, when I was a practicing member of the Church of the Deep Powder Couloir. That spring, the temperature stayed cold through late May, and there was almost no melting of the mountain snowpack. Then it suddenly warmed to 90F+, and Salt Lake was, amazingly, facing a flood. Pretty much overnight, the LDS Church coordinated its membership to build a couple of miles of sandbag levees that diverted water out of the downtown. An impressive collective action, and I doubt that there is another US city that can take care of itself in this way.

Disclosure: I am not LDS, and I regret it when the Church uses the same collective resources against human rights.

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Russell Arben Fox 03.04.09 at 12:42 pm

Lisa said:

Do you actually know a bunch of culturally conservative evangelicals? Were they really all like this? In my experience, they are not all like this, particularly when dealing with actual humans rather than abstractions….I think that the anger, etc. is often caused by particular subcultures, rather than an artifact of a particular religion one belongs to. There is a subculture of angry right wing paranoid that overlaps with some of the evangelical subculture. But then there are many other subcultural groups with those traits. In my experience, certain academics can be bitter, rage-filled, intolerant people who can’t stand anyone unlike themselves, e.g., Muslims and Christians. Or various others they don’t like—chaos theorists or libertarians or whatever. My hypothesis is that the thing that makes people angry and intolerant is some kind of perceived wound to themselves, rather than their beliefs per se….I think it really oversimplifies to say that the antagonism is the main attraction to the faith. For some people it is. For other people it isn’t. Maybe go to L.A. and visit a Guatemalan evangelical church sometime and see why they joined ? Or even a suburban megachurch? The reasons are very diffuse and complex.

Very well said, and thank you for saying it. People familiar with modern American religion might be easily led to believe that Mormons and evangelical Protestants treat each other with mutual loathing and suspicion, for example, and certainly there is some evidence of that (the big kerfluffle between the supporters of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee back during the Republican primary, for example). But it simply isn’t the whole story. As a longtime resident of the American South (Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas), and had many associations, formal and informal, with evangelical Protestants, particularly Southern Baptists. They knew I was an active, believing member of the local Mormon congregation. Yet, to my knowledge, none of them ever expressed any kind of contempt or exclusions towards me; to a person, they were kind, open-minded, and generous. Selection bias in the sort of people I met, given that I’m an academic? Possibly. Nonetheless, it’s evidence to me that the often common assumptions about hate or antagonism which frame how we think about groups we don’t agree with, even groups espousing political or moral or theological doctrines we think are wicked and false and hateful, are often simply wrong, or at the very least fail to recognize a complex reality.

There are a lot of different Mormons, who joined or who stay with the LDS faith for a lot of different reasons. The same for other conservative evangelicals. These differences lead to many different subgroups within the whole. Some of those subgroups, no doubt, truly are hostile and aggressive and mean. But not all of them are, and none of them, I think, are uncomplicatedly so. It’s an important point to keep in mind.

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Russell Arben Fox 03.04.09 at 12:55 pm

Glenn said:

Lets face it: [to be a Mormon] one just has to believe in magic.

Depending on how you define your terms, then yes, that’s right, that pretty much sums it up. Your point is?

(Incidentally, it’s “Mormon,” not “Morman.” The name is taken from one of our books of scripture, the Book of Mormon.)

Roy said:

The 19th c. Mormons were not only not “nice” to the Native American populations of the lands they coveted, and took, they were as violently, murderously intolerant as it’s possible to be. There’s blood all over Utah from that.

There’s plenty of truth to what you say here, but plenty of exaggeration too. “Blood all over Utah”? I think the historical record, which is replete with statements of official church leaders from the very top all the way down to the local level calling for the Saints to treat (for theological reasons that we don’t need to get into right now) the local Native American population with decency and respect, is decidedly more mixed than you suggest.

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rea 03.04.09 at 1:02 pm

I think the easiest way is to find an excommunicated archbishop and get him to consecrate you as a bishop

Don’t deny the Holocaust, though, or you might get reinstated . . .

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Daniel 03.04.09 at 1:18 pm

For what it’s worth, when I lived in Oklahoma, the locals (mainly Southern Baptists) occasionally assumed that my parents were Mormons, simply because they’d been married for twenty years.

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Keith M Ellis 03.04.09 at 3:16 pm

Religious types are often “nice” if by “nice” you mean “conventionally polite and solicitous as long as they get their own way”

Also someone asked if I really have known many evangelicals. I’m from the Bible Belt; the answer is “yes”. Not to (re)mention, my sister is one.

I think that I should be more clear that the basis for my “niceness” estimation isn’t very limited contact such as talking to a missionary whom I don’t know. It’s based upon people I know moderately to quite well.

As far as whether or not the conservative Christians I’ve known, particularly evangelicals and fundamentalists, can be accurately described as being “not nice”…well, I think I’ve been less than clear on this. It’s not so much that they have been unsually unkind, it’s more that they’ve been pretty much like most people; whereas the Mormons have been unusually kind. Also, while the conservative Christians haven’t been particularly unkind to me (and, I should also say that almost everyone is kind and friendly to me because I generally am that way—except occasionally online—and, of course, people respond to kindness), but they tend to express anger and hostility against the vast number of people whom they think are the bad guys. Like, you know, casual hateful racism. I don’t doubt that many Mormons I’ve known are racist, but I don’t hear about it from them. I do from the culturally conservative Christians I’ve known in, primarily, (Eastern) New Mexico and Texas. (Eastern New Mexico is culturally Texan; often referred to in the rest of NM as “little Texas”.)

To put it another way, the culturally conservative Christians have of course been caring about their own, just as most people are, but I’ve noticed that the Mormons seem to be caring about everyone, not just people like themselves. That doesn’t mean they will compromise their values.

The reason this matters to me is that it gets right to the heart of something I feel and believe very strongly. I think that the conventional understanding of “tolerance” is flawed. It implies a “live and let live” attitude which doesn’t allow for proselytizing or strong and limited moral limits on behavior that implicitly condemn those who violate them. In my opinion, the much more productive idea of tolerance is simple that one, by default (but disprovable by evidence in individual, not general, cases) respects others to have as well-intentioned and earnest beliefs as oneself. It’s a view that doesn’t automatically assume that everyone who works contrary to one’s values is intentionally, actively “evil”. People—all people—tend to make this assumption. But those who hold culturally conservative, rigid, religiously defined values are more susceptible to this.

But I notice in my sister, most of her peers (young, not as political, conservative evangelicals), and most Mormons I’ve known that they don’t do this. They assume that most other people who believe differently than they do are well-intentioned but wrong.

I’m interested in this relative to Mormons because I’m extremely interested in it in general. I want to understand how communities and institutions can encourage strong values and activism while discourage vilification of those who have different and even opposing values. I see examples of communities that are able to inculcate this kind of tolerance, even religious communities with (relatively) very intolerant core beliefs.

To me, that people like Limbaugh exemplify the exact opposite of this is an example of why I care very deeply that we on the left avoid doing the same. I’ve been in conflict with the values of most of the people I’ve known my entire life (which perhaps might explain my point-of-view on this, along with my temperament being essentially optimistic and that I like other people), but I don’t think they’re bad people on the basis of having opposing values. With the exception of when they are intolerant in the Limbaugh-esque fashion.

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Keith M Ellis 03.04.09 at 3:19 pm

end italics, if necessary.

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Phil 03.05.09 at 12:16 am

Thanks, Keith – interesting stuff. The question it prompts for me is, what makes the rueful headshake fake?

I’ll unpack that.

If you’re a Christian (and hence care one way or the other), you can’t be certain that you’re saved and somebody else (who you don’t like) isn’t. You can hope God approves of your conduct (and not the other persons’s); you can even be fairly confident; but you can’t know. So the worst you can get to, on the level of moral condemnation, is (or should be) a rueful shake of the head – “well, I don’t know of course, but I think if you carry on like that you might just be heading down the primrose path… but it’s not for me to say, we’re all in His hands after all”.

We’re familiar with people who use that approach as a passive-aggressive tactic to conceal the hatred they’re actually feeling. But perhaps it can be genuine. “My values say your conduct is wrong, but I don’t know for certain that my values are binding on you” – that sounds like a pretty good attitude to have. Odd that, when we think about religion, the self-deceiving passive-aggressive version should be so predominant.

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Ben Alpers 03.05.09 at 2:38 am

You can hope God approves of your conduct (and not the other persons’s); you can even be fairly confident; but you can’t know.

In some brands of Christianity, e.g. orthodox Calvinism, it’s even more mysterious. You know that God disapproves of everyone, but that he will, completely gratuitously, grant salvation to a preselected, but by definition undeserving, group of the elect.

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chuk 03.05.09 at 3:05 am

Yes, Gabor, maybe efficiency is the wrong word. But as Gardner points out–capturing exactly what I meant to refer to–they are astonishingly good at keeping things moving. They are a massive top down bureaucracy that gets things done (contrary to what many economists perceive as possible), and apparently, in a sustainable fashion.

I’m disappointed nobody picked up on my powder keg point. Fox? Alas, this post has slipped beneath the fold… it’s history already.

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ajay 03.05.09 at 2:50 pm

“They are a massive top down bureaucracy that gets things done (contrary to what many economists perceive as possible), and apparently, in a sustainable fashion.”

Hmm. Massive top-down bureaucracy… impressive feats of mobilising the masses in response to disasters… evangelical… busy spreading the word in the Third World… intolerant of dissent… history of bloodshed… this is all sounding a bit familiar. What’s the Mormon position on tractors?

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Barry 03.05.09 at 3:09 pm

ajay, isn’t Mormonism simply Utahian power + rural tractorication?

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Phill Hallam-Baker 03.05.09 at 8:18 pm

I don’t see any contradiction between superficial niceness and mean self-interested behavior.

Take Bernie Madoff, by all accounts a devoutly religious, really really nice guy. Only problem was he was stealing tens of billions, much of it from religious charities.

Far from being a bar to mean behavior, religion frequently provides justification.

It is certainly used as a justification of chopped, nonsense logic. Take papal infallibility, a ludicrous doctrine, a blasphemous claim that man speaks for God. But you know it really does not mean what you think it does you understand, people who argue against it only do so out of their foolish ignorance of what the doctrine means – I have heard Jesuits give precisely that form of ‘explanation’. Which really amounts to merely a repetition of the blasphemous claim that the church speaks for God.

Which when you get down to it is suspiciously like the explanation given for how Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was making all that money. At the end of the day they both use the same charlatan’s trick of telling people that asking questions and demanding explanations is wrong.

Just lump BYU and Notre Dame in along with Faux News: institutions that purport to be something that they are not.

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