(Today’s blog is a guest post by the lovely and witty JulieAnn Carter-Winward Enjoy!)
The Hostage Crisis: Being a Mormon
Salt Lake Mormon Temple
Many people have tales of humor, incredulity or outright indignation surrounding their first encounter with the Mormon Missionaries. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has over 53,000 missionaries currently serving in over 350 missions in 162 countries throughout the world. These missionaries are comprised of young men, women and many older, married couples who sacrifice from 18 months to 2 full years of their lives to preach the tenets of the Mormon Religion. As a former Mormon, I watched as all four of my older brothers answered “the call” to everywhere from Bogota, Columbia to Europe to Australia. Many non-members can’t understand the draw—why would anyone in their right mind give up their way of life, their Sundays, their coffee(!!) for a religion as secretive and peculiar as Mormonism?
“Called To Serve”
With Mitt Romney as the Republican Presidential Candidate, it’s easy to imagine the number of readers perusing Wikipedia about Mormonism. Whether someone is a detractor, a bystander, or an ardent Republican, there’s no doubt that more people than ever know the name Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church. It’s no news that in 1820, Smith reported he saw God and Jesus Christ. It’s no news that he purported to have found plates made of pure gold and with the use of seer stones in the bottom of a hat, translated ancient markings into the Mormon Church’s most holy text, The Book of Mormon. It is no secret that Mormons wear holy garments coined as “funny underwear”, practice secret/sacred rituals in their private temples, and believe that God was once a mortal man. They also do not imbibe coffee, tea, tobacco or alcohol.
These facts are the focus of the news media and of political pundits like Bill Maher, as well as fundamental Christians throughout the United States who believe Mormons are not truly Christians (they are)and that they still practice polygamy (they don’t technically). But these facts are mere caricatures of the religion. The more disturbing factors of Mormon doctrine are largely ignored by the mainstream media, and much to the relief of LDS Church leaders, it has thus far had a very easy time deflecting coarse attacks made by those who know very little about the inner workings of the organization in part because the LDS Church is a master of its own facade. A minor example is a photograph of Joseph Smith, and some subsequent LDS artist’s depictions of Joseph Smith:
Photo of Joseph Smith vs. LDS Artist renditions of Joseph Smith
“I Hope They Call Me on a Mission”
With many familial ties to Mormonism, I attended a church service one Sunday and the topic for the speakers was missionary work. The Mormon capacity to spin to maintain appearance was on full display.
The speaker quoted former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. Mike Wallace asked Gordon B. Hinckley, rather incredulously, how the Church persuades its members to fulfill LDS missions. President Hinckley supposedly quipped: “We ask them.” It sounds innocuous enough, but the quote was made up and is nowhere to be found in the show’s transcript. The quote has become a bit of Mormon folklore, dressed up to reinforce the importance of a blind obedience, especially about serving a mission.
From the time a young Mormon boy is introduced into the Church’s educational and cultural milieu, the prospect of serving a mission is consistently hammered into him. They even have special banks a young boy can put in his room to start saving for his mission: The Missionary Fund.
Primary, the Sunday School for young children until they are 12, have a myriad of songs celebrating serving a mission. Yet the most important motivation is the cultural and familial standard. The pressure to serve an “honorable mission” is overwhelming. It is not something a young man decides; it is something for which he prepares.
Young people need to commit themselves early in life to the idea of a mission. That way, when they get older and begin to face some of the world’s temptations, those temptations will be less likely to penetrate their hearts or minds. They will resist the temptations because they are focused on becoming a servant of the Lord. M. Russell Ballard- “How To Prepare to be a Good Missionary”, New Era, March 2007, 6.
To choose to not serve a mission is a black mark on a young man. Going on a mission is especially significant as a marker for marriageability–something abundantly present in the mind of a 19 year old male virgin. Lack of service also begs the question of all of the members in his ward or congregation: Why? Is he not worthy? Doesn’t he have a testimony? These questions are never asked aloud. Like some types of bullying in school, the ability to pin the ostracization down with a finger is almost impossible. So the young men go, whether they believe or not, whether they really want to—or not.
At this time in your life, a mission call from the Lord, my young friends, is the most important work you can do. Prepare now, live righteously, learn from your family and Church leaders, and come join with us in building the kingdom of God on Earth—accept your divine appointment in ‘so great a cause.’. Ronald A. Rasband, The Divine Call of a Missionary, Ensign, May 2010, 53
This blind obedience is not so blind, but an obedience to group conformity, and an entire imagined future held hostage. Church members are well aware of the expectations placed upon them, and the cultural pressure is the pink elephant in the room. Mitt Romney and other Mormon political figures will never mention this pressure. Many young men say that they gain their first “testimony” of the truthfulness of the Church Gospel while on their mission. Like the book, Eat, Pray, Love, a mission could be called “Pray, Preach, Study”. Missionaries are literally inundated into a spiritual life, and are forbidden to partake of anything ‘worldly’ while on their missions. This includes prohibitions on non-religious music, television, movies, cell phones and computer access. Other than one day off a week to do laundry, shop and write letters, missionaries are expected to go door to door via foot, bicycle or car to stranger’s homes to introduce them to “The Gospel”. This is called, in Mormon-ese, “tracting.” They are trained to seek out the poor, the meek, the humble, in other words, the most vulnerable members of a society, because they are the most likely targets for conversion. The Church couches this tactic as following the Sermon on the Mount rather than acknowledging it as predatory. And their message of “hope” comes at a very small price–at first.
Missionaries have specific scripts or lesson plans they are to follow when preaching The Gospel to a family or individual. One of the main points they emphasize to families is that in Mormonism, “Families are Forever.” If you live righteously and go through the temple with your spouse and children, you will be “sealed” to them for Eternity in a family unit. This means death is not the end. As a mother, I can’t imagine sweeter words than hearing I will never be lost to my children, and they in turn will never be lost to me. As a spouse, the thoughts of being married to my husband for Eternity sounds, indeed, like heaven. Only a member of the LDS Church, however, can have this Eternal Family.
But to many people, it sounds like Hell. A former missionary who served his time in Switzerland and France told me that upon declaring the happy news to a French couple that they could be married for Time and all Eternity, they looked bewildered and remarked, “Why would we want to do that?”
Not surprisingly, missionary work flourishes in poverty-ridden countries. The Mormon Church takes care of their own. Living in a hovel in South America, one can only imagine the appearance of two clean cut young men promising food, friendship and community to a struggling family.
In Japan, where my husband served his mission, he was struck by the prevailing sense of contentment and odd tolerance among the people there. He began to experience doubts; as Mormons, we were taught that one can only know true joy if one has The Gospel in one’s life. Yet, he saw people committed to their families, spouses and communities, who were happy–and they had no interest in abandoning their way of life, for a life promising them something they already had.
Milk Before Meat
There are a few key tenets missionaries leave out of their discussions with “new prospects.” Imagine how long they would be asked to stay if they told a woman that in the Celestial Kingdom (the highest level of heaven, where all Latter-Day Saints strive to go to become Gods and Goddesses), their husband will be allowed to have more than one wife. That’s right, Polygamy, that ugly step-child that Mormons try so very hard to distance themselves from, is still part of their official doctrine. Of course, they decry the practice of it here on Earth, and make very clear their differentiation from the FLDS Church, who actively practices polygamy. But in the afterlife? It’s allowed. The proof of this is found in their temple ceremonies, as well as their scripture, The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132. If a man and woman marry and she dies before he does, he can be sealed for Eternity to another woman, but only if she is not already sealed to another man. Church apologists will dance around the semantics of “marriage” versus “sealing.” Bottom line?
“…Whatsoever youbind on earth, in my name and by my word, saith the Lord, it shall be eternally bound in the heavens;” Doctrine and Covenants Sec. 132:46
Which means if a man is sealed to her on Earth (or ten of ‘hers’), they are sealed in the afterlife. Period.
My husband told me of a sad story where a relative of his married a young man in the Mormon temple and was sealed to him, but after only one year of marriage, he died after a brief and fatal battle with cancer. She went on to marry another man with whom she had six children. This woman had spent her life with a man she loved, but for Eternity, she was sealed to a man she knew only briefly before he died. The children she had would not be sealed to her or her husband. After years of heart-rending misery, The Church finally capitulated and allowed the long-time couple to be sealed to each other and their children. She is one of the very few female living “polygamist” members of the Church. In 1998, an administrative change allowed deceased women be posthumously sealed by proxy to multiple deceased men.
Another unmentioned fact to prospects: very poor people are still required to pay 10% of their meager income. Tithing, as it’s called, is not an option. It is a requirement. In many cases, compliance with tithing and church attendance is required if a family is to receive Church welfare benefits such as food and financial assistance. Of course, the official Church public line is that you are free to choose whether or not to pay a full tithing. What they don’t say is non-tithe payers are not eligible to attend the Temple. If you don’t attend the temple, you are not eligible to enter the “Celestial Kingdom”, the highest degree of Mormon heaven and the only place you can remain with your family. Bye, bye kids. A Mormon who believes they will lose their family after death is going to pay up. Families held hostage.
This doctrinal separation is illustrated and reinforced in the tens of thousands of temple weddings each year. A parent or loved one who is not a full tithe-payer or not a member of the Church is excluded from the marriage ceremony and made to wait outside. This is an eerie echo of the Mormon after-life.
The saying “milk before meat” is member-lingo for giving new members a chance to be entrenched in some of the more mainstream teachings of Mormonism before being asked to swallow some of the more controversial ones, such as after-life polygamy and tithing requirements. Other doctrines subtly glossed over are the teachings that a woman cannot enter into the Celestial Kingdom without being married or sealed to a man (this can be done posthumously), baptizing deceased persons without permission and the entire free-mason-like temple ceremony.
If asked, a Mormon will tell you that they “know” their Church is true. “True” meaning the one and only true Church upon the Earth. And how does the Mormon “know” their church is true? The Holy Ghost. As a former church president, Joseph Fielding Smith stated,
We believe the Holy Ghost is a revelator and that he will bear testimony to honest people everywhere that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that Joseph Smith is a prophet, and that this church is ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth. Joseph Fielding Smith; (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30.)
The lack of a true “Hell” for non-believers creates a false tolerance among the Mormon faithful, reinforcing the belief that the Mormon Church is right, in part, because it isn’t as mean and vindictive as the other religions. It is a masterful psychological ploy: eliminate hell, but retain an eternal class structure. For Mitt Romney, this translates into the American Class structure, the hell of poverty doesn’t exist, all are subject to the great American free enterprise God, but only true believers reach the top. If you are a very good Catholic or Protestant, you will not go into “Outer Darkness” (Mormon Hell), but you will never be allowed into God’s presence in the Celestial Kingdom, and you certainly won’t be allowed to be a God. By the way, only Gods can have sex in the upper caste of the Celestial Kingdom, folks. And you thought 72 virgins in Paradise sounded good.
Mormons “know” because they are taught from a very young age about a spiritual being called the “Holy Ghost.” Mormon children are baptized at the age of 8. After the baptism another ritual, the Confirmation, is performed by the child’s father or another church leader and the hands of several men are placed on the child’s head. The child is prayed over and confirmed a member of the church and most importantly, given the “Gift of the Holy Ghost.” After receiving this spiritual gift, the Holy Ghost or Spirit will give the child feelings in a “still small voice” whether something is “right” or “wrong”, “good” or bad”.
According to Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com) Confirmation bias is:
…a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.
Mormons base many of their decisions, including who to marry, their belief in the Church, where to go to school, and even for whom they should vote on these Holy Ghost inspired “feelings”. The troubling aspect is they do not believe their feelings are generated from their own minds, but from an all-knowing being who has their best interests at heart. What would this mean for a man in the highest office in the land? Yet this is what Mitt Romney has been taught his whole life.
Challenging a Mormon on his beliefs quickly becomes a circular argument of fact versus faith versus feeling. Inevitably, they play the “God Card”: “I know because I feel, therefore it must be right, because I feel right about it.” To challenge any further, you are seen as someone trying to do them harm. Mormons are given conflicting messages about outside study. The mere creation of the conflict is usually enough to fully discourage thinking outside the church sanctioned texts. They read the same things over and over telling themselves they are obedient, therefore they feel good. If something isn’t of the approved ilk, they feel guilty, a.k.a. “bad.” Therefore, the Holy Ghost must be inspiring them that their way of thinking is correct, while diverging is incorrect–classic confirmation bias.
The calling card of the LDS Church is “Family First.” From personal experience, I can tell you that families are taught to be primary from the pulpit, but the reality of the demands of Mormon religious belief are more in keeping with Jesus’ statement in Mathew 10:34-35, when Jesus states he is not come to bring peace, but to set the man at variance against his father and the daughter against her mother.
I remember growing up and never seeing my father on Sundays. He was a member of The Tabernacle Choir, one of, if not the largest choir in the world, and the inaugural choir for several Republican Presidents. He was also gone every Thursday night for rehearsal. Not to mention the many travels the Choir took him on. My mother was a pianist, and she was constantly gone. This doesn’t include the Home Teaching done by my father and brother once a month, and the Visiting Teaching done by my mother and another female church member every month. I remember serving in the Young Women’s Presidency and being not only gone several nights a month from my young family, but spending countless hours preparing lessons to teach on Sundays, not to mention night meetings once a month for the Youth called “Firesides”.
Last week, we said goodbye to my 55 year old brother and his wife as they embark on an extended calling to be a Mission President in Australia for three years. My Mormon heritage tells me I should be proud of their choice and their sacrifice and having a brother as a mission president gives me cultural capital in Utah, but they leave behind three daughters, one expecting her second child, a 2-year old grand baby, two aging parents, and a close-knit extended family, along with his business, just a short jump away from retirement. In their farewell talks, they told us all that they would never leave if they didn’t “know.” My question is, how could they? And for the rest of the United States, my question is: do we want a President who bases his decisions on what he “knows” and whose hope for an Eternal Family is held over his head based on singular obedience?
JA Carter-Winward is a literary writer, author of TDTM, FALLING BACK TO EARTH and coming in July of this year, THE RUB. She lives and writes in the mountains of Ogden, Utah.