Update–Issue 168

Church Responds to European Questioning of Church History

The Europe Area Presidency is asking Church leaders in northern Europe and German-speaking regions to “work patiently and lovingly” with members who struggle with their faith because of information about the LDS Church they find on the internet.

“Unfortunately, some choose to dwell on half-truths or inaccurate information regarding the Church, its history, or its leaders, which often results in a crisis of faith and testimony,” wrote Europe Area President Erich W. Kopischke on 10 April. Kopischke’s letter was sent to all Church leaders in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Finland, and most of the German and Dutch-speaking regions of Europe.

A document accompanying the letter asserts that “the church does not hide historical facts” and that “Joseph Smith and the prophets who succeeded him were not wicked or deceiving men.” Priesthood leaders are asked to “provide the best possible answers to the questions the member is asking” and “emphasize that faith is a conscious choice that each must make.”

“Priesthood leaders may need to take disciplinary action with those members who persist in publically opposing the Church and its leaders after they have been lovingly worked with and corrected by their bishops or higher authority,” the document adds.

A longer version of this document, called “the Swedish Rescue,” was sent as a packet to stake, mission, and district presidents in Sweden last March. The packet recommends a number of resources for struggling members, including the FAIR and Maxwell Institute websites, Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon, and Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism.

The packet suggests that there are three levels in members’ understanding of Church history: The church-lesson level, the anti-Mormon level, and the academic-scientific level. According to the document, most members live on the church-lesson level, and that level “is enough for one’s salvation.” The academic-scientific level, the packet suggests, can provide insight to help resolve the doubts of those exposed to the anti-Mormon level.

Last November, Elder Marlin K. Jensen told a Utah State University audience that questions about Church history, sparked by information that Mormons find on the internet, are driving members away from the Church as never before (See Sunstone, June 2012: 63).

In the last decade, the LDS Church in Europe has shown no signs of growth; the missionary force has been reduced and missions have been consolidated.


Daniel Peterson, Maxwell Institute Part Ways


BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship fired Daniel C. Peterson, who had served for 23 years as editor of the Mormon Studies Review, via an email exchange that circulated widely on the Mormon blogosphere,

In a 14 June email, Maxwell Institute director M. Gerald Bradford told Peterson that he wanted to bring the Review “in line with the scholarly agenda of the Institute” in order to “make solid, scholarly contributions to Mormon studies.” Bradford evidently saw this new direction as contrasting Peterson’s preference for a style of apologetics that aggressively criticizes works or authors Peterson sees as attacking Mormonism.

Peterson, who at the time of the firing was traveling in the Middle East, responded with a scathing email in which he accused Bradford of making “an utterly wrong-headed and disastrous decision.”

“It’s a betrayal of Elder Maxwell, who explicitly approved of what we were doing,” Peterson wrote. “It’s a brazen repudiation of the mandate given to us by President Packer, who, when he spoke at the dinner during which we were officially entrusted with Elder Maxwell’s name, praised two specific aspects of the Institute’s work: the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and its apologetic efforts.”

The conflict between Bradford and Peterson had been building for some time. In another incident shortly before the firing, Bradford had directed Peterson to pull from the Review a 100-page article criticizing John Dehlin, founder of Mormon Stories and other forums that foster “authentic self-expression and the open discussion of Mormonism” (See Sunstone, June 2012: 63). Warned about the upcoming article, Dehlin had contacted a general authority, who allegedly intervened to block publication.

“I have had enough conversations with general authorities to know that they don’t view ad hominem attacks as a constructive way to do apologetics,” Dehlin told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Peterson complained to Bradford that “the timing of my dismissal, coming immediately after my public crucifixion over the John Dehlin debacle, guarantees that it will be read as an institutional rebuke of me and all my works.”

On 3 August, at a conference sponsored by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), Peterson announced the launching of a new venture: Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (www.MormonInterpreter.com), an online journal intended to “increase understanding of scripture.”

“We won’t be solely apologetic,” Peterson explained, “but we won’t be afraid of apologetics, either.”


National Interest in Mormonism Soars in Romney’s Political Wake


Two months to Election Day, with LDS candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama locked in a statistical dead heat, interest in all things Mormon has reached an all-time high. From the Word of Wisdom and the welfare program to the Church’s finances and the LDS position on LGBT issues, Mormonism has been scrutinized in media outlets including MSNBC’s Rock Center, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, The New Republic, Bloomberg Businessweek, Slate magazine, and the Huffington Post.

Weeks after Michael Kinsley stated in an L.A. Times editorial that Romney shouldn’t “bottle up his faith and pack it away,” the Mormon candidate made a rare reference to his LDS background on 30 August as he accepted the GOP presidential nomination—although the mention was intended to downplay the significance of his religious identity.

“We were Mormons; and growing up in Michigan, that might have seemed unusual or out of place, but I really don’t remember it that way,” Romney said. “My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.”

While Romney himself continued to avoid discussing his religious life, other Mormons speaking at the GOP convention offered many stories about Romney’s service in the LDS Church. Pam Finlayson remembered Romney stroking the back of her prematurely born daughter during a hospital visit. Ted and Pat Oparowski recalled how Romney helped their dying son write his will. Grant Bennett, who was one of Romney’s counselors when Romney served as a bishop near Boston, said that the candidate had “a listening ear and a helping hand,” dedicating as many as 20 volunteer hours a week to counseling people in trouble and helping the needy.

“Mitt prayed with and counseled church members seeking spiritual direction, single mothers raising children, couples with marital problems, youth with addictions, immigrants separated from their families, and individuals whose heat had been shut off,” Bennett said. “Mitt taught faith in God, personal integrity, self-reliance and service to our fellow men. And Mitt did what he challenged us to do. He led by example.”


A Spike in Interest


According to an article posted at the U.S. News & World Report website, Google searches for the term “Romney Mormon” saw a significant spike in August.

“That spike came on the heels of a controversial Bloomberg Businessweek cover about Mormonism, and as prominent Mormons called for Romney to open up about his faith,” Elizabeth Flock wrote for U.S. News. “The increase also came in the weeks before the Republican National Convention, when Romney opened up about his religion to Parade Magazine and allowed a reporter to accompany him to church.”

By “opening up about his religion,” Flock was referring to Romney’s answer to an interview question about tithing. “I think you’ll find that conservatives are more generous philanthropically than people who are not conservatives,” Romney told Parade when asked about his tithing to the LDS Church. “People who are in favor of small government are very much in favor of personal action to help other people in need.”


 “The American Gospel of Wealth”


Stories about the wealth of the LDS Church, sometimes in connection to Romney’s own wealth, appeared in several media outlets. On 10 July, the cover story of Bloomberg Businessweek described the City Creek “megamall” that the Church recently built in downtown Salt Lake City. President Thomas S. Monson was quoted cheering, as he cut the ribbon at the mall’s opening ceremony, “One, two, three—let’s go shopping!”

Businessweek reporter Caroline Winter estimated that “the LDS Church is likely worth $40 billion today and collects up to $8 billion in tithing each year.”

“Watching a religious leader celebrate a mall may seem surreal, but City Creek reflects the spirit of enterprise that animates modern-day Mormonism,” wrote Winter. “The mall is part of a vast church-owned corporate empire that the Mormon leadership says will help spread its message, increase economic self-reliance, and build the Kingdom of God on earth.”

The cover of Businessweek aroused particular controversy for its illustration of John the Baptist laying his hands on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. A quotation bubble depicts the angel as saying, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax . . .”

“The cover is in “such poor taste it is difficult to even find the words to comment on it,” LDS Church spokesperson Michael Purdy wrote in an email to the Salt Lake Tribune. “The article misses the mark and the cover is obviously meant to be offensive to many, including millions of Latter-day Saints.”

The LDS Church also posted a 1,200-word response to the BusinessWeek story to its online Newsroom. Without mentioning the story by name, the statement asserted that “those who attempt to define the Church as an institution devoted to amassing monetary wealth miss the entire point: the Church’s purpose is to bring people to Christ and to follow His example by lifting the burdens of those who are struggling.”

In a 16 July New York Times story, Jim Rutenberg drew an explicit connection between Mormon wealth and Romney’s success by spotlighting a handful of powerful Mormon families who have funded Romney’s campaign generously.

“Records show that roughly two dozen members of Mormon families provided nearly $8 million of the financing for the ‘super PAC’ working to elect Mr. Romney, Restore Our Future, putting them in league with its Wall Street, real estate and energy donors,” wrote Rutenberg. “Many of Mr. Romney’s major Mormon backers are tied to businesses with robust agendas in Washington—lobbying on tax, aviation, and tourism policy, according to federal filings—and have something to gain by having a friend in the White House.”

A story that appeared the New Yorker on 13 August suggested a link between Romney’s affluence and Mormonism’s 20th-century accommodation to American values, when the intensity of early Mormonism “got sublimated into missionary zeal and commerce.”

“It’s unfair to say, as some might, that Mitt Romney believes in nothing except his own ambition,” author Adam Gopnik concluded. “He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.”


MSNBC’s Rock Center


On 23 August, MSNBC’s Rock Center broadcast “Mormon in America,” a one-hour special that included interviews with Church officials, active members, and former members. The special placed Mormonism in a positive light as it explored the Mormon work ethic and extolled the Church’s welfare program; but the special gave a more mixed image as it focused on temple garments, the position of women and LGBT people in the Church, and the experiences of individuals who leave the Church.

In one segment, MSNBC’s Harry Smith visits the Utah Bishops’ Central Storehouse, which he describes as a “half-million-square-foot monument to the Mormon commitment to helping others.”

Smith’s admiration only grows as he visits nearby Welfare Square. “Mormon volunteers turn Mormon milk into Mormon cheese,” Smith explains. “It’s a veritable showplace of Mormon generosity, even dripping in Mormon honey . . . and that Mormon honey will taste great on this fresh-baked Mormon bread.”

Other segments of the show were less flattering. Among these was a segment spotlighting Clark Johnsen, a gay man who is in the cast of The Book of Mormon musical on Broadway and identifies today as an ex-Mormon. “I had a long path out of the Church,” Clark explains. “I didn’t make it in one day. I didn’t feel like I could reach my full potential as a human being inside the church as a gay person.”


Temple Garments Exposed—and Explained


Offensive to many Mormon viewers of “Mormon in America” was the show’s discussion and depiction of temple garments. Reporter Kate Snow, visiting an interracial LDS family in a Salt Lake City suburb, questioned Juleen Jackson, a stay-at-home mother of five, about wearing the garments. Snow suggested that some outsiders see the garment as a symbol of “the uniformity of Mormonism.”

“I don’t see it so much as a uniformity code we all have to march to,” Jackson replied. “I want to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to live the commandments of the Lord, and they bring me happiness.”

Independent voices such as reporter McKay Coppins, historian Matthew Bowman, and longtime Sunstone contributor Robert A. Rees took up the task of explaining temple garments to the public.

“Mormons don’t . . . really believe that garments have any special powers to stop bullets or keep them from getting sick or serve as a sort of nylon-and-cotton flame retardant,” Bowman wrote for the Huffington Post. “There are stories of some of these things, like there are stories of the relics of Catholic saints curing epilepsy or blindness, but to most Mormons these are faith-promoting rumors, evocative but archaic folklore.”

“In wearing such garments, Latter-day Saints signify that they are putting on the new man or new woman or, in biblical language, putting on the armor of God (Eph. 6:11),” Rees wrote on 24 August for Flunking Sainthood, the blog of fellow Mormon Jana Riess. “Each symbol on the garment represents a specific devotional covenant, the totality of which can be summed in Christ’s two great commandments—to love God and to love others as ourselves.”


New Voices Come Out


If the “Mormon moment” occasioned by Romney’s presidential campaign has been an unprecedented media challenge for the LDS Church, it has also been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a new generation of independent LDS voices to seize the attention of the media. Joanna Brooks promoted her new memoir, Book of Mormon Girl, on The Daily Show; Jana Riess compared Romney and JFK for the Washington Post; Utah gay activist Troy Williams contrasted Mitt Romney’s “uber-capitalism” to the teachings of Samuel the Lamanite in an article for Salon; and young scholars Matthew Bowman, John-Charles Duffy, and Max Mueller offered perspective on controversies around Romney’s Mormonism in online venues such as Slate and Huffington Post.

Even celebrated fiction writer Walter Kirn, who hasn’t set foot in an LDS chapel in almost 30 years, outed himself as a lapsed Mormon to write about how sharing a house with members of the Santa Monica singles ward in 2008 helped him put his life together and overcome his dependence on prescription drugs.

Writing for The New Republic, Kirn recounted that during a recent trip through Utah, he had noticed on the Salt Lake Temple a symbol he had missed before, which he offered as a way to sum up the Mormon story: “Nothing mysterious. Nothing cultish. Just a handshake.”