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The Mormon Moment

Recently I watched an interview with the polished and handsome Mitt Romney. He’ll quite possibly be the nominee for his party next year, and even if he isn’t, he’ll have left a big footprint on the American political landscape. I don’t like everything he stands for (if you can figure out what that is), but he’s clearly smart and pragmatic and, from what I can tell, at least as moral as some of the previous inhabitants of that office.

And he’s a Mormon.

Most of what I know about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints seems bizarre to me. A prophet of questionable reputation. Mysterious golden plates “translated” into the odd New World-centric Book of Mormon. Masonic-like secret ceremonies in Disneyland castles. Special underwear. Baptism for dead people whose names are mined from extensive genealogical archives. Marriage as a metaphor for the Godhead. An afterlife where Mormon men are elevated to deity by a God who, as I heard one Mormon say, wants to surround Himself with peers.

Yet the actual Mormons I know, or know about, aren’t bizarre. Let’s not judge them by the desert mobile home compounds filled with child brides (do you like it when people judge us by David Koresh?) and look instead at the ordinary Mormons you meet in business and see on television. Mormons have done well, at least in the United States—and that in spite of ongoing embarrassing publicity about the strange behaviors at their fringes. They have good marriages and families, help others, are generally honest business people and hard workers.

There’s no direct link between our two faiths[1]—Joseph Smith died the same year as The Great Disappointment—yet Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists have much in common beyond our long, adjective-clogged names and three-letter abbreviations. We come from the same religious impulse in American frontier faith.

Both denominations originated in the “burned over” district (so called because of the many religious movements arising there during the Second Great Awakening) of western and central New York state, among people who felt alienated from the educated Presbyterian and Episcopalian establishment of the East. (Hill Cumorah, Hiram Edson’s farm, and the Fox sisters’ home are within a 15 minute drive of one another). Both faiths are restorationist, meaning that we were willing set aside 1800 years of theological development in favor of reliance on the Bible and contemporary prophetic gifts, toward the goal of creating a new, true religion that God would recognize to the exclusion of all the others. Both groups adopted doctrines and lifestyles that segregated us from our communities, the Mormons going so far as to establish their own state in the American West.  Both embraced healthful lifestyle innovations and conservative Christian behaviors. Both are determinedly evangelistic. Both are eschatological movements, though we Seventh-day Adventists have tended to be, ironically, more pessimistic and fearful than Mormons. 

Ironic because while Seventh-day Adventists have talked a lot about being persecuted, instances of it have been rare. The Mormons suffered real persecution, mostly because of polygamy, until they were able to establish their Zion in Utah. Their history is more mysterious and tragic than ours: believers hounded from place to place, crossing the Rockies with handcarts, a new city carved out of the desert, factional rivalries ending in massacres and gunfights. As we Seventh-day Adventists have moved in the direction of Evangelical Christianity (much to the concern of some, who prefer we remain sectarian—the objection to Questions on Doctrine was that our scholars watered down distinctive pioneer doctrines in order to appease Evangelical leaders who wanted to label us a “cult”), Mormonism reveled in the strange doctrine of a married God who created people so they (men, at least) can ultimately become gods over their own planets. While we invested in denominational governance, professional clergy, multiple schools, colleges and health-care institutions, Mormons called all laymen priests, made the church lay led (in practice it tends to be plutocratic), established one big university, and built some of the most fanciful and attention-getting houses of worship in the world. While our evangelism is popularly known for Biblical monsters and predictions of doom, theirs is associated with smiling, clean-cut young men in white shirts.

In some respects Mormons have maintained their sectarianism better than we have: their scholars have been less willing to explain themselves to other Christians than ours have, and clustered as they had long been in a few Western states, hadn’t (until recently) needed to. Yet they’ve accommodated the surrounding culture when necessary, such as suspending polygamy and allowing blacks into their priesthood.

In spite of their oddness—or perhaps because of it—they’re better known than we are. All current studies show that whereas relatively few in our communities know who Seventh-day Adventists are, almost everyone knows who the Mormons are, especially now that two of them are running for President and legislative leaders like Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid are often in the news. Add to that well-known authors like Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer (Twilight), Steven Covey, dozens of athletes, doctors, scientists and industrialists, a Book of Mormon play on broadway, and “Big Love” on television. And, they do nice image-building advertising.

Like us, they’ve been an insular community whose culture isn’t easily understood from the outside. And, like us, some of them question the veracity of their founding stories and documents, and resent the protective, conservative leadership of their church. This came home to me when listening to an episode of NPR’s “Being” in which Krista Tippett interviews Mormon scholar and journalist Joanna Brooks. Brooks speaks candidly of the insecurities and doubts that Mormons have about their distinctive identity. While they’re proud of their achievements, she says this is a “white-knuckle moment” for aware Mormons, who fear what people will say about them next—especially since some of it is true, such as that polygamy, though suspended, is still technically Mormon doctrine.

I’m struggling to know what to think about the so-called Mormon Moment. I have always thought it astonishingly arrogant that Martin and Barnhouse et al. defined the word “cult” and then threatened other groups with it. Having had the word used on me a few times, I see little advantage to pinning it on someone else. Mormon doctrine is weird, to be sure, but I know my own denomination’s feet of clay too well to feel good about stomping on another’s toes. And I have to admit that as far as influencing culture, Mormons have done wonderfully well at getting around the movement’s dodgy past and odd beliefs and succeeding on their own terms. Better than we have.

I’m a little jealous, actually. I wonder why there’s not been an Adventist Moment. We’ve had our small recognitions by the larger culture: a year or two around the time of Baby Fae (though it was mostly LLU and Dr. Bailey, not the church, that got the attention), Paul Harvey mentioning us occasionally, a few politicians and entertainers. We’re better known in the African-American community than elsewhere, and have more important people in government in Africa and the Caribbean than here, too. Here, we appear mostly concerned with keeping our denominational machinery running and our institutions alive. But as for interacting with American culture, for good or ill, we’ve been sidelined.

One reason may be that the judgment of our church appears to fall more heavily on our achievers than happens in the LDS church. I was always amazed that people as conservative as Mormons could put up with the Osmond family in spite of their being entertainers, with all the lifestyle compromises that implies. Adventists are interested in our few celebrities, but we’re suspicious of them, too. Actor Clifton Davis and Congressman Jerry Pettis were much criticized because they didn’t behave as Adventisty as some thought they should have, and most of us won’t even claim Little Richard. We tend to value personal piety over societal recognition, even if that means sacrificing achievement. It’s a rare celebrity—Dr. Ben Carson comes to mind—who can stay among us without being fired upon. Our heroes, like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, are those who don’t do things for the sake of principle.

If we did have a Seventh-day Adventist candidate for president, what questions would arise? I can imagine our people asking, “Will he work on Sabbath?” “Will he close government offices on Sabbath?” “Will he let alcohol and pork be served at state dinners?” Outsiders might ask whether a person who believes that the world is on the verge of destruction over which is the right day to go to church, and that Roman Catholics are set to persecute him, can be trusted to make good judgements with the machinery of government.

Could we stand a Mormon president? We may find out. I do hope we’d behave better than we did back in 1960 when we got our first Roman Catholic president.


[1] I find the theory that Ellen White copied from Smith too weak to be taken seriously.

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