Friday, February 3, 2012

A Rebuttal

So, this article has been flying around Facebook, and as a reader, I read it. But I have some points I'd like to make - not because the writer is wrong - but I'd like to offer a different perspective. The article - A Mormon Church in Need of Reform - was written by Carrie Sheffield and published in the Washington Post on January 29. Read the article, if you haven't already, but please come back and read my response.

First, you have to know that I am a devout Mormon. I also have a doctorate. I read widely. I have studied every major world religion in detail. I love reading philosophy - have several tomes on my shelves; I love reading literature that challenges thinking; I love reading in the sciences and do so often. I am fascinated by the human experience and our scientific, religious, and philosophical need to explain and justify and make sense of life as we know it on Earth. I love art - give me hours on end in an art museum, and I will call it a day well spent. I love sports. If I had 10 hours in New York, I'd spend 6 at the Met and then ride the Subway up to Yankee Stadium for a game. Actually, I've done that. I love backpacking. I love hunting. I love the symphony. I love the theater. I enjoy Jane Austen as much as I enjoy an issue of Popular Mechanics or the latest research journal from the American Educational Research Association. I love Weezer; I love Bach. I voted for Barack Obama, and would likely do so again if he faces Mitt Romney this fall. I believe Thomas S. Monson is a prophet of God; I believe Jesus was the Christ. I believe scientists and world leaders throughout history have been, at times, inspired by God to advance the human race. I have read Albert Einstein's biography - and loved it. I'm reading Steve Jobs' biography right now; I'm also reading the Book of Mormon. I find both equally fascinating. I am diverse in my opinions, my academic and social pursuits, and I am a Mormon. Having said that, let's get into Carrie Sheffield's article.

Carried stated that the Mormon church's "I'm a Mormon" media campaign was "a series of efforts to buy public affection." True. All media campaigns, for charities, sports teams, shaving cream, religion, AIDS awareness, or what have you, are "efforts to buy public affection." Can't deny that. The campaign, though, is meant to say, "We're not weirdos." You probably know us, and we're human, too. Most of my Mormon friends back home in California, from my time in Arizona, and from time living in Missouri, Kansas, Idaho, and Utah, are just normal people living diverse lives.

Carrie writes, "Yes, Mormons love families. But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church." Yes and no. Because the Mormon faith is predicated on the belief that the church is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy that someday God would restore His church to the Earth (and we believe He did that through the prophet, Joseph Smith in the early 1800s), it stands to reason that when someone (like Carrie) rejects that faith, its tough on the believing parents and family. In some sad cases, it leads parents, siblings, or friends to reject that person who leaves the Mormon church. But from my experiences, I have several close family members who left the Church and I love those guys. My wife and I just had Sunday brunch to hang out with two good friends who left the Mormon faith years ago- they're awesome people! We love being around them. I feel bad for Carrie's personal experience with her family in this regard, and for all who have her shared experience. I hope no Mormon treats anyone that way. The reality, though, is most Mormons don't live in enclaves of "only-Mormon" communities. We live all over the world and have a diverse body of friends both within and without the Mormon faith. We're not some weird, secretive, petty society that shuns non-Mormon friendships. That's weird.

Carries writes, "The church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking. This caused trauma and cognitive dissonance when I questioned church doctrine and official history." I'm not sure where this comes from, but my experiences growing up in California, attending BYU in Utah, and my adult life in various other states has been very different. Mormons do believe in following a living prophet. His teachings are very public - they're all on However, we also believe (and we hold to it with clenched fists) that each person is entitled to personal, constant, daily revelation and direction and inspiration from God. We are told to question, challenge, dissect, ponder, and pray over everything we are presented with doctrinally. As an adult, I do this often, and so do my friends and family. We seek inspiration for what is right for us. We are encouraged, asked, prodded, but in the end, all we do, even our membership, is by choice. I pay tithing by choice; I get up and go to church on Sunday by choice; I serve by choice; I pray by choice; I believe in God by choice. As to the doctrines, yes we espouse a belief in concrete doctrines such as the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other prophetic teachings, but as Mormons we have a tremendous amount of scholarship on our own doctrines. The library in my own home is reflective of a never-ending stream of published literature from Mormons interpreting their own doctrines. Deseret Book has published thousands of doctrinal explorations of Mormon theology. We are a people enamored with intellectual thinking and inquiry. Do we teach our youth and members to embrace the teachings of the scriptures and a living prophet as doctrine from God? Sure. But we also teach, constantly, to think, ponder, and pray about what is right for you and your family and make a choice on the matter and to make personal choices in how to fit those teachings into your individual lives as appropriate to your circumstances.

Carrie writes, "I struggled after realizing Mormonism's claims about anthropology, history, and other subjects contradict reason and science." Yes, having studied all major world religions, we always come to a breaking point when trying to fit religion within science and science in religion. Did a God oversee this, or are we, as humans, products of an evolving natural world? That's the breaking point. True of all faiths. While attending the Mormon church's, Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), our biology classes studied the Theory of Evolution. We discussed evolution in context with the Mormon belief in the creation epic of the Bible. However, we openly discussed (and I've had the same discussion in countless Mormon Sunday school classes and other venues) that an evolutionary process may very well have been a part of The Creation. We explored that, shared ideas, shared thoughts, and basically explored the topic as far as our intellectual curiosity would take us. We did things like this in almost every class I attended at Ricks and then at the main BYU campus in Provo as I earned a degree in History with a minor in English. Math, Science, History, Philosophy, Religion, you name it. We tore it apart and often explored it in conjunction with theology. Not every class did this, and not every professor was open to this type of thinking - some wouldn't let you jump too far out of "Sunday School lesson manual" type discussions, but many, if not most, were pushing us to intellectually explore our faith in light of science, and it's something I have not stopped doing my entire life - and most of my Mormon friends are this same way - we're fascinated by the advances and thinking in science and its possible relations to our faith. In pursing a master's at Northern Arizona University, and a doctorate at Utah State University, I have been equally engaged with this process, on a personal level, juxtaposing and analyzing the academia with my personal religious beliefs.

Carrie said, "While many faiths' irrational claims are obscured by centuries of myth and rubble, the LDS church lacks moderation and scholarship of its older peers. It also stifles efforts to openly question church pronouncements, labeling such behavior as satanic." I grew up in Los Angeles, and my grandfather, born in 1926 (and just died 4 years ago), had a doctorate from USC. Scholarship. My grandmother had a bachelors degree. The leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City have advanced degrees in medicine, business, science, and so forth. There are doctors, lawyers, former CEOs, university professors, judges, and many other well-educated scholars at the highest levels of leadership in the Mormon faith. In fact, the higher you go through the Mormon church's leadership, the more education you find. It's not a faith led by ignorant people. It's not a faith led by men and women who have only degrees in theology. The Church's efforts to dissect its own history are almost unparalleled in the world of religion. It's publication history is deep and extends back almost two full centuries. Walk into the BYU library in Provo, Utah, and you will find thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of pages of Mormon scholarship. Mormon history has been documented and analyzed for almost 200 years. As for labeling the questioning of Church pronouncements as "satanic," I haven't heard that at anytime, and I challenge anyone to find such a statement or teaching. The Mormon church does believe in following a living prophet. We believe He speaks for God. But I also restate that we are constantly being told to think, ponder, and pray and find out for ourselves if things are true and how doctrine applies to our individual and family circumstances. With all of the pronouncements on keeping the Sabbath Day holy, ask 10 Mormons how they follow that injunction and you will get 10 different answers.

Carrie writes, "Critics of Mormonism include geneticists, Egyptologists and even the Smithsonian Institution, which stopped Mormon apologists from claiming the institute viewed the Book of Mormon as a factual document." Critics of any religion are found in these circles and many other circles. As a Mormon, I find genetics fascinating. I find Egyptology fascinating. And I loved my visits to the Smithsonian museums. I don't always agree with scientific pronouncements or theories, and they don't always agree with my religion. But that's part of the human experience. As to the Book of Mormon, even treating it as a work of fictional literature, as a scholar, I am impressed with its original detail, Old-World style literary structures, and metaphorical stories rich in symbolism. It harmonizes with my study of and love for the Bible, and it broadens my perspective in a religious, philosophical, and literary sense. I read widely in all forms of literature, and the Book of Mormon is fascinating to me both in a religious context and in an academic context.

Carrie writes, "While studying at Brigham Young University, I spiritually imploded after learning these things and other facts outside official church curriculum. Disturbed, I met with a high-ranking Mormon leader who told me to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were 'worse than pornography.'" This is, perhaps, the strangest quote in the article. I attended BYU, which has a student enrollment of 30,000 or so students on average. BYU ranks in the Top 10 of universities that send undergrads on to earn PhDs (mostly at non-Mormon universities). The Mormon church not only publishes widely, but it has built 3 major universities (BYU-Provo, BYU-Idaho, and BYU-Hawaii), and operates the LDS Business College and BYU-Jerusalem. Studying historical and scientific materials is fundamental to our religion. We are taught explicitly to study deeply in all things academic. BYU's science departments are well-developed and carry out research projects throughout the world in all areas of scientific inquiry. I don't know who the unnamed church leader she spoke with is, but I have never heard such pronouncements in my 38 years in the church. Do we embrace many facets of our doctrine as teachings from God? Yes. Do we blindly ignore science, history, philosophy, and academia? Not at all.

Carries writes, "Salt Lake City's male gerontocracy told me to avoid books and marry, but I could not stomach all their teachings." As of 2010, 48% of the students at BYU-Provo were female ( This is a church-owned institution whose board of directors is made up of the highest levels of Mormon leadership. My grandmother had a bachelor's degree from California State University Los Angeles. My mother has a bachelor's degree. There are 8 boys in my family and 7 are married. Of the 7 women who married into our devout, typical Mormon family, 6 of them have bachelor's degrees, and 2 have master's degrees. My wife has a master's degree. Women getting college educations is a fundamental and encouraged part of the Mormon faith. Does the church encourage women to fill roles as mothers? Yes. Does the church stop them from working outside the home? My grandmother, mother, and wife all have held leadership positions in the church. Yet all of them worked outside the home while raising children. Many Mormon women are stay-at-home mom's and are applauded for this sacrifice. Many Mormon women work outside the home. It's normal.

Carrie writes, "Mainstream Mormons banned polygamy in 1890 to obtain Utah's statehood, but they continue to perform temple ceremonies that 'seal' one man to multiple women in the hereafter. My idea of heaven did not involve a husband whose love could be shared with many wives." And my wife would agree. No modern Mormon man is 'sealed' or married to more than one living woman. Carrie is referring to, if a Mormon man's wife dies and he remarries, the marriage or sealing done in the temple is for Time and All Eternity. Hence, when he gets to Heaven, two wives. I'm not sure how all of that will be worked out. I'm not sure how Abraham is doing up there with his multiple wives, but as believers in the Bible, Mormons have been taught that in various circumstances and at various times, God has asked or allowed certain men to be sealed to more than one woman. Honestly, I love my wife, and like many other Mormon men, it would be hard for me if I was ever told, "Hey, polygamy is back. Go get another wife." When I get to Heaven, I expect God will explain a lot of things to me that are a mystery to me in this life (including the Patriots losing to the Giants in 2008, dinosaurs, how Hitler convinced a developed nation to do what they did, how that whole Garden of Eden thing worked, the geologic processes involved in the Earth's creation, and many more things I don't fully understand).

Carrie writes (sadly), "My parents shut me out of their home for nearly five years because of religion, and some former friends shunned me." I can't imagine this. I feel bad for her and her family. No one should go through this. With several family members and friends leaving the Mormon faith, there were weird moments, but largely, we're very close friends. I love my friends and family no matter what beliefs they choose. We visit our friends and family who have left the church regularly, vacation together, chat on the phone, and are Facebook friends. I feel sad that Carrie experienced this in her family.

Carrie writes, "Those whose spouses leave the church are sometimes encouraged to get divorced and remarry a faithful Latter-day Saint." All marriages with spouses following different religious beliefs can sometimes be strained. I have never read of a Mormon leader telling members to divorce "non-believers." It's a tough situation. Because the Mormon faith is really a lifestyle, with one in and one out, it could get tough. But that would be left to the married couple to pray about and talk through together. There is something sacred in the Mormon church, that not even the church leaders step into very often - and that's the sacred bonds of marriage. We are counseled often, to consult with our spouse and to make decisions based on prayerful consultation and cooperation with this Heavenly partnership. Marriage is sacred. I hope no Mormon leader ever comes out and tells the members to divorce any non-Mormon spouses. I can't imagine they will.

Carrie writes, "Many gay Mormons have been driven to suicide, deeply conflicted about whether acting on their sexuality is, as the church teaches, a sin." As a devout Mormon who has had gay friends and family members, this is a tough one for me. And in talking to my many Mormon friends and family across the country, it's a tough one for all of us. Yes, we believe that homosexual actions are a sin. We also believe that these feelings and "being gay" are something a person is born with - some still cling to the belief that one chooses to be gay, but that idea is fading fast in the church. So, we're stuck in a weird situation. A church that embraces intellectual and scientific inquiry, that embraces America and its democratic ways as God-inspired, is struggling to cope with how to love and embrace its gay members. I will be the first to raise my hand that I don't think we're doing the best job. It's a tragedy when someone who is gay commits suicide. I don't have an answer for this other than I care about and love my friends and family who are gay.

Carrie writes, "With public interest in Mormonism so high, I hope the scrutiny will help break down the church's fundamentalist trappings: secrecy about its finances, anti-women doctrine and homophobia, to start. Perhaps someday the church will not excommunicate, fire and demote people who want honest, church-wide dialogue about Mormon history and doctrine." The church's financial details aren't really a secret. You have 14 or so million people paying 10% tithing and additional offerings for the poor and you have an annually published list of the thousands of church meeting houses and temples around the world. The church owns many farms, cattle ranches, canneries, and so forth to support its worldwide humanitarian effort. It runs an education system with universities and seminaries. And it conducts an annual independent audit of its finances. It's pretty straight-forward. Any economist looking in from the outside can estimate its income and project its outcome (which is tangible) and come to solid conclusions. I don't understand the anti-women statement here. I love the women in my family, as have my father and grandfathers. I have addressed the homophobia - we are all guilty there. The Mormon church and its doctrine is on full display. It's the most scrutinized and published-about American religion. If you begin reading about Mormon faith, you very quickly come to realize that there is almost too much information, too many books, too much literature on the subject. You can read your entire life and not get through the thousands of books on the subject. We are a transparent people in many ways.

Carrie writes, "the church isn't exactly welcoming of outsiders." On the outside of almost every Mormon church building is the statement, "Visitors Welcome." The church currently has almost 60,000 missionaries all over the world on their own dime inviting people to learn about the Mormon church. Having said that, the Mormon faith can be a little exclusive in the sense that it isn't just a church on the corner that you go to for an hour or two each week. It's a pretty intensive life-style change. No alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco, drugs. Sundays are the Sabbath. One night a week is Youth Night with activities for the teenager kids. There are frequent congregational (congregations are called Wards - using an old word for sections of a city) activities for the young kids (called Primary) and the adults and sometimes the whole family. Most adults have "Callings" where you serve as a Sunday School teacher or Bishop or Primary Teacher or Activity Chairman or whatever. The Church is a lay leadership - we don't hire leaders; you're called to serve in your ward. So, because the Mormon church is so involved, it can sometimes feel to an outsider that it's kind of an exclusive club. To be honest, I think the church is trying really hard to make others feel welcome.

That was lengthy. I respect Carrie's views, but I also think they are an attempt to ridicule a church that she has rejected. That's fine. We are not a perfect people, and our beliefs, like so many others, can seem funny and strange. But some of what she stated has not been my experience and some points, I feel, were outright false. I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that God created this world for us to live in, to grow, to learn, and to develop. We do that by studying and reading and discussing and living. The human experience is a wonderful thing. I love life. I love my religion.


Erin Kay said...

Joe, fantastic response to Carrie's article. I too was really intrigued with her arguments, and, of course, you're response is exactly right! Do you mind if I re-post this to my blog or at least link it (with full credit to you of course)? h, and by the way, this is your favorite past student Erin Evans now Heuett. How's the red desert? Thanks!

joeheywood said...

Hey Erin! Yes, re-post. Moab is a dream. Life is good. I hope all is well. From Facebook, it seems like life is treating you well. Say hi to the folks!

The Real Jim Heywood said...

Joe, I just read your response to Carrie and you did an admirable job. Well done.

Ken said...

Thank you Joe. This is a great rebuttal that you have written. There is only one thing that I do not understand.... The Obama thing ranks right up there with your love of the Lakers... Not totally sure about either of those. :-) Love ya Brother.