Liberal Mormons: A Critique and an InvitationNovember 15, 2007
[NOTE: the following essay is directed to my liberal Mormon friends. If you are happily a part of your ward, have a burning testimony and wholeheartedly sustain the brethren, more power to you. This essay is not for you.
NOTE 2: The blog has been rather quiet lately. This is due to the fact that I occasionally embark on a lengthy essay that I really don’t have time to write. The following is such and essay. It is rough and really unfinished. However, I’ve come to realize that I will never post it unless abandon any pretense of perfection I might have. I hope you still find my observations interesting]
It would be fair to say that most of my Mormon friends are of the “liberal” variety. That is to say that they are readers of Sunstone and Dialogue. They read critical academic books on Mormon history. They don’t buy everything they hear in church. At a deeper level, they seem to harbor a bitter sense of betrayal by the institutional church and hierarchy. Many still attend church and fulfill their callings. Some pay tithing and have temple recommends. Yet essentially all seem to have this under riding pain and sense of resentment.
This sense of betrayal is, I think, much deeper than those who cease to fully believe in mainstream forms of liberal Christianity and far less than those who cease to believe in the truth claims of Judaism. It may be similar to the betrayal that fundamentalist Christians experience when they realize that the Bible is not perfect, but I doubt it.
To a certain degree, this is probably a reaction to what I would regard as a corporate entity attempting to control what is supposed to be a spiritual movement. That the LDS church owns many profit making businesses has never troubled me particularly. My religion traditionally controlled (and arguably still controls) and entire country as part of it’s identity. Judaism, like Mormonism, teaches the essential interconnectedness of the spiritual and the temporal. However, the LDS church in terms of its organization, “marketing,” pattern of decision making and the “look and feel” of everything from it’s skyscraper HQ to it’s branded, franchised chapels, is the epitome of a modern American corporate entity.
In most other religions, the leadership has a professional training in, primarily, religion. The study of religion, in my experience, generally attracts people with a liberal arts orientation. The LDS church, on the other hand, tends to promote people with legal and/or business experience. To my mind, it is completely natural that such people would, with the best of intentions, create a church with a corporate model. It absolutely amazes me when Mormons tell me that the church has no paid ministry. While that is (today) somewhat true at the local level, it is obviously not true at world level. After all, someone is filling all those offices at 47 south temple and I assure you that those in the Auditing Department, the Budget Office, Correlation Department, Ordinance Procedures Division, the Ordinance Recording Systems Division, and the Audiovisual Services Division, Historical Department, Real Estate Division, Materials Management Department, Treasury Services, Controller, Tax Administration, Risk Management and, finally, Investments Departments definitely are paid salaries.*
It is then, not really surprising when an institution based on a corporate model behaves as a corporation does. That is to say, it tends to exert centralized control over it’s image by everything from dictating the font and material composition of it’s signage to controlling the presentation of it’s history. Like a corporation, it naturally values it’s general corporate identity and message over any of it’s particular members (or should I say, “employees.” Make no mistake about it, in this metaphor, the members are the employees. Perhaps most are really interns, who pay for the privilege of working. It’s the potential converts who are the customers, if anyone is). It is very easy for a corporation to sacrifice even large portions of its staff, even staff with valuable skills, if it is in its corporate best interest to do so. This is precisely the way the modern LDS church behaves and no one should be surprised by it.
If you are a “Sunstone” or “Dialogue” Mormon, you should, in my opinion, simply accept that the church does not want you. Oh, if you do not make much fuss in public and continue to pay your tithing, they will let you hang around (sort of like an intern who has paid her tuition but really isn’t working out). If you make a fuss, however, especially one that has the potential to disturb the corporate image, you will be out the door. Even if your removal creates a temporary media glitch, as did the excommunication of the September six did, still, the benefits to the long run corporate image (as well as to the morale of the employees) outweigh the costs.
While this is, to me, clearly tragic given the radical, freedom-centered, human-focused nature of Mormon theology, it’s just the way it is and you, I advise, should accept it and leave. You will not change the church by protests or symposia. It will never be changed unless the mistreated employees, the church members, transform themselves into dissatisfied customers and vote with their feet.
There are a couple of forces weighing against this movement however. One is the deep identification with Mormon history and peoplehood that many liberal Mormons have. The other is rooted in what I regard as somewhat flawed theological defense mechanism that some liberal Mormons flock to, what I call “hyper-Christianization.”
This is, I suppose, why this is a specifically “Jewish” critique of liberal Mormonism.
Though I personally see quite a number of problems with this approach, I can also understand why it might be appealing to liberal Mormons. The narrative that I hear from such disaffected former LDS insiders as Paul Toscano and Grant Palmer goes something like this: Jesus was a radical reformer who preached a liberalizing gospel of spirit and love against a powerful bureaucracy who not only misunderstood him (because they were looking for a “warrior messiah” they missed his ‘Spiritual message”), this evil bureaucracy actually killed him. Yet he defeated death and reigns forever in love. The subtext here is, I believe the identification of individual dissident with Jesus and the Sanhedrin and Roman authority with the LDS hierarchy. I’ve never heard anyone except Paul Toscano actually say this, but time and time again it has been the implication.
The only problem with it is that it is not true (to paraphrase Brigham Young, quoting Joseph Smith). Though Jesus says things like “Love you neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” from time to time, most are unaware that these lines are stolen from the “evil authority” he is allegedly resisting. “Love your neighbor” is a quotation of Leviticus 19:18 and the golden rule is a modified quotation of the Rabbi Hillel who lived roughly 40 years before Jesus. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34).
So much for universal love…
Further then that, Liberal Mormons who “hyper-Christianize” are really trading one questionable history for another. Recent works such as Randel Helms “Gospel Fictions,” and “Who wrote the Gospels” as well as Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew,
The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman to name only a few of the most popular of hundreds of scholarly and semi scholarly works, aptly demonstrate the historical, chronological and even geographic problems with the New Testament stories of Jesus.
This is not to say the Jews don’t have problems with the Hebrew Bible or Talmud. Clearly we do. I would say that they are not as severe as those that plague the New Testament, particularly at the level of textual integrity… if one confines oneself to the past couple of thousand years or so. However, the point is that if one trades one set of historical problems for another set, one should be aware and acknowledge it.
All that said, if one is really set on approaching one’s issues with the LDS hierarchy with what I’m calling the “hyper-Christianized” approach, yet remain loyal to the essential ideas of the restoration, that is, Joseph Smith and the uniquely Mormon scriptures, an option does exit. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a.k.a. the “Community of Christ” has essentially adopted the approach of dealing with it’s unique history (In addition to questioning the historicity of the Book of Mormon and so forth, its scholars now admit the RLDS church was wrong about Joseph’s polygamy, the temple and his views on God) by a sort of “institutional hyper-Christianization.” From where I sit, the Community of Christ today is basically liberal Methodism with Joseph Smith, the priesthood and a temple. If one feels a tinge of nostalgia for polygamy (without condoning it or wanting to practice it one’s self, of course) the convert to the Community of Christ can take solace in the fact that his church is now the one with institutionally recognized polygamists while the Utah LDS church has an absolute prohibition. In a twist of fate, the (church formerly known as the) RLDS church accepts polygamists, mainly in Africa, as candidates for baptism without an abandonment of their wives, while the LDS church does not. Ahhh, cruel irony!
On the other hand, there is another sort of disaffected Mormon. This sort has the same discomfort with the corporate nature of the current hierarchy but is aware of and longs for another sort of Mormonism, that of the 19th century. At first blush, the Mormon who longs for a radical theology, the gathering, informal familial solidarity, a united order and the creative intellectual, yet revelatory, approach to religious texts that characterize 19th century Mormonism has few options. One could join one of the polygamist cults such as the FLDS church or the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, but that would entail trading one crushing hierarchy for another, albeit a far less corporate one.
In my experience, most Liberal Mormons who are attracted to the 19th century do not really want to live in a theocracy or practice polygamy. (Those who do, are not really “liberal” per se and they do, in fact, likely gravitate toward polygamy). In my experience, the liberal Mormons with 19th century orientation are attracted to the radical spirit of 19th century Mormonism but wish the freedom to research, debate and practice what they will.
For such people there is, in my opinion, an attractive option available, Judaism. Mark it now, because this is the only invitation to become Jewish that you will probably ever get. Jews do believe that we have a mission to perfect the world but not through converting people to Judaism. From the Jewish theological point of view, it is not necessary that any non-Jew ever convert. Following the 613 commandments (which for Mormons would be a reduction in total number – an LDS friend of mine counted over 1200 “commandments” in one conference edition of the Ensign years ago) are not an expectations the Jews believe God expects of everyone. To a greater or lesser degree, we believe that our practice of actually following them, sort of “jump-starts” an infusion of holiness that blesses the whole world. Thus, from the Jewish point of view, there’s really no reason for non-Jews to accept them.
However, Judaism also recognizes that there are some people who would be a good fit and, since the time of Ruth, has accepted the motivated convert. From my point of view, disaffected “19th century” Mormons would make a good fit.
Why do I say that? Well, from my point of view (which I came to independently but with which, Jan Shipps, noted scholar of Mormonism agrees), Jospeh Smith “restored” three things:
1) The “restoration” of the church of Jesus Christ – This “Restoration, though not literally restoring anything since the academic consensus is that there was no “original church” to restore, represents only the earliest phase of the Mormon Movement (Roughly the New York and early Kirtland periods) and today is basically represented by the RLDS/Community of Christ Church.
2) The “Restoration” of Israel – Of course Israel did not need “restoring” per se because we never left. Yet there is no doubt that Joseph Smith did introduce much of what is unique about Judaism, both is its biblical and modern forms into his movement. To me, it is this “restoration” that is represented by the Utah LDS church. Themes of ancient Israel predominate in the LDS church from the late Kirtland period through at least the early 1980’s (though there has been, lately, a new emphasis on Christian themes in recent LDS discourse)
3) The “restoration” of “All things.” Shipps includes such things as the temple, polygamy and even the potential reintroduction of animal sacrifice alluded to the in the LDS scriptures as part of this category. To me, these items really are part of category one since they are to a degree part of ancient (and technically modern) Judaism. What I would include in this category are the Unique LDS views of God as a man (or at least anthropomorphic in form) and as merely the highest or greatest God among many potentials, though clearly the only one really worthy of worship by Israelites. These views are represented in the Hebrew Bible and to a limited degree in Jewish literature up to the middle ages. Therefore they are a peripheral part of the Jewish tradition. But they really rely on a pre-Jewish, patriarchal narrative that was almost lost within Judaism. Therefore, to me, they go beyond a restoration of Israel and lean toward a “restoration” or rather Americanization and amplification of the patriarchal religion. Still, they are things that at least this Jew can work with.
A liberal Mormon who emphasizes what I’m calling “Hyper-Christianity” or takes my “invitation” to join the RLDS (oopps, “Community of Christ”) really abandons the full flavor of Mormonism and much that makes it interesting. That is, they only get item one “The restoration of the church.” On the other hand, a liberal Mormon gets to access items two and three within Judaism, at least to the degree that Modern Mormons do and them some. In all honestly, it’s really items two and three that 19th century Mormonism (and in terms of de-emphasizing Jesus, even 20th century Mormonism, up until the 1980’s) emphasized. It’s items two and three, Israel and the patriarchs that Judaism emphasizes today.
That this is so, is illustrated by the large number of Mormon Hymns that Jews could sing without or almost without modification. When I heard one or two that sounded “Jewish” I started investigating the church web site and came up with:
- Hope of Israel
- Israel Israel God is Calling
- Redeemer of Israel (Jews use the term “redeemer” to refer to God)
- Ye Elders of Israel
- Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded
[These are the specifically “Jewish” songs, not merely those what could be sung by all good people, Mormons or not, such as “Say what is truth.” If you can think of any more, please let me know. I’m sort of collecting these.]
I taught “Hope of Israel” to a friend of mine who is a commander in the Israel Defense Forces and has seen battle a number of times. He absolutely loved it! I taught “Israel Israel God is Calling” to another friend who works for “Arza,” an organization that works to encourage American Jews to “make Alyiah,” that is, to gather in Israel. She loved it as well! Indeed I would argue that these uniquely Mormon hymns (as well as “Zion stands” make more sense to modern Jews than to Modern Mormons.
Why is this possible?
Simply because many of the characteristic elements of 19th century Mormonism from the “restoration of Israel” and the restoration of “all things” have been muted or rejected by the modern LDS church but retained in Judaism. For example, the two hymns I taught to my Jewish friends are about Zion’s army and about the “gathering to Zion.” Mormonism no longer has an army nor does it encourage gathering. Judaism, modern Zion, does have an Army, the IDF. We do have a a homeland in Zion, Israel, and we are gathering. And the beauty is, if you are an American Jew, there is little real pressure to serve in the former or move to the latter. You can partake of the “flavor” without the hassle!
There are other areas in which a Mormon, especially with a 19th century orientation, would feel more at home in Judaism than among the RLDS/Community of Christ. Jews and Mormons share both a technical belief in and acceptance of polygamy. Both also share a practical ban designed to keep those pesky Christians happy. Both have isolated groups of adherents who still indulge in the practice.
As 19th century Mormons and 20th century Mormon Fundamentalists attest, polygamy is accepted by the Bible and commanded under certain circumstances. In Judaism, the specific command occurs only when one is married and one’s also married brother dies childless. One is commanded to marry his brother’s wife. The children of this marriage are legally the brother’s and inherit his goods. However, polygamy in all other cases was optional. Jews in Europe continued to solemnize polygamous marriages until the year 1006 when, under Christian pressure, Rabbi Gershom, the de facto head of the the European Jewish communities issued a 1000 year “manifesto” banning the practice to save the community. This ban expired a year ago March and at that time, there were quite a number of polygamy jokes going around the educated Jewish community! Middle Eastern Jews had no such ban however and continued to practice polygamy right up until they made aliyah to Israel, the secular government of which, banned the practice as a matter of state law. Isolated groups of Jews in the middle east, particularly in Tunisia and Yemen still practice it…Sort of our “Short Creek.”
The fact that today Jewish law permits polygamy (the “ban” having expired but not renewed) yet almost no one, other than a snickering jokester on occasion, is clamoring for it back is yet another similarity, but this time between Jews and modern Mormons. If polygamy were suddenly permitted under US law as, for example, the by product of a supreme court decision on gay marriage, I’m almost sure that the official LDS church would firmly maintain it’s current prohibition. Why? Because, nostalgia aside, like most modern Jews, Modern Mormons think it is kind of “icky.”
Finally the great added benefit for liberal Mormon of converting to Judaism is that there is NO universal hierarchy to get in your way. No one can authoritatively expel you from your people and heritage. If you develop issues in one synagogue, you may simply move to another one more to you liking.
I realize that the idea of modern revelation is attractive. However, there seems to be precious little. Gordon Hinkley, though a nice old gentleman (I’ve met him), admitted on Larry King that “no one knows the future” and in a previous interview that he simply prays about issues and waits for a “still small voice.” This is certainly not prohibited in Judaism.
The bottom line is that in Judaism you will still have a magnifying filter through which to view the world and a people who will be a family to you wherever you may be or may roam. You will still have Zion to strive for. What you will not have is a corporate hierarchy that desires to control the minutia of your life and threatens to destroy your family and community relationships if you object.
*Coleman, Neil K. “A Study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an Administrative System, Its Structure and Maintenance.” Ph.D. diss., New York University