Why I Don’t Convert – Essay on a Wash. Post ArticleFebruary 6, 2008
The Washington Post has an interesting article on the challenges that await the new LDS president, Thomas S. Monson. The short version is that the main issues facing the LDS church are a declining growth rate and a very high attrition rate.
As a non-Mormon who finds many LDS beliefs attractive, finds LDS history fascinating, personally impressed with Joseph Smith and has attended many LDS meetings, people often ask me why I don’t simply convert. In addition to a general loyalty to my Jewish heritage and the fact that I don’t believe in Jesus as anything other than an early Reform Jew (If I had to choose between Jesus and Joseph Smith, I would choose Joseph), there are a few other reasons that might have some general application to the questions raised by the above article.
1) LDS services and classes are exceedingly dull.
Going once or twice, particularly in an older, architecturally interesting chapel in Utah is an interesting cultural experience. More than that, particularly in one of the newer, corporate, branded cookie cutter chapels is, to me a possible substitute for chemical anesthesia. Mormons sometimes say that they have a superior form of worship because other than the sacrament prayers, they have no “set prayers.” I can assure you that this is not true. I can easily give “classic” Mormon prayers for any occasion. I used to illustrate the effect of cultural prayer to my students by having them call out a church or religion and I would give a prayer in that cultural “language” (I stopped doing this, even though it made a great point, because it seemed disrespectful). Mormon students would give me 100% accuracy. It true that in Judaism, our services have mostly set prayers, but there are hundreds of them and they are very complex with rich theological content (there are volumes of commentary on them). Mormons also have set prayers, but only have a few – Maybe a half a dozen or dozen at most.
It’s my impression that adult classes and materials are geared to about the sixth grade level. It seems as though there are well informed and interesting individuals in most classes, but it also seems that their input is not welcomed. Most people seem to know less about Mormonism than I do. Perhaps this is arrogant or unfair of me (I have an MA in the history or religion and teach a unit on Mormonism at the undergraduate level), but I am not, after all, a Mormon.
2) The level of centralized control seems oppressive
Attending a Mormon church reminds me of going to a McDonald’s or shopping at Target. It’s “branded” and standardized building regulated service standard lessons and “General Handbook of Instructions” are the same from place to place. I realize that this is a comfort to some. I suppose that shopping at Target or eating at McDonald’s in a new city is also comforting to some. I’m not one of those people. I don’t eat at McDonald’s and I rarely shop at Target. I like new out of the way restaurants and small owner-run shops.
I have to say that the best experience I ever had in a Mormon church occurred when I was on a Motorcycle trip that crossed Utah from North to South. It was in the late summer and I was unprepared for the rapid temperature drop up in the mountains. I had a great dinner at the “Bakery” (which included a restaurant) in Manti. I struck up a conversation with a local rancher who turned out to be a Mormon bishop in which I complained about the unexpected cold. He offered to put me up for the night and I slept in a room filled with genealogical information and diaries of his polygamous ancestors. I spent most of the night reading them (with his permission) and then went to church with his family in a quirky old chapel filled with equally quirky personalities who went way off the lesson manuals. The classes were filled with theological debate and local history. I suppose that these people were too close to the the Mormon core to be worrisome to Salt Lake, but they were way off the reservation… In any case this was, by far, the best experience I had in a Mormon service and it was, by far, the most independent.
In Judaism, we of course, believe in revelation. For those who accept Kabbalah, there is a belief in continuing revelation or at least inspiration (particularly in Chabad, also known as Lubavitch Hassidism, pronounced Lu-BAH-vitch. They are the largest, most geographically diverse of all the hassidic sects. The Salt Lake Chabad Rabbi, Benny Zippel was a good friend of Gordon B Hinckley, met with him regularly and had a direct line to his desk).
That said, we consider study of and debate on religion a way to honor God. It does not, in the big picture, seem to make us less “unified” on the big issues. We have vigorous (REALLY vigorous) internal debates yet when there is an issue of common concern, we seem to do a fairly good job of putting that aside and work together. At the local level, we have Jewish “Federations” which send representatives from each Jewish institution (not just synagogues) in a local region. It works like congress (only better, hopefully). I was once the representative from my synagogue to the “Community Relations Council” which govered how the Jewish Community related to Non-Jewish institutions including everything from interfaith Dialogues to Educating the police about Jewish concerns and unique needs. I was always amazed how well Jews who held VERY diverse opinions about religion and engaged in vigorous debate were able to unify at the drop of a hat when the need arose. My point here is that a belief in revelation is not necessarily inimical to religious debate and free debate is not necessarily a barrier to unity. Lastly, a culture that discusses and debates is, according to my taste simply richer and more interesting than one that doesn’t. I simply cannot imagine myself gravitating to a religion or culture that walks in lock-step.
In conclusion, let me reiterate how much respect I have for Mormons and Mormonism. As I said, I love reading about Mormon History and Mormon Theology. When I read the sermons of Joseph Smith I feel his rough charisma and appreciate his unlettered brilliance. Whenever I pass a new Mormon chapel, I smile, even though I would be unlikely to go in. I see it as one more amazing tribute to Joseph Smith’s radical vision. Even though I understand the historical forces that caused it, I am still amazed and saddened though, that such a radical vision could become so utterly dull in its modern manifestation. I say this not to insult, but merely to inform with one or two reasons why the modern* LDS church would not be attractive to a person like me.
*Sometimes when I read about Joseph Smith, I imagine that if I had lived in his day we would have become good friends. He did, in fact, befriend the two legitimate Jews who he encountered: Alexander Neibauer who converted (and was an ancestor of Hugh Nibley) and Rabbi Joshua Seixas, his Hebrew Tutor, who did not convert.