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Monday, July 30, 2012

A Mormon president and gay marriage: Lifting the veil of misunderstanding


The following blog post is an answer to a question posed by a reader (username, mikebutler) who commented on the post, http://kurtsperspective.blogspot.com/2012/07/a-response-to-eliza-woods-are-mormons.html.

I include first Mike’s letter and then my response. As with my response to Eliza Wood's article in the Huffington Post, these comments are my personal thoughts. For official answers to questions about Mormon doctrines, please consider consulting some of the following websites:

  • http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/
  • http://mormon.org/
  • http://www.lds.org/?lang=eng

MIKE’S COMMENTS AND QUESTION(S)

Very thorough research, Kurt, and made more readable by your respectful tone throughout-- even in the face of an article by Ms. Wood that goes beyond ignorance and borders on insulting. You have probably read the response by Dr. Peterson. I know he's a professor, but your analysis stands up well next to his.

My question, as a non-Mormon, is whether you or Dr. Peterson are capable of getting past the factual inaccuracies of this woman's piece and asking whether she is giving voice to an honest concern that many of her readers have, however inartfully she went about it?

The simple truth is that many, many Americans view the members of your faith as somehow alien and not to be trusted. Scolding a reporter for poor fact-checking is unlikely to dissuade them.

Here's a true story: my friend travelled to attend her college roommate's (LDS) wedding last year. Her only familiarity with Latter-day Saints was that, in her mind, they were the reason her sister had had to cancel her own wedding in 2008, because Mormons had spearheaded a ballot measure (Prop 8) that made the marriage illegal.

My friend returned with reports that she and about half the other guests had been banned from the church and could not even see the marriage ceremony. I tried to explain that it wasn't a church but a temple, that it was called a sealing and that sealings are considered private for very specific reasons. My friend did not care about those facts. All she took away from the incident was that these were a weird bunch of secretive cultists who wouldn't even let the bride's own mother attend her wedding. In other words, she already harbored a prejudice and her experience merely reinforced it.

You have already succeeded in showing that the Huffington Post reporter did shoddy work and have coherently and respectfully countered her errors one by one. My question is whether you have heard what she was saying in the first place. Mormons and Muslims are seen as "other" by many, many Americans who honestly question whether members of these faiths would strive to subvert our principles of religious freedom if their leaders ordered them to do so.

Many Americans would like to know, as would I, if there is any real difference between a Muslim in Afghanistan who would beat a woman to force her to wear a hijab, and a Mormon in America who would pay money for a new law that forces other citizens and other churches to obey LDS marriage doctrine.

Despite all the facts you've offered in your blog post, I see nothing there that allows me to answer this very basic question.

MY COMMENTS TO MIKE

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your question. I have a few thoughts that might give you some insight from my perspective as a Mormon….

First, the purpose behind my response was to provide readers with a sense of what Mormons believe. I focused the response on those issues raised by Eliza Wood in her article. As you've seen, some of her points were accurate, but many were seriously flawed - yet portrayed as matter-of-fact truths.

Second, the purpose wasn't necessarily to dissuade Wood of her beliefs, but rather encourage accurate reporting. When it comes to my religious beliefs, I am an advocate of teaching others what I believe and then letting them choose for themselves what they believe. That becomes increasingly more difficult when things I don't believe in - sometimes even things I find offensive - are represented as mainstream Mormon beliefs. As far as Wood is concerned, my response focused on her responsibilities as a journalist to accurately portray facts rather than trying to dissuade her from her conclusions.

Third, I think Wood's article lacked a sense of cohesiveness that enables all of her readers to come away with the same understanding of what her purposes or conclusions were. You suggest her main point may have been to say that Mormons and Muslims are viewed by others with suspicion. This isn't something that I came away thinking, although I admit I may have been blinded by my concern with her misrepresentations to the degree that I couldn't pick up on more subtle or inherent points she may have been trying to convey. 

For these reasons, I didn't address the issue you bring up - but I would be happy to try and speak to your question here.

MORMONS AND POLITICS

You ask, "Is there any real difference between a Muslim in Afghanistan who would beat a woman to force her to wear a hijab, and a Mormon in America who would pay money for a new law that forces other citizens and other churches to obey LDS marriage doctrine?"

I would answers, "Yes, there is a big difference."

If there is any word from your scenario that stuck out the most, it is "force." One of the most important principles of our religion is that of agency, or allowing others the freedom to choose. We live by many sets of laws, both those set by legislators and those we believe are set by God.

Marriage is a unique situation where secular and spiritual laws seem to be converging. Throughout history, marriage has enjoyed the benefit of not being tugged in one direction by religion and tugged in the other direction by secularism and other religions that don't view gay marriage to be immoral. That no longer seems to be the case.

So how does our view of agency mesh, for instance, with financial support offered by some members of the church to advocate against laws supporting gay marriage?

I would say that the fact we believe in agency doesn't mean that we must refrain from trying to influence others. In fact, we have scriptures that encourage us to exercise our influence - but to do so in a righteous manner. I don't view a financial donation in support of or in opposition to gay marriage as any more inappropriate than financial support in support of or in opposition to financial regulations, health care reform, etc.

And what about the church as an institution?

When it comes to politics, the church is neutral, as its "mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians." Yet there are times when the church does get involved - although this rare involvement is issue-based and does not involve the support of a party or a candidate. 

A statement from the church explains, "[The Church reserves] the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church."

As it relates to gay marriage, the church believes this is an issue that meets those criteria. Nevertheless, while the church and some of its members may try to influence policy outcomes that align with our moral beliefs, we nonetheless abide by laws which are passed even if we disagree with them.

I think you would agree that any of us would be amiss if we sat on the sidelines of an important issue while the outcome was determined. In fact, I fully support the rights of those who favor gay rights to make their voices heard as policy and legislation is debated and created. This freedom of speech is an important part of our country's heritage (though I might add that I am saddened by the dramatic decline of civility we see everywhere from the halls of Congress to the airwaves to comment boards on internet blogs).

Now, having addressed the issue from the standpoint of Mormons in general and the church as an institution, what if a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was elected president of the United States? What would keep him from forcing his beliefs on others?

There are several issues at play here. 

First, there is the principle of agency I addressed earlier and the principles taught in our scriptures about exerting influence. A Mormon president may try to influence policy so that it corresponds with his moral or religious beliefs, but he would not force it upon others.

Second, even if a Mormon president broke one tenet of his religion (e.g., defending the agency of others) to support another (e.g., defending marriage as being between one man and one woman), our government with its system of checks and balances is designed to prevent just such a power-play. 

In order for a Mormon president to set aside some of the most important principles of our religion in order to successfully influence policy regarding gay marriage in such a way that would compare with a "Muslim in Afghanistan who would beat a woman to force her to wear a hijab," Mormons would also need to control both houses of Congress as well as have a majority on the Supreme Court to ensure the creation and sustenance of the legislation. However, even if Mormons ever gained such unprecedented control over all three branches of government, if you've ever been to a Mormon Sunday School class (part of our 3-hour worship services each Sunday), you learn pretty quickly that we aren't a group of people who are like-minded on every issue. 

Of those Mormons who are politically active on a national level, consider the cases of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). Both are Mormons, yet their perspectives on numerous issues are incredibly diverse. So, if a Mormon is ever elected to the White House and decided to forget about his sacred belief in agency, our government with its checks and balances together with the human propensity for disagreement makes it night-unto-impossible that he could ever force his beliefs of any kind, let alone marriage, upon the American people.

I might add, however, that this argument doesn't mean that a Mormon president would be completely without ability to influence. For example, before becoming the prophet of our church, Ezra Taft Benson(1899-1994) was Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration. One of the things I remember from his biography by Sheri Dew is that he influenced President Eisenhower to begin his cabinet meetings with prayer

There are some who would think that is a wonderful thing and others who think it is terrible. The point is that you would probably see the beliefs and morals of a Mormon president have some impact on the country. Although as a matter of intellectual honesty, I think I would have to say that we probably see this with every president. The key difference in this case is that the president would be not just a Mormon, but the first Mormon president. My personal feeling is that if a Mormon is elected president, there would be some buzz on the airwaves in the initial period after his inauguration, but that it would quickly return to politics as usual as he began to deal with the issues of the day. Criticism of the president would centered on his stances toward foreign policy, economics, appointment nominees, etc., rather than his religious beliefs.

Third (and lastly for this lengthy post), if we are using Mitt Romney as the case study, he has already pledged to do what he thinks is best if elected and not follow some kind of directive from the prophet. 

In a speech much like the one given by John F. Kennedy explaining the Vatican would not dictate his actions in office, Romney stated in 2007:

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

“As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as president. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."

Mike, I hope these comments have answered your question somewhat and provided you with a greater understanding of how our beliefs relate to politics. I appreciate your kind words and your sincere question - and I apologize that your friend had such a terrible experience in conjunction with the wedding of her Mormon friend. If the tables were turned, I would have had a hard time coming away from that experience not feeling as she had. I wish someone had been there to help better explain.

Her story reminded me of a scene from a movie, "One Good Man,." It tells the story of a Mormon who is called to be a Bishop (the leader of a local congregation). There's a poignant scene in it that deals with just the kind of situation your friend talked about. I've included a link below. There's a trailer to give you a taste, but based on your questions, I think you might find the movie not only enjoyable, but also somewhat enlightening. It's not an official church production, so take it with as many grains as salt as you do my comments, but it's probably the best true-to-life Mormon story I've seen set to film yet.


If I can be of any help answering questions, just let me know. If you want to email me (see the profile section of the blog), I'd also be happy to give you my personal email address. 

http://deseretbook.com/One-Good-Man-Covenant-Communications/i/5030321


Saturday, July 28, 2012

A response to Eliza Wood's "Are Mormons Closer to Muslims or Christians?"

This post is meant to serve as a response to a recent article published through the Huffington Post by Eliza Wood, entitled, “Are Mormons  Closer to Muslims or Christians?” While I am a Mormon, the views expressed here are my own and represent my personal understanding of various doctrines alluded to in Wood’s article

To begin, I am not familiar with Ms. Wood, so I don’t know if the vast number of inaccuracies in this article represents a lapse of journalistic integrity or if Wood has hard feelings toward the Mormon faith. Regardless of the motive or catalyst behind Wood’s article, I think it is important to address some of her false claims regarding Mormon beliefs.

  • First, I respectfully suggest Wood’s assertion that Mormons are not Christian is false, especially when considered in this particular context where there is liberal use of inaccuracies regarding Mormon beliefs.
  •  Second, I suggest that Wood failed in her attempt to warn voters about Mormon candidates. She appeared to believe Mormon candidates would try to ‘pull a snow job’ to cloud their personal character and manipulate votes. Rather than breaking down issues to educate her readers, Wood presents her readers over and over again with false statements surrounding Mormon beliefs. Ironically, I think Wood clouds the issues even further through her constant use of misinformation.

For the most part, this posting will address various statements made by Wood and either confirm a statement is correct or explain why a statement asserted as truth is not true.

While I find it disappointing to see a journalist twist the beliefs of my faith, the purpose of this response is not to attack Wood, but rather to respectfully and professionally explain the difference between her assertions and my understanding — as a Mormon — of the Mormon doctrines she distorts.

I believe I understand what she tried to demonstrate in this article and hope she will consult the numerous resources made available to journalists and rewrite her piece using factual assertions. While we would likely still disagree, a refashioned article would enable Wood to present her points of view in a professional manner where her conclusions stem from an analysis of truth. At a time when disagreements about matters of politics and religion are becoming increasingly uncivil, Wood can make a statement to her readers and the Huffington Post by producing a modified article that disagrees without being dishonest or disagreeable. Her points can be sharpened and produced in a more professional, honest, and civil manner.

Evaluation of Wood's assertions

(Excerpts from Wood's articles are listed below in bold. My personal responses immediately follow her quotations.)

“As the media shapes our understanding of the Mormon faith, now that we Americans consider electing our first Mormon presidential candidate (Mitt Romney), it might be wise for us to better understand the similarities and differences among Christianity and these two faiths.”

The best place to learn about a religion is not from the media, but from representatives of the religion itself. It is perfectly acceptable for the media to cover religion, but they have at least a twofold duty to (1) accurately present facts and (2) not to twist facts out of context.

Unfortunately, in this piece, Wood fails to meet either of these criteria for the Mormon faith, lslam, or the umbrella of Christianity which encompasses numerous denominations.

* * * * * * *
“[Mormons] had prophets after Jesus that they believe to be more authentic and current than Jesus.”

We believe in living prophets. I think this is the issue Wood is trying to get at, but I’m not completely sure. Her use of the adjective “authentic” is ambiguous and confusing, whereas referring to a “current” prophet fails to explain why a prophet living today is any more important than prophets called by Christ before His birth or those called after His resurrection — let alone the Savior Himself.

We believe the Savior of the World to be far more than a prophet, but the actual Son of God. The reality of living prophets who teach us of God’s will does nothing to decrease the stature of the Savior, but rather teaches us how to more fully worship Him. We revere prophets living today, just as those living in the days of Abraham or Moses looked to those men as prophets. But we do not worship them.

Is Wood suggesting Mormons worship prophets or view them as somehow more important than the Savior? If so, her mind can be set at ease in this particular matter as such is not the case. If not, Wood does not state clearly to what else she might be referring.

* * * * * * *
“Mormonism teaches that a line of prophets extended from Joseph Smith all the way to the present with Thomas S. Monson, who is currently considered their prophet.”

This is true.

We believe that God restored His church through the prophet Joseph Smith and that God continues to speak to us today through living prophets. I should also note that prophets teach us how to more fully receive revelation for ourselves. 

* * * * * * *

“While in some ways neither Islam nor Mormonism is very much like Christianity, the two faiths actually have a lot of similarities.”

What are these ways? I think Wood is attempting to define Christianity and then compare Mormons and Muslims to her definition, except no definition for a comparison is given in this regard.

Because Wood does not put forth a definition of Christianity, her claim that “in some ways neither Islam nor Mormonism is very much like Christianity” requires more clarification.

Personally, I think it is inappropriate for me to judge whether anyone is a Christian, and conversely, for anyone to judge whether I am a Christian. To me, this is a very personal and intimate matter best determined between an individual and God. However, notwithstanding the personal nature of our relationships with God, we recognize a great deal of meaning is associated with and conveyed by the label of "Christian." As such, we proclaim that Mormons are Christian.

By any number of standards, I consider myself as a Mormon to be a Christian. I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe that He suffered for my sins so that through repentance I can obtain His grace and live in His presence in the world to come. I believe Jesus Christ died for all mankind that we can be resurrected, having bodies and spirits that will never again be separated. 

* * * * * * *

“[Mormons] consider the family unit as the foundation for religious life.”

This is true. The first paragraph of “The Family: AProclamation to the World,” states, “We… solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.”

* * * * * * *

“[Mormons] have an insistence that religion is their complete way of life.”

I am not entirely sure what Wood means by this statement. The word “insistence” suggests an overt action or teaching, “religion” suggests a denomination is the vehicle, but “complete way of life” confuses me as to precisely what it means.

What I can say is that we seek to live so that the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ govern everything we do. We seek to emulate the Savior and to keep His commandments. As we do so, we experience a joy that permeates so deeply we desire and seek to share it with others. We seek to pray always, as counseled by the Savior, and try to be examples of the believers in our families, in our employment, in our schooling, in our recreation — in every aspect of our lives. 

* * * * * * *
“[Mormonism requires] fasting and ritual cleansings.”

This is true. On the first Sunday of each month, we fast for two meals and donate the cost of the skipped meals to care for the poor and needy. The reasons for our fasts vary, though a general theme of coming closer to God is probably associated in one way or another with all of our fasts. We view fasting both as a commandment and an opportunity.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, one of the Savior's Apostles (now deceased), taught, “Fasting, coupled with mighty prayer, is powerful. It can fill our minds with the revelations of the Spirit. It can strengthen us against times of temptation.” It is a way for us to come closer to God.

* * * * * * *
“[Mormons] believe theirs is the original religion of Adam.”

This is true. We believe that all mankind belong to the family of God and descend from Adam and Eve. We believe we lived before we were born and that we will yet live after death. The state of our eternal nature, however, is dependent upon the degree to which we partake of the Savior’s atonement and keep covenants designed to enable our return to a heavenly home. 

We believe the gospel of Jesus Christ was given to Adam for this purpose, that it was taught by the Savior upon His mortal arrival, that it has been restored again in our times through the prophet Joseph Smith, and that it is taught today by a living prophet, Thomas S. Monson

* * * * * * *
“[Mormons] allowed four wives but… forbid  homosexuality and bisexuality.”

While the church no longer practices polygamy, there was a period in our history where polygamy was lived by some members of the church, though there was no specific number of wives (e.g., “four”) associated with the practice. Those who participate in polygamous relationships today are excommunicated. 

We love all people and believe engaging in homosexual or bisexual acts is a moral sin. From a personal standpoint, I also refrain from referring to individuals with homosexual tendencies as "homosexual" because I think it is debasing and insulting to assume an individual wants to be identified first and foremost by their sexual orientations. For example, I would hope that I live in such a way as to be identified by those labels most important to me, such as a father, a disciple of Christ, a true friend, etc. This is also the case with all of my friends who have sexual orientations that are not heterosexual, although I recognize that not everybody may feel this way.

In a sensitive summary of our views towards morally illicit sexual behavior, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated,
People inquire about our position on those who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians. My response is that we love them as sons and daughters of God. They may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control. Most people have inclinations of one kind or another at various times. If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the Church. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the Church, then they are subject to the discipline of the Church, just as others are.

We want to help these people, to strengthen them, to assist them with their problems and to help them with their difficulties. But we cannot stand idle if they indulge in immoral activity, if they try to uphold and defend and live in a so-called same-sex marriage situation. To permit such would be to make light of the very serious and sacred foundation of God-sanctioned marriage and its very purpose, the rearing of families.
* * * * * * *

“This may be alarming to some, but both Islam and Mormonism teach that marriage can extend into the afterlife.”

Far from being alarming, the knowledge that family relationships can continue beyond the veil of death is one of our most joyous doctrines.

However, for those in bad marriages, the thought of an eternal marriage could very well be alarming. That is one reason we place so much emphasis on the family – so that husbands and wives can sacrifice for each other in the course of righteous living.

Elder F. Burton Howard has taught, “If you want something to last forever, you treat it differently…. It becomes special because you have made it so.”  For those who shudder at the thought of sharing eternity together as husband and wife, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the power to eradicate feelings of alarm and replace them with feelings of joyous fulfillment and  anticipation.

Aside from the reality of the atonement of Jesus Christ, few doctrines provide us with more joy than the related knowledge that marriage does not have to last only 'until death do ye part.' 

* * * * * * *

“Oddly enough, [Mormons] had a split after their prophet's death with one side believing that the faith should continue though the prophet's descendents [sp] and the other side rejecting that…. For Mormons, this caused the divide between the Later Day Saints, which make up about 99 percent of Mormons, and others.”

This statement is partially true.

After the prophet Joseph Smith was martyred, certain individuals jockeyed for positions of power, although the prophet’s children were too young for leadership roles at the time. It is at this time in our Church’s history that Brigham Young and other apostles taught that authority to lead God’s people came from God in the form of priesthood. In this case, Young stated that once Joseph died, the authority to lead the church was collectively held by the Twelve Apostles. The majority of the membership accepted Young’s teachings and soon left for the deserts of Utah when they were forced to leave Nauvoo, Illinois.
 
The term “Mormon” is a nickname for the full name of our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The name of the church teaches that it is Christ’s church, comprised of those who live in the latter-days. I am assuming Wood simply had a typo in her text when speaking of “Later Day Saints”. However, if the text as posted on her blog is accurate in reference to the name of our church, it is worrisome, for if one cannot accurately portray the name of a church, the accuracy of the author’s portrayal of the religion’s doctrines is also likely to be lacking. Indeed, such is the case with a great deal of Wood’s claims.


* * * * * * *

“Joseph Smith [was] taunted for [his[ work and driven out by locals…. Joseph Smith had to move from Illinois to Missouri…. Joseph Smith established [his] own city-[state], with… Joseph Smith ruling Nauvoo, Ill.”

As the leader of our church in its early days, Joseph Smith was persecuted — along with other members.

While persecution is not enjoyable, the Savior nonetheless teaches us that it is a blessing to be persecuted for Him, because that has been the reward of His prophets and followers throughout the ages. In the case of Joseph Smith, he was persecuted from his early teens in New York as he spoke of a vision of God, translated another testament of Jesus Christ to go hand-in-hand with the bible, and taught truths of God long-forgotten and often adulterated. Our pioneer ancestors were drive from state to state to state because of the persecution of others.

Wood is correct in identifying this persecution, though her chronology is reversed and incomplete. Rather than being forced to move in sequence from Illinois to Missouri, the Mormons were driven from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois — and finally to Utah after the murder of Joseph Smith.

Of persecution, Joseph wrote in 1833,
 “This one thing is sure, that they who will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution; and before their robes are made white in the blood of the Lamb, it is to be expected, according to John the Revelator, they will pass through great tribulation.”
As to Joseph Smith’s status in Nauvoo, Wood's comments that he ruled over a city-state are misleading. Nauvoo was built from the swampy ground up by the Mormons and was a legally chartered city of Illinois. While Joseph Smith maintained a great degree of influence, it was in Nauvoo that he answered a question posed to him about what power he used to govern his people.

He (tellingly) replied, “I do not govern them, I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Joseph taught that we should lead as God leads, through the exertion of love while concurrently respect the agency of others to follow or not.

* * * * * * *

“[Mormons] have Scripture that can justify violence and murder, as does the Bible. While Mormons have not acted violently in the U.S. for quite some time, there was an incident back in 1857 called the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which happened on Sept. 11. The massacre was led by prominent Mormon leader John D. Lee, who was trying to exact revenge on some emigrants but when the emigrants surrendered, the militia killed men, women and children in cold blood, and then tried to cover it up.”

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a tragic stain on the history of our church. There is no possible excuse for the leadership and participation of Mormons in the murder of emigrants traveling through Utah from (mostly) Arkansas on their way to California. It was a deed performed in cold blood, though Wood inaccurately states the tragedy was the result of “trying to exact revenge” and uses an exaggerated adjective in describing John D. Lee as a “prominent Mormon leader.” Lee was a prominent religious leader in his local community, but his authority fell far outside of the central hierarchy of the church (Brigham Young was the prophet at the time of the massacre, but did not instigate the massacre).

It should be noted here that various details associated with the massacre are debated. As stated previously, what cannot be debated is that the deed was inexcusable and evil. The latest scholarship on the topic is Massacre at Mountain Meadows by three historians who had unprecedented access to documents surrounding the events. 

A portion of the review from the Oxford Press states, “The Mountain Meadows Massacre stands as one of the darkest events in Mormon history. Neither a whitewash nor an exposé, Massacre at Mountain Meadows provides the clearest and most accurate account of a key event in American religious history.”

* * * * * * *
“We don't need to be experts on either religion to see these similarities.”

As it relates to the purposes of Wood’s article, it would have been especially prudent to have consulted “experts” who could have helped her distinguish fact from fiction. In this particular article, Wood fails to characterize the nuanced Christianity to which she constantly refers. At the same time, she falsely portrays very significant doctrines of the Mormon faith.It is not necessary to confer with experts to understand the basic tenets of various religions, but that does not excuse journalists from the responsibility to fact-check their assertions before going to press. 

Wood could have disabused herself from her false understanding of Mormons and Muslims with a small amount of research from Mormons and Muslims. Her failure in this regard is a serious breach of journalistic ethics.

It can be both appropriate and acceptable to write opinion pieces that explain why one disagrees with the tenets of a particular religion. However, it is a serious breach of integrity to do so while falsely portraying the religion in question. 

I think every journalist has made mistakes at one time or another. When those mistakes are made, the proper course of action is to publish a correction or retraction. What makes Wood's failures especially grievous is both the number of mistakes and the fact that she is writing not about tangential beliefs, but rather doctrines central to the understanding of Mormons and Muslims. In other words, her article doesn't contain one small error, but exceedingly numerous and serious errors.

My understanding of the Islamic faith leads me to believe she mischaracterizes Muslim beliefs as well. A scholar of Islam at BYU identifies several inaccuracies in Wood’s article from the Islamic perspective in this blog posting at Patheos.com. 

* * * * * * *
“They both have common ground with Christianity, and much of it. But both Islam and Mormonism are at best very distant cousins of Christianity with some of the same overarching guidance.”

Again, Mormons consider ourselves to be Christian, whereas Muslims make no such assertion. To identify common ground or differences in supporting her thesis, Wood needed to describe her nuanced definition of Christianity. Her failure to do so leaves the door open to claim that any sect is Christian or not Christian.

I wrote earlier that we consider ourselves as Mormons to be Christian — and also that I personally feel the label of “Christian” is intimately personal and best determined between each individual and God. However, there are certain doctrines of our faith which set us apart from some traditional Christian doctrines. For example, I have written previously that we believe the Godhead is comprised of three individuals united in purpose, but separate in person, whereas traditional Christianity worships a trinity in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one not merely in purpose, but also in person.

Another doctrine which sets us apart from traditional Christianity is our belief in continuing revelation. From this belief stems the continuous stream of living prophets to which Wood referred, as well as the Book of Mormon — a book translated by Joseph Smith as another testament of Jesus Christ to be used in conjunction with the Old and New Testaments. 

In these areas we disagree with certain Christian traditions, but these claims in no way detract from our belief in Christ. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has testified,
Now, to anyone within the sound of my voice who has wondered regarding our Christianity, I bear this witness. I testify that Jesus Christ is the literal, living Son of our literal, living God. This Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer who, under the guidance of the Father, was the Creator of heaven and earth and all things that in them are. I bear witness that He was born of a virgin mother, that in His lifetime He performed mighty miracles observed by legions of His disciples and by His enemies as well. I testify that He had power over death because He was divine but that He willingly subjected Himself to death for our sake because for a period of time He was also mortal. I declare that in His willing submission to death He took upon Himself the sins of the world, paying an infinite price for every sorrow and sickness, every heartache and unhappiness from Adam to the end of the world. In doing so He conquered both the grave physically and hell spiritually and set the human family free. I bear witness that He was literally resurrected from the tomb and, after ascending to His Father to complete the process of that Resurrection, He appeared, repeatedly, to hundreds of disciples in the Old World and in the New. I know He is the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will one day come again in final glory, to reign on earth as Lord of lords and King of kings. I know that there is no other name given under heaven whereby a man can be saved and that only by relying wholly upon His merits, mercy, and everlasting grace can we gain eternal life.

My additional testimony regarding this resplendent doctrine is that in preparation for His millennial latter-day reign, Jesus has already come, more than once, in embodied majestic glory. In the spring of 1820, a 14-year-old boy, confused by many of these very doctrines that still confuse much of Christendom, went into a grove of trees to pray. In answer to that earnest prayer offered at such a tender age, the Father and the Son appeared as embodied, glorified beings to the boy prophet Joseph Smith. That day marked the beginning of the return of the true, New Testament gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the restoration of other prophetic truths offered from Adam down to the present day.

I testify that my witness of these things is true and that the heavens are open to all who seek the same confirmation. Through the Holy Spirit of Truth, may we all know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [He has] sent.” Then may we live Their teachings and be true Christians in deed, as well as in word, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

* * * * * * *

“If a Christian of any denomination inadvertently walked into a Mormon tabernacle…, which would be fairly difficult since both allow only members of their faith to enter, there is no way the service could be recognized as a Christian devotion to Christ.”

I assume in making this assertion that Wood has not been to a Mormon worship service and that by tabernacles, she means chapels — in which Mormon and non-Mormon alike are welcome. 

As individual members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we desire, and are constantly admonished to make Christ the center of our lives. We seek to do all that we do in the name of the Savior, while yet recognizing we are subject to mortal weaknesses and need the grace of Christ to truly speak and act as He would were He in our places.
 
While varying definitions of Christianity may include or exclude any number of religious denominations depending upon the criteria being used, it would be very difficult to attend a Mormon worship service and fail to recognize the central role of Christ in our worship — and in our daily lives outside of church.

I disagree with Wood’s declaration. However, I would feel more comfortable with her deductions if she first presented an accurate depiction of our beliefs and then explained why she feels our worship of the Savior differs from her understanding of what characterizes a Christian. In this particular article, she fails to identify her form of Christianity (presumably the tenets of a specific Christian denomination), while concurrently misrepresenting why Mormons consider ourselves to be Christian and why Muslims do not.

Wood has done a disservice in this article not only to the religions discussed, but also to her readers. In decrying the need for experts to explain Mormon and Muslim beliefs and admonishing her readers to “put on [their] critical thinking cap[s]”, the author misleads her readers in a failed attempt to prove her thesis.

While I am not completely sure of the point Wood is trying to convey, I think I can safely say she is attempting to educate her readers by comparing the beliefs of various religious communities. If such is the case, Wood would have done well to have adopted Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding, the first principle of which states that in comparing one religion with another, you should consult the believers of the faith in question and not their enemies.
 
Although I do not know if Wood obtained her understanding of my faith from those who hold different beliefs and consider themselves enemies of Mormonism, I can safely say she did not consult an ample supply of resources our church makes available to those with questions — including journalists. We do not ask that everyone agree with us, but do feel it is appropriate that our beliefs should be accurately portrayed by the media.

I don’t know why Wood failed to research this topic before writing her article, but I believe her failure has unnecessarily damaged her reputation. I wrote earlier that her portrayal of our doctrines should be approached with skepticism if the name of our church isn’t accurate. By the same token, the sheer gravity and number of mistakes in this particular article shakes my faith in the accuracy of future articles in which Wood may seek to educate me, as a reader, about topics with which I may be unfamiliar. That is unfortunate.


Concluding thoughts

As a Mormon, I believe in Christ and consider myself to be  a Christian. The Mormon doctrines of which Wood writes are completely unfamiliar to me as a Mormon, and in many cases, are factually incorrect.

This is such an unfortunate article. Politics and religion invite disagreement and contention, but it’s not necessary. Whether out of a temporary lapse of journalistic integrity or something more consciously vindictive, Eliza Wood has published an article littered with untruths that damages her reputation while misleading her readers about the Muslim faith and the Mormon faith.

I hope Wood will rewrite her article. There is a world of difference between laying out the facts and saying, “I see that differently than you,” and what Wood did. It would be challenging to acknowledge such severe shortcomings and do a rewrite, but it would also set an example of civil discourse that could influence discussions elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Don't vote for Romney just because he's a Mormon


Source: Forbes.com
As the camps of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney recently took time off in the run-up to November’s election, Romney’s faith seems to have missed the last available bus. And like so many times before, Romney’s Mormon connection has found its way into the news cycle without going through Romney or Obama to get there.

In fact, what makes the latest bit of news interesting is that the comments came from House Speaker John Boehner (R-W.VA).

It is no secret that Romney is member of The Church ofJesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of this church, such as me, are often referred to as “Mormons” because our scriptural cannon includes the word of God as recorded in both the Bible — and what we call The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

As compared to the rise and fall of nations, the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America is brief.

Mormons share a common heritage of belief in various tenets of the Savior’s good news, ranging from a belief in God the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, to the reality of contemporary prophets, miracles, and covenants, to a penetrating calmness that sinks deep into our hearts bearing witness that God knows each of us by name and has work for each of us to do.

Timeless friendships are formed as we ask the hard questions of life — and then discuss the answers as revealed through modern day prophets: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Why did this happen to me?” “How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow so much pain and anguish?” “Is there life after death?”

The more time Mormons spend with each other, serving each other, working with each other, recreating with each other — the closer we get to that point where we may be referred to by the Lord as, “Zion, because [we are] of one heart and one mind.”

Unity is a powerful virtue to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We desire to be one with our God. We seek to be one with our families and with our congregations. We work towards unity with strangers or foreigners and even seek righteous unity with other faiths, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or otherwise.

But does a unity quantified more than anything else by a morality governing desires, thoughts, words, and actions also dictate we should vote uniformly for a singular political candidate based solely on religion?

No. And yet that appears to be exactly what Speaker Boehner’s comment infers.

Perhaps in an attempt to allay fears among the GOP masses that Romney is the right man for the job, Boehner downplayed Romney’s assets and candidly spoke of the election as a referendum on Obama more than anything else.

“Mitt Romney has some friends, relatives, and fellow Mormons … some people that are going to vote for him. But … this election is going to be a referendum on the president’s failed economic policies.”

There are many who agree with Boehner’s assessment, though they may have been taken back somewhat by his candor. In fact, I agree that the support of Romney’s friends, relatives, and fellow Mormons will not be enough to propel him to Electoral College victory.

Where I disagree with Boehner is the implied assumption that you must automatically vote for Romney if you are his friend, if you are related to him, or if you are among his “fellow Mormons.”

The global faith that is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. When Romney ran for president in 2008, he received 90 percent of the primary vote in Utah. There was no close second; Mormons flocked to the polls in droves to vote for Romney.

Yet it is these examples that can so easily lead to stereotypes which degrade individual responsibility. If I were to vote for Romney in November, I would not do so because each of us is white, male and Mormon.

One of the attributes I look for in a political leader is a man or woman of integrity and morality. When November arrives, if Romney’s morals are more aligned with my own than those of Obama, I would probably vote for Romney. My ballot would be a symbolic gesture indicating that morality is an issue of concern to me. It would be an appropriate venue to speak politically to what is typically a religious issue — and by religious, I speak of traditional morals, not dogmatic creeds.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics.” Yet while the leadership of the church will not tell members what political party to join or which political candidate to vote for, they do remind us we have a duty not only to our God and our families, but also to our country.

Each election year, an ecclesiastical leader will read a letter from church headquarters admonishing the congregation to the effect, “We encourage the membership to study the issues and candidates carefully and prayerfully and then vote for those they believe will act with integrity and will most nearly carry out ideals of good government.”

By carefully weighing the issues, our votes become additional arrows in a bottomless quiver of choices for which we are responsible.  

In other words, there are certain moral issues that government seems to handle more and more as the years go on. These issues are important to me. As one who has been bequeathed the right to vote, I will never confuse that sacred right with a look-alike contest.

It is one thing to make the case for Romney’s presidency to his friends, family, and fellow-Mormons; it is quite different, perhaps even inappropriate, to assume Mormons will vote for Romney merely because they share the same religious affiliation.

If Romney is elected, his victory should be preceded not by the support of his segmented friends, family, and fellow-Mormons — but rather by the confidence of his fellow-Americans.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Letter to the Editor Bloomberg Businessweek: Mormon article falls short of standards

The following is a letter I submitted for publication to the editor of Bloomberg Businessweek. The letter addresses an article written about finances within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, entitled, "How the Mormons Make Money," along with a related illustration placed on the cover of the magazine.

(A summary of my feelings on the matter and the catalyst for submitting the letter can be found here.)
* * * * *

I would like to submit the following for publication in Bloomberg Businessweek as a Letter to the Editor. I am deeply offended and would be appreciative if your publication could present my point of view in its fullness. I would be happy to discuss the issue with you should you have any questions.

Name:     Kurt Manwaring
Address: Taylorsville, UT
Phone:     xxx-xxx-xxxx

As a businessman and a Mormon, I would like to express my displeasure with Caroline Winter’s article, “How the Mormons Make Money,” and the associated illustration on the magazine’s cover.

Winter constantly makes use of claims that are objectively inaccurate as well as claims which are misleading. I assume the number of inaccuracies in the article is indicative of Winter’s ignorance of the topic rather than a violation of journalistic ethics in which the author knowingly creates and uses misrepresentations in order to strengthen the viability of her overall assumptions. In either case, whether the author went to press without receiving editing support or knowingly misrepresented numerous facts, the article and the magazine’s cover are unworthy of any professional periodical, let alone one with the prestige of Bloomberg Businessweek.

As a Mormon, the magazine’s cover and the author’s feature filled me with regret there exist still a few media outlets that feel it is acceptable to mock the religious beliefs of others. As a businessman, I am both disappointed and surprised at the sheer number of inaccuracies in the piece. Especially given the fact The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides the media with resource materials to ensure the accurate use of facts (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/), it will be challenging to read future articles by Winter without questioning the accuracy of her “facts.”   

I think it is unfortunate an article and magazine cover could fall so dramatically below the traditionally high standards of Bloomberg Businessweek.

Kurt Manwaring, Taylorsville, Utah

Bloomberg Businessweek shows poor taste in report on Mormon finances

There are times when the worlds of business and religion intertwine in our interactions with the world. I emphasize the word "interactions" because I believe in embracing and exercising the same set of values in any setting, including work and church - and in my writings.

Media coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka, the "Mormons") has ebbed and flowed from positive coverage to negative coverage, from one publisher to another, since the church was founded in 1830.

A new era of media coverage seems to have begun approximately ten years ago when the Olympics were hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah - the global headquarters for the church. Journalists from around the world published stories about the faith during their visits, prompting a revitalization in the media for coverage of Mormonism. Several years later a prominent member of the church, Mitt Romney, ran for president and was defeated in the primaries. His second attempt proved more fruitful as he now heads to the GOP national convention as the presumed nominee. These conspicuous events generated the near-ubiquitous phrase, "Mormon Moment," even though a more accurate phrase would refer to our faith's latest examination in the press.

Naturally, such heavy coverage has resulted in a few bad apples. The church makes every effort it can to help journalists properly understand our faith to ensure accuracy when their stories appear in print. The online Newsroom is billed as "the official resource for news media, opinion leaders, and the public." The website provides answers to frequently asked questions, common misconceptions, etc. It even provides journalists with contact information for official public affairs representatives to answer questions not found in the copy material, or to respond to specific questions. These resources enable journalists to portray the church's beliefs or positions accurately, regardless of whether the article is intended to portray the church in a positive or negative light.

Unfortunately, not all media outlets take advantage of these resources. As a result, inaccurate articles sometimes find their way onto the printed page or the online blog. Sometimes the inaccuracies are innocuous; sometimes they cause harm; sometimes they promote bigotry or hatred.

I have become accustomed to seeing all kinds of articles with inaccuracies that could have been easily prevented. But there are times when I wonder if the reporter or the media outlet really wants to portray the truth when the partial truth is so much more scandalous and sells so many more copies. Yet in a way, the motivation almost doesn't matter. An unfortunate reality of life is that we must learn to deal with being misrepresented by others. Sometimes those misrepresentations are intimately personal and can lead to heart-wrenching tears. Other times they hurt us indirectly, as when our faith is unjustly attacked or misrepresented.

A recent article and illustration in the prestigious Bloomberg Businessweek periodical manages to mock individual beliefs while seeming to utilize a combination of facts, partial facts, and for lack of a less cruel-sounding word, misrepresentations.

The article entitled, "How the Mormons Make Money," is written by Caroline Winter. The illustration on the cover is tied to this article (a mock-up received by politico.com can be seen here). It depicts a sacred moment in the history of our faith. Yet rather than addressing the context of the image and the sacred words given voice at the time, Businessweek instead depicts John the Baptist, declaring in cartoonish quote-bubbles,

...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..."

To which Joseph Smith is depicted in similar fashion, saying, "Hallelujah."

This evening, I sent a letter to the editor of Businessweek. This particular issue managed to mock my faith with its illustrations and cause me to wonder if Winter's other writings might also utilize so much selective use of fact, save it deal with a topic about which I am not as familiar, and therefore unable to recognize potential problems with her conclusions. I don't know whether Winter's article is merely an example of a feature that slipped through the cracks of fact-checking and editing, or if misrepresentations were made on purpose. The article's connection with the poor taste of the magazine's cover illustration leads me to certain conclusions, but I have not spoken with the writer and cannot make any claims regarding her motivations, research, or editing.

Nonetheless, I have written a letter to the editor. (I am always hesitant to send letters to editors for publication because so much liberty is often taken with my text. In one instance I was tempted to write a letter to the editor rebutting the arguments I made in my first letter, but which were modified by the editor so much that they represented the opposite of my original point).

I don't know if the letter will be accepted for publication or if it will be published in its unedited form, but I feel strongly enough about what I view as a stain on Bloomberg's reputation that I have included the text of my letter here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Should presidents give away their salaries?

GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked recently if he would refuse a salary if elected. Technically, there is no leniency in the matter as the Constitution mandates the president receive compensation. A more accurate and interesting question is whether a President Romney — or any president — should donate his or her salary.

My first reaction to the question was that it would be unhealthy for presidents to donate their wages. In my mind, it could set a precedent leading to a scenario where only the wealthy could run for the office. While this is already something of a de facto reality, it is nonetheless enjoyable to believe in the idealism of the "American dream," to know that an individual does not necessarily need to be wealthy to be elected president.

I thought through the question posed to Romney and contacted Calvin Harper, a friend of mine who has a passion for constitutional history. I wanted to see if he could track down sources from the Founding Fathers to validate my initial thoughts that could be used in an Op-Ed.

He gladly accepted the invitation and responded like a giddy school-boy after reading the minutes of the First Congress — an experience he said was exhilarating.

His findings surprised me. I was reminded how important it is to view history through the lens of the time period being examined and not the time period in which the examination takes place — or in the words of David McCullough, there is "no such thing as the past."

It turns out the Founders wanted a presidential salary put into place so the best individual would be attracted to the position, not merely those who were wealthy enough to serve as president without pay.

But that was only a secondary concern. A careful study revealed that the primary motivation for a presidential salary was to protect the chief executive from the lures of bribery.

In this Op-Ed for the Salt Lake Tribune, Calvin and I address the question of whether Romney should donate his salary if he wins in November, and, if so, how.

We briefly trace the origins of the salary and present a giving strategy that would enable presidents to donate their wages without (1) creating a precedent harmful to lower net-worth presidents, (2) using the "donation" for overt political gain, and (3) widening the nation's increasingly large partisan divide.

If elected, Romney need not give away his presidential salary. However, should he choose to do so, he would be well-advised to utilize a giving strategy designed to unite Republicans and Democrats alike under a banner of nonpartisan giving.