The shoe’s on the other foot

I wish that we, Mormons, especially those raised in the church, would assume that we know as little about other religions as we complain they know about us.We hate being mischaracterized, so much so that we often tell each other stories about how people in other Christian churches misrepresent our beliefs and actively seek to discourage others from converting to our faith. And yet, in Sunday School and other places where Mormons gather together, we talk about how wrong the other Christians are and mock the idea that accepting Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior is enough to be saved. We cite examples of people who claim to be saved, but still live lives of sin. On our behalf, I will say that this is generally done without intentional malice, but that cannot justify it.
Is it fair to judge a religious doctrine by the beliefs and actions of people? It is certainly natural. We encourage all Mormons to live exemplary lives so that others seeing us will want to learn more about our faith and eventually join us. But we cringe at the thought that we may all be judged by the notorious actions of a few of our members. If we’re being honest, we must admit that very few of us live lives that would stand up favorably under unforgiving scrutiny. Who among us is without sin? Let him cast the first stone.
If our church is true, then we should just be able to say “Our church is true and these are the truths we believe.” That truth must be able to stand alone. We need not say how others are not as true in order to make ourselves seem more true in comparison. It is unnecessary, and ultimately, unChristian.

36 comments for “The shoe’s on the other foot

  1. Hardly ever happens, IMHO. Contemporary Mormons are quite good in practice about focusing on our own stuff. I tend to overlook minor faults more than most here, but I still think my personal observation that criticism of other faiths is rare is both accurate and fairly representative.

    Of course I concede the possibility that you yourself find yourself making gonzo statements or at least thinking gonzo thoughts about other faiths and that your ‘we’ is genuine, in which case I see your point. Still, I would argue that a certain amount of black-and-white thinking is part of having a viewpoint. Caricatures shouldn’t be the end of reasoning, but they serve a clarifying role in the process of reasoning. Just as most stereotypes are statistically true, caricatures of other faiths often turn out to be roughly accurate as crude shorthands, just as caricatures of ours often tend to turn out.

  2. You exaggerate. Not to mention, Mormons are pretty much right about the basics of what other Christian religions believe (Catholics excluded). Those Christians make sure us Mormons know what they believe very clearly. Of course, they do so in a way that misinterprets Mormonism. Are you saying that other Christians don’t really believe accepting Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior is enough to be saved? Rarely have I ever heard a Mormon not explain “Our church is true and these are the truths we believe. That truth must be able to stand alone.” I can probably count on one hand when that wasn’t the case.

  3. Yes. It happens. Not frequently (Adam is right about “Hardly ever happens”), but it does happen at intervals, and that has been true in Mormondom for a very, very long time.

    The most recent time I was exposed to it was Easter Sunday, two years ago, when the entire Sunday School class was given over to a discussion of what other churches don’t believe, and how they say they believe this or that but they really don’t, and how their ministers are hypocrites because they go to Bible colleges where they are taught not to believe, but to preach as though they believe, in order to keep the money rolling in. The teacher started it, but there was enthusiastic participation by several in the class, with specific churches being named and outrageously caricatured versions of other churches’ beliefs being put forward. It happens. It’s dreadful. It should stop — we should teach what we believe, and not run down what others believe, especially when we’re clueless.

    But that’s the most recent time I’ve been exposed to it — two years ago.

    As I’ve skimmed through scores of old Church minutes in the past weeks, I can attest that this habit is a longstanding, widespread one. Time and time again, I run into some variation of “Bro. Whoever spoke about the false teachings of other churches, showing that none of them are true.” Over and over and over, on every continent where we have churches, year in and year out, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Not often in any one place, perhaps, but steadily. And I’ve posted a letter from a missionary in England in the 1850s urging his brethren to teach the truths of the gospel instead of tearing down other churches, a habit that was brought to his attention by an unknown listener at an outdoor service who told that missionary his message would go a lot farther if he stopped attacking the people’s old faith before he taught them something better.

    Those who say this happens “all the time” are likely exaggerating, but those who claim it never or rarely happens have not paid attention and don’t know their history.

  4. My sense is that its become rarer over time. Perhaps folks who pay attention and know their history can correct me :), but my impression is that especially in the missionary program, offense used to be considered the best defense. Organizing debates and Bible bashing, that sort of thing.

  5. Here in Michigan, new converts often bash their former religion from the pulpit on Fast Sunday, and it’s not uncommon to hear investigators or new converts in the gospel essentials class doing the same. As an adult, I understand where they’re coming from, but I think it can have a very different effect on the youth who hear it.

  6. Ardis makes an important point. In this, as in so many other things, it’s the teacher who most often sets the pattern that students follow. I think it’s perfectly OK to point out where our beliefs differ from those of other churches, but at the same time we have to represent those beliefs accurately and fairly.

  7. Atom Gee: “my impression is that especially in the missionary program, offense used to be considered the best defense. Organizing debates and Bible bashing, that sort of thing.”

    It’s a good thing “we” are past that good ol’ timey offensive Mormonism because in today’s day and age of tender sensibilities, people might get their feelings hurt.

  8. No. 9 — I think it’s perfectly OK to point out where our beliefs differ from those of other churches, but at the same time we have to represent those beliefs accurately and fairly.

    I tend to agree with the original poster that our truth can and should stand alone — I also appreciate the sentiment of the above from no. 9, but I’m not sure that most Latter-day Saints can accurately and fairly explain the beliefs of others orally, and I certainly wouldn’t want our standard curriculum committees trying to do so in print.

    When I think of other Christians, I try to think of them as doing the best they can with what they have. We’re the salt of the earth, and we’re going to help save the whole dish of humanity. We might see many of those other Christians with us during the millennium and even in the celestial kingdom of our God. On the other hand, some of those other Christians are hateful people and they’re embarrassing to me and probably to our God as well — there are some hateful Mormons, too.

  9. I live “in the mission field” where the majority of active members are converts (including myself). Therefore, in many cases, they actually can accurately describe what other faiths believe. However, in my 33 experience in church, it has not been much of an issue. Certainly never a full sunday school class’ worth of discussion. Usually just a passing remark by someone who used to be Catholic, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness, etc. Maybe it’s a mountain west dilemma because I have heard some westerns launch off into some point. However, it has been rare, and usually a convert has been around to clarify beliefs of other faiths. In general, I would say Mormons are as ignorant about other faiths as other faiths are ignorant of the church.

  10. Having spent time talking to members of other faiths, I would dispute that having formerly belonged to other faiths means you “can accurately describe what other faiths believe.” There may be exceptions, of course.

  11. It depends on the teacher. The last two teachers of gospel doctrine in my ward have made it a point, not quite every Sunday, but at least once a month to draw distinctions between what the Church teaches and what they suppose other churches teach. I know enough about other religions to know that their (and the class’) description of the theology of the other churches is at best an over simplification and worst an outright mischaracterization and dreadfully wrong. And even their description of our own Church’s teachings is often an oversimplification when drawing contrast to what supposedly the other religions teach. Some of the oversimplification is because class members are not really interested in understanding correctly the teachings of other church.

  12. My whole talk when I got home from my mission in West Virginia was about how uplifted I felt having learned that other people love the Lord as much as I do (often times more).

    Whenever the type of talk described in the OP comes up in Sunday School I always point out how life seems to be more about experience for experience’s sake as opposed to the Mormon experience, if that makes any sense.

  13. “In the mission field” = I presume that includes Idaho, Arizona, and Utah, given where new missions have been created.

  14. I use the phrase “in the mission field” tongue in cheek after an elderly sister serving a proselyting mission in my stake gave a 15 minute testimony about how lucky she was so have taught us ignorant folk the gospel. She must have said “out here in the mission field” at least 30 times. We weren’t too sad to see her complete her mission so she could get back to Zion. I know the whole earth is the mission field, and my brother in law served in SLC north 25 years ago and baptized way more people than I did in Europe. As for accuracy, I’m the only member in a family full of Baptists – active Baptists at that. Although there is great deal of doctrinal depth in every church, I would venture to say I know basic Baptist belief better than the average Latter-day Saint. And I’m confident my Catholic convert friends can say the same thing.

  15. I think that some lessons lend themselves to this kind of discussion very easily. Take the story of the First Vision for example. In a Sunday School class I recently attended, the teacher was struggling to find a diplomatic way to say that if our church is the true and living church, then their church is ____. He rejected “completely false” on the grounds that they have some truth, and “dead,” because that just sounds bad. His compromise was “inert.” As other commenters have noted, the teacher is critical for setting the tone of the discussion, and some of these lessons are more difficult to navigate than others.

    As for triumphalist narratives, I understand the desire to proclaim loudly that our church is the only true church. It is a strong assertion, and a firm belief in it can give individuals and the community as a whole a great deal of confidence. I just want us to be gracious in triumph.

  16. I can pretty much guarantee that my ward’s next testimony meeting will feature a disparaging remark or two about the papal selection process. Perhaps it’s less of a problem than it used to be, but it’s still a problem.

  17. “I can pretty much guarantee that my ward’s next testimony meeting will feature a disparaging remark or two about the papal selection process.”

    Thanks to social media “we” won’t even have to wait that long. This just in: “Ok, the smoke has cleared, now on to really important things. Like [funding for a movie featuring the fictional high school student and private investigator V. Mars].”

  18. This subject is tricky because Joseph Smith apparently saw all religions as fatally and deeply flawed:

    “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

    So, how do we go from there towards a stance of tolerance at least, and respect, or possibly even admiration of other religions. It is easy for Mormons to have a disrespectful attitude towards other churchs.

  19. I actually kind of love the papal selection process. All the drama and ceremony, not to mention the awesome vestments. I feel like it really adds interest to the event. And you’ve got to admit, it gets the whole world watching.

  20. Joseph’s 1838 recollection of the essence of the conversation with Deity was different from what it was in earlier accounts, and his 1838 paraphrasing Jesus was likely shaped by his experiences in the meantime and the purposes of his narrative. That is, in 1820, the thrust of the conversation as perceived by Joseph might have been that Joseph was saved, even though he belonged to no church, and God told him that he didn’t need to join any church to receive that blessing. I.e., that human beings have a direct path to God and salvation without the intervention of other humans or institutions. The organization of such an institution in the meantime, as Joseph felt inspired or directed to do, may have caused him in 1838 to reflect back on that conversation and take a different message–i.e., that membership in the churches that existed at the time of the First Vision was not necessary or a part of salvation, and that the reason might be because they were “wrong” in some sense.

    His critique of “creeds” of Christianity or allegations of “corruption” of the ministers at that time was not an uncommon one by those who rejected and opposed organized religion as a whole. In fact, those same critiques of all organized religion exist today.

    Perhaps Jesus did use the words and phrasing commonly used by those opposed to organized religion in the early 1800s. Or perhaps, Joseph’s memory was affected by the criticisms of organized religion in the meantime, and perhaps the thrust of the First Vision was not so much the negative side of organized religion, but that organized religion was not a necessary intermediary between humans and Deity.

  21. In the extensive research that is summarized in their book, American Grace, about the current condition of religious belief and practice in America, professors Putnam and Campbell note that Mormons have a positive view toward members of other religions and denominations, far more positive toward each religion than members of other denominations do. By contrast, members of most denominations have very negative attitudes toward Mormons, only exceeded by their negative attitudes towards Muslims. Similar findings came out of a recent study by the Pew Foundation of Mormons. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania found that, even over and above what Latter-day Saints contribute to the Church, our contributions of time and money to other charitable purposes matches or exceeds that of the members of other denominations.

    So if you hear a Mormon expressing hostility or unjustified criticism toward another denomination or religion, in a Sunday meeting, you are witnessing a relatively rare event. Events in which people of other denominations criticize Mormon beliefs and behaviors are far more frequent than Mormons attacking other religions.

    Depending on the accuracy of the criticism, and the animus expressed, those expressions by Mormons may well violate the solemn commandment of the Savior to love our neighbors equally to ourselves. Hatred toward or ridicule of God’s children, for whom Christ suffered and died, puts us in the party of the Adversary. But at the same time, we should avoid an elitist, superior attitude that denigrates our fellow saints for their ignorance. By and large, and on average, Mormons are doing much better at this charity thing than a lot of other people.

    If I am in a class or quorum where inaccurate and hateful rhetoric is being engaged about the religion of other of ouir Father’s children, I should have the courage to stand up for truth and especially for the tolerance and love that Joseph Smith expressed time and again. It is embodied in our Articles of Faith, that we respect every person’s right to believe in any religion he or she chooses, and there should be utter freedom of religion. That includes our right to try to persuade them, “without compulsory means”, that our understanding of the Gospel is more desirable and true, and their right to make up their own minds.

    The aspect of criticism of the people of other religions that most concerns me is the thought that one of the people present may be an investigator, who is hearing his own church and family being criticized carelessly by the ignorant. It is necessary in many cases to explain what Mormons believe by comparing it with the beliefs of other denominations, but it should always be with recognition that sincere and loving worshippers of God and Christ are in those denominations, and that it is incumbent on us to have true love for them, recognizing that the only way we will ever persuade them to our own way of thinking is through gentleness, and meekness, and love unfeigned.

  22. I have never heard anyone in my ward vilify another religion and I hope I never do. I have friends in other religions who are good people, devout believers in Christ and in the doctrines their churches teach. We need to respect their beliefs, but I think we also need to let them know when we don’t agree. My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends from time to time give me copies of their Watchtower and Awake magazines, which I read. A December issue was about Christmas and one of the articles ended by saying, “Now you know why no true Christian celebrates Christmas.” I was offended by that remark and told my friends so. I told them I believed that I was a true Christian and I celebrated Christmas. But their church believes THEY are the only Christians. I believe they are Christians, too, but I think everyone who sincerely believes in Christ and the Atonement and lives their beliefs is a true Christian. I don’t think we should put down others for their beliefs. I believe the new Pope is a good man. And I believe there have been many good decent people throughout the ages who may beat some of us Mormons to the Celestial Kingdom. We may have more of the truth than others, but how well do we live what we have?

  23. Funny thing is that the first thing I thought of when I read the OP is the BYU-Utah rivalry. It seems that fans on both sides cannot enjoy their respective teams’ success without attempting to put down the other school.

    Now back to your regular programming.

  24. My experience is that there are certain topics such as the nature of the Godhead, the method of baptism, and the role of grace, that are almost guaranteed to immediately divert into a long (not always accurate) discussion of what *other* people believe.

  25. Jesus was usually gracious. Occasionally he was very direct and confrontational. One example would be the woman at the well – he said to her ‘we know what we worship, and salvation is of the Jews.’ As always, it depends on context, and word choice is crucial as led by the Holy Ghost. This will likely surprise a few times with what direction we should take.

  26. “The aspect of criticism of the people of other religions that most concerns me is the thought that one of the people present may be an investigator, who is hearing his own church and family being criticized carelessly by the ignorant.”

    I agree. As a missionary church where visitors are ostensibly welcome, “we” ought to worry less about defending stereotypes as statistically true shorthand à la comment #4 and more about what the venerable Missionary Guide used to call “presenting the message”.

  27. “Don’t try to tear down other people’s religion about their ears; but build up your own perfect structures of truth, and invite your listeners to enter in and enjoy its glories.”
    ~Brigham Young

    I love this quote. And I think this tends to be the norm and not the exception in the Church. Something I noticed serving my mission in the Caribbean is that members of the Church tended to be more mindful of respecting other faiths than most of the people we would meet and teach. We spent half our time in lessons trying to get investigators to stop bashing the doctrines/people/missionaries of other churches, and when non-members would visit church, we had to worry more about the investigator criticizing other churches than we did the members.

    I believe, however, we pay more attention to the first part of BY’s quote than the second part. There are two reasons to avoid bashing someone else’s religion: The first is the fear of looking stupid/intolerant/disrespectful (“if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” which isn’t really a good reason), and the second is because you are actively seeking to build up the glory of the gospel, and depict it so beautifully that outsiders can’t help but feel edified. There’s a difference between merely avoiding destructive, negative discussions and consciously cultivating constructive, positive ones.

    “Contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.”
    ~D&C 18:20

    It’s hard enough trying to fight Satan without trying to fight everyone else.

  28. I can pretty much guarantee that my ward’s next testimony meeting will feature a disparaging remark or two about the papal selection process.

    Whence cometh this certainty about the future? Is ZDEve a witch? Can she divine the future? Does she recognize she treats her ward members with just as little charity as she accuses them to? What would happen if she were to say something charitable instead? I wonder.

  29. I would like to add my own anecdotal evidence that the disparaging of other religions is not an uncommon occurrence in Mormon conversation & teaching.

    It has bothered me how often the discussion in Sunday School and especially in Elder’s Quorum lessons have either been targeted or devolved into mocking the “obviously incorrect”, silly, evil, and stupid teachings and practices of other religions – Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans, FLDS, and Muslims all get their time in the spotlight. This is in a Ward in Utah as well as in past Wards well outside of the Mormon-corridor.

    It disgusts me when it happens and I try to find an opening to encourage the discussion to move onto more productive topics. It is at best a waste of time and it certainly doesn’t do us as a group any favors to color our viewpoint with such group-think. Plus, it isn’t like we don’t have practices, history, or beliefs that could be (and in many cases have been) mocked and belittled. So what if little Tommy hit Jimmy first, it isn’t ok to hit him back, it doesn’t help the situation at all.

    Then there is the whole issue that Joseph Smith taught that Mormonism should strive to embrace truth wherever it is found and not act like we already posses all of it and must exclude anything not originating in Mormonism. The implication is that there is truth and goodness to be found outside of Mormonism.

  30. Raymond (26) is right. LDS people on the whole and the general leadership aren’t often critical of other faiths. Also many other faith traditions (particularly Pentecostal Christians and conservative Muslim groups) are far more critical of different religions than the LDS church leaders and members. Bruce R. McConkie’s first edition of Mormon Doctrine was frowned upon by other members of the Q12/FP, and even rejected for publication, because it identified the Catholic church as the church of the devil talked about in First Nephi. James Talmage’s The Great Apostasy has been taken out of circulation. Also the LDS church has given both vocal and financial support to other churches in Utah.

    Still I remember as a missionary being particularly critical of other Christian churches and accusing them of apostasy, false doctrine, and wrongdoing. Such attitudes were not uncommon among many missionaries in my mission. I have since repented. There is certainly some good in most if not all faith traditions, even if some are closer to the Good (with a capital “g”) than others.

  31. I’m not sure that it’s that we as LDS members are necessarily critical, though that clearly happens, it seems fairly infrequent. But I see two issues related to this that might be good for us as members to consider.

    1) Accept that there are genuinely devout and good people in these other faiths. I gave a blessing to a woman on my mission who was not LDS. When I placed my hands on her head I was immediately filled with a strong impression that her faith in the Savior was both very strong and that at that moment it was stronger than mine. I was profoundly humbled by that experience. It was gave me latitude to make broad pronouncements in the name of the Lord during that blessing, which I later learned were borne out.

    2) Accept that every faith has an intrinsic beauty to it, otherwise, why would it have any sincere followers? I want to know what is beautiful and moving about any religion and see if there’s something I can “bring home” to my faith–a take home lesson, something to remember, or something that might benefit our religion. In many cases, there are such things.

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