Mormonism, warts and all

Paradoxically, Mormons improve our public image when we stop being so concerned with appearing perfect.

Opposition“You make us look bad.”

“You’re just giving fuel to the fire of anti-Mormonism.”

“You couldn’t possibly have a testimony of the gospel and believe what you do about gay marriage/women’s ordination/green Jell-o with shredded carrot.” (The first two are welcome and the final item is an abomination.)

In my four years as a blogger I’ve heard multiple variations of these statements. Some Mormons complain that any crack in our institutional armor, any whiff of internal dissent, damages our public image and hinders missionary work.

I’ve been reading the new issue of The Mormon Studies Review (which, if you haven’t seen it, is a terrific new journal), and the opening article offers some interesting observations on the value of Mormon dissent. It’s by Professor Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a non-Mormon scholar who pioneered the teaching of Mormon Studies at the university level, first at UNC-Chapel Hill and now at Washington University.

In 15 years of teaching courses on Mormonism her students have come from a variety of backgrounds – mostly “low church” evangelical, but also including Muslims, atheists, and Mormons themselves.

Many, she writes, come into the class with some personal experience of Mormons as people but with little to no knowledge of the institutional LDS Church. And what they do know is negative: “They assume Mormons do not think for themselves and conclude that church members are either gullible or misinformed.” Their encounters with Mormon missionaries and “faith-promoting history” only makes such stereotypes worse.

What shatters the stereotypes is hearing faithful Mormons disagree.

Maffly-Kipp writes that rather than confusing non-Mormon students who are trying to understand the religion, the discrepancies between ideals and lived realities actually cause students to challenge their assumptions:

Students are willing to accept—or at least respect—a surprising variety of beliefs if they are convinced people are thinking for themselves. This is true even of some of the more controversial elements of the tradition. Indeed, airing internal dissent over the history of polygamy, racial discrimination, and women’s issues . . . helps students to see that believers wrestle with difficult issues in a variety of ways.

Maffly-Kipp acknowledges that it may seem counterintuitive that outsiders’ opinions of Mormonism improve when they see conflict occurring within, but that’s precisely what happens. As one student put it, the most significant thing she learned in the course was that “Mormonism is a diverse place.”

As a blogger, I believe that open public debate about issues that affect Mormon life is vital in a healthy religious community. The more controversial the issue, the more important it is to have our discussions about it aloud in the public square.

I’ve found, however, that this argument – that we should welcome internal dissent for our own sake – does little to sway the folks who complain that such discussion is equivalent to airing our dirty laundry for all to see.

What might persuade these people instead — since we are such a young religion and, like all teenagers, are desperately concerned with how we appear to others – is findings like Maffly-Kipp’s. Mormonism is more appealing and understandable to outsiders when we participate in open debates, revealing the chinks in our armor.

Paradoxically, we improve our public image when we stop being so concerned with appearing perfect.



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