Monday, January 28, 2008

Observing Mormonism

A view of the neighborhood LDS Church, the morning after President Gordon B. Hinckley passed away in Salt Lake City.

As a former member of the LDS Church, it's a strange thing to watch Mormonism play out on the world stage. Generally, I shy away from this kind of commentary, mostly because it feels almost impossible to stay neutral. If I say anything negative about the church, people will accuse me of serving the anti-Mormon cause, but if I say anything positive, some will accuse me of promoting the church. Nothing is quite so simple, for nothing is all good or all bad. Most people and causes stand somewhere in the middle.

Having said that, two recent events stand out in my mind: the candidacy of Mitt Romney and the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley. I'll speak briefly of each.

Mitt Romney

Most recently, I've been fascinated to witness Mitt Romney's campaign, as the first viable presidential candidate in United States history. It really is remarkable, considering this nation once persecuted the Mormons and literally drove them into the American wilderness. Now we stand at the very real possibility of a Mormon rising above history to occupy the highest office in the land.

And yet despite the apparent triumph for members of the church, the cultural phenomenon surrounding Mitt Romney disappoints me immensely.

On the one hand, I find myself feeling increasingly annoyed, and even angered, by public displays of religious bigotry promoted by some members of the Evangelical community. In my view, it's perfectly acceptable to engage in civil discourse regarding theological differences, but many Evangelicals go too far when they accuse Mormons of not being Christians. I'm the first to admit I disagree with many doctrinal points of the LDS Church, but to say Mormons do not believe in Jesus is a damnable lie. If certain anti-Mormon ministries are to be believed, Mormons teach us to adore Joseph Smith more than Jesus Christ. Frankly, I believe that kind of misinformation discredits the Evangelical movement and weakens their message.

On the other hand, I feel disappointed with Romney himself for pandering to the Religious Right, as if his newfound social conservatism on issues like abortion and gay rights will somehow lesson the distaste so many Evangelicals feel for him. They will never forgive him for being Mormon, no matter how much he tries to sound like them and champion their causes.

Honestly, it's a bizarre cultural phenomenon. Mormons are clamoring to be accepted as Christians, while Evangelicals are doing everything possible to close that door. Somehow I think both sides miss the point. For my part, I would rather see Mormons and Evangelicals alike living the basic teachings of Jesus Christ, like loving our enemies, rather than arguing over who gets to wear the label.

As for Mitt Romney's candidacy, I would love to see the day when he truly stands for his conviction, rather than continue to recite talking points from the Religious Right. Perhaps then I might feel inspired to take him seriously.

Gordon B. Hinckley

As president of the Mormon Church, Gordon B. Hinckley commands a high degree of respect. He was revered by millions as a "prophet, seer, and revelator," and mouth-piece of the Lord. In a rather ironic, American sort of way, it can be said he held the keys of Saint Peter, though I'm sure the Catholics would disagree.

My experience with President Hinckley spans several decades. I remember his role in the First Presidency of the Church when I was baptized in 1984, at the age of thirteen. Hinckley was a counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball, but acted as the de-facto leader because of Kimball's frailty and advanced age. He later served under Ezra Taft Benson, and then Howard W. Hunter, before becoming president in his own right.

I once heard President Hinckley speak during a priesthood session in the old Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, I remember almost nothing from his speech, except that he apologized for President Benson's absence.

Years later, President Hinckley came to Spokane to dedicate the new temple. I attended one of the dedicatory sessions, but was disappointed that I did not get to witness the ceremony from within the walls of the temple. Instead, I sat in the gymnasium in the stake center across the parking lot from the temple, and watched the ceremony via closed-circuit television. At the crowning moment of the dedication, all the members were given little white handkerchiefs for the proverbial "Hosanna Shout." We were instructed to shout three times while waving the handkerchiefs in unison, "Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna, to God and the Lamb," followed by "Amen, amen, and amen." Perhaps I unrealistically expected to feel something more than I did, but no one really shouted and I didn't feel the outpouring of spirit I had hoped to receive. At the end of the ceremony, we all filed out of the gymnasium and went home.

President Hinckley also attended a regional conference in the Spokane Arena, but I'm not sure if that event happened in conjunction with the temple dedication, or if it occurred separately. Again, I don't remember anything from the speeches, but I do remember how I felt. At the very end of the conference, President Hinckley stood to leave, and the crowd stood in unison and fell absolutely silent. At least 15,000 people were in attendance, but the silence became nearly palpable. President Hinckley turned to face the congregation one last time, smiled, and waved a white handkerchief in the air. Those in attendance returned the gesture by waving their own handkerchiefs, or by simply waving their hands. Over the years, the Spokane Arena had hosted rock concerts, monster trucks, hockey games, and circuses, but on that day I witnessed one of the most tender moments of religious devotion I had ever seen in person. That moment, more than all the words combined, impressed me the most.

In the years that followed, my reaction to President Hinckley was somewhat mixed. His outreach to other countries and his willingness to engage the media inspired me. At the same time, I always wished he would have done more to account for past issues in LDS history, rather than sweep them aside with a simple, "That's behind us..." as he often did.

Now as I read of President Hinckley's passing, I feel a mixture of sadness and longing. Part of me misses the simpler days when I felt such deep love and devotion for the president of the church, and yet I can never forget my own convictions. As much as it's impossible for many of my Mormon friends to conceive, the Lord has called me to other missions in life. Even so, I bid farewell to this man of God like an old friend. Gordon B. Hinckley stood like a father over the formative years of my spiritual development, and for that I give him honor and respect. In the end, we may disagree over points of doctrine, but love endures forever. May he find peace in the Lord as he makes his journey to the other world.

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