During my senior year in high school, the U.S. Army made some significant efforts to recruit me. I never understood their interest, as I was an avowed coward and about as physically imposing as a librarian. I assumed that if Uncle Sam wanted me, the Cold War was a lost cause. Still, I was tempted by some of their overtures, mostly because of the financial advantages it would give me for college.
I approached my mentor (the debate coach…seriously, I never was soldier material) and asked him what he thought about it. He laughed at loud, and then told me I would have a one-word problem in the military. I asked him what he meant. He said that my problem was the word “why.” He predicted that the first time I was ordered to do some meaningless task, I would ask why, and I wouldn’t stop asking until they discharged or shot me. “They don’t do ‘why’ in the Army,” he concluded.
He was right. I’ve got what you might call “authority issues.” Because those issues are painfully obvious to the most casual observer, people often are surprised to find out that I’m a Mormon. Since the LDS Church has an established priesthood hierarchy, and purports to be led by a prophet of God, that can’t leave much room for individual thought, can it? Wouldn’t Mormonism give someone like me a rash?
The truth is, even though critics of the LDS Church often portray it as strictly authoritarian, shunning anyone who dares to think or speak for himself, my experience in the Church has been exactly the opposite. While there are certainly some questions that might get you into trouble (“Why can’t I commit adultery?” comes to mind), I have found the Church to be remarkable in its intellectual honesty. Nobody asks harder questions about Mormonism than the Mormons themselves. That isn’t just because most of the questions posed by critics of the Church aren’t very hard. Instead, it has a great deal to do with the fundamental doctrines and practices of the Church. Let me give you a few examples.
The first is the doctrine of continuing revelation. Mormons do not believe that God has told mankind everything He ever is going to tell us. Instead, as expressed in one of our Articles of Faith, written by Joseph Smith, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Because of that, it is hard to get Mormons to believe that we have heard the final word about anything. Unlike some Christian churches, we have not fenced in our faith with creeds or claims that the scriptures are closed, and as a result we are far less dogmatic about our doctrine.
To be certain, there are some core doctrines that one has to accept if one wants to be a member in good standing, but I suspect that is the case with virtually all churches. If you show up to an evangelical service and announce that the whole Jesus story was a hoax cooked up by an enterprising young salesman with a surplus of tiny crosses to sell, they might invite you to find something else to do with your Sunday mornings. For that reason, when former Mormons complain of being excommunicated from the Church for teaching things contrary to established doctrines, my reaction usually is, “And you were expecting…what?” Yes, there are doctrinal lines that cannot be crossed if you still want to call yourself a Mormon, but there are precious few of them. If you have some novel theory about whether Adam had a belly button, no one at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City could care less.
The second is the doctrine of personal revelation. Mormons do not believe that they have to look to the President of the Church or their local leaders for direction in everything we do. We believe that we are entitled to direct inspiration from our Father in Heaven for such matters. My opinions about politics, birth control, or caffeinated soda might be different from those of the guy in the next pew, but the Church isn’t going to wade in to resolve every difference. As Joseph Smith expressed it, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” The Church believes that people should not be “commanded in all things,” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26), and it operates consistent with that belief.
The third is the organizational structure of the Church, in which there is no professional clergy and leadership is delegated to as many people as possible over time. It is hard to develop a personality cult around a bishop (the leader of a local congregation) when that bishop might be a cub scout leader next week. Moreover, our leaders do not attend years of formal training in the doctrine and administration of the Church. Instead, they have their own jobs and families, and therefore training is often done locally, informally, and as needed.
Frequently I have been surprised at how little direction I am given in callings. Handbooks are short and usually written in general terms. Lesson manuals leave significant room for teachers to add their own insight and to structure lessons as they see fit. The Church really does practice what it preaches: We believe that God can and will inspire those who serve Him, and therefore the Church doesn’t stand over your shoulder mandating everything you do. We trust that the Holy Ghost will give consistent guidance, and it does. The result is a Church that is remarkably uniform throughout the world without micromanagement. To me, that is one of the most miraculous attributes of the Church.
The fourth reason is the Church’s emphasis on education. If you are intent on controlling people’s minds, it is essential that you choke off access to other ideas, usually by discouraging reading and education. (For that reason, when the Bible was first published for the general public, many clergy viewed that as a dangerously bad idea). The LDS Church does just the opposite.
From its earliest days, the Church has stressed the importance of education, especially higher education, for all of its members. And that doesn’t just mean going to Brigham Young University and getting a “Mormon” education. Only a small percentage of LDS youth attend college at BYU. We have little fear that sending our kids off to other universities will be fatal to their testimonies. I attended Stanford for my legal education, and even though the general culture at Stanford was very much at odds with LDS teachings, the place was still crawling with Mormons. Even the religious instructors at BYU generally receive their degrees from non-LDS universities.
Each of these four characteristics of the Church has the effect of encouraging people to ask questions, look at things in new ways, and think (and act) independently. We’re cool with that. We encourage it. Because, ultimately, no matter what anyone else says about Mormonism, we really do believe it is true. And if it is true, then it can weather some close questioning and a little individuality.
Including grumpy old lawyers who keep asking, “Why?”