Friday, March 30, 2007

Separate From the World

For the past few years President Hinkley has tried to make people of the world, particularly the United States, more familiar with Mormons. He has gone on television many times and talked about his faith and the Church in general. It is hard to say how successful that has been in changing perceptions. His main message has been that Latter-day Saints are different, but not weird. Although "weird" is a matter of opinion, the gospel demands that we be different from the world. Those who wish to "be in the world, but not of it," often are not sure where to draw the line.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Missionary Work and non-Christians

When Joseph Smith had his First Vision, or presented the Book of Mormon as his first public sermon, the message was clearly for the Christians of his day. Ever since then most missionary work has been geared toward those who recognize "The Gospel" as a set of particular theology. They might not agree on the specifics of the theology, but they would not misunderstand the message. As a group that would like to become a "World" rather than a "Regional" religion, Mormonism's success among non-Christian society has been far from promising. To the chagrin of many Christian denominations it seems that Mormons are destined to follow the coat tails of other sects missionaries. That might be so, even by God's design.

Still, it would be nice to think what could possibly be an approach that opens up more missionary work among Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, etc. Is the message of the Restoration simply that? The Creedal Christians teach of Jesus Christ, and Mormons teach of a return to the original Christian authority. Looking at European Christians' recent response to Mormon missionary work and the "among the fastest growing" doesn't sound very possible to sustain. Ironically, it is in Africa that the growth has been most noticeable aside from the Western Hemisphere. Even then, it is mostly among those who have been taught Christianity and already have faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Most of the rest of those who follow other religions are deaf to Mormon missionaries or don't have a chance to hear them teach.

The future of the LDS Church, as trends seem to indicate, is not among the Westernized Christians who are losing their faith and morals as the years progress. It is to be found among the non-Christians who are not afraid to declare God in public and base their lives off of their own prophets and Scripture. What can Mormon missionaries learn from other denomination Christian missionaries? Should we learn from them? It is beyond my personal observations and any kinds of expertise to even start answering those questions.

Ammon can be the start of a template in reconciling these difficulties. His first missionary activity was not to preach the word, but to live it in service:

22 And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people.

23 And Ammon said unto him: Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.

24 And it came to pass that king Lamoni was much pleased with Ammon, and caused that his bands should be loosed; and he would that Ammon should take one of his daughters to wife.

25 But Ammon said unto him: Nay, but I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a aservant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites.
-- Alma 17:22-25

It is often said that Mormon missionaries are seen as simply uber-Americans for good and bad. There is plenty of truth in this. Now, according to LDS Scripture this is also what God intended. However, there is also warning that flagrant disregard for the reason God chose America as center of the Restoration would be disastrous. It might be prudent, God willing, that an Apostle actually live and work full time in an Asian or African country. Better yet, that a person from those places who are strong in the faith and yet come from a completely foreign background are called as Mormon missionary ambassadors. This would be for both directions - teaching the Gospel to one group, and customs, belief, and etc. to the Saints.

Ultimately, it comes down to what would interest a non-Christian to be interested in a blatantly Christian (regardless of sectarian creedal arguments) religion. Right now there are too many political, aside from religious or cultural, boundaries to make the question of immediate concern. Most of Asia and the Middle East are off limits to any Christian. Even the inroads that have been made between Muslims and Mormons are seriously compromised by equal amounts of zealous claims of theological truth. India is a country that, although still volatile, has the most promise for ripe missionary work.

The person that comes to mind most with these issues is the "Apostle to the Gentiles" Paul who seemed to arguably navigate between the Jewish world and the Roman one. His success, like what was pointed out as a suggestion above, seemed to be his dual citizenship in Israel and Rome. Better yet, his familiarity with both cultures. Perhaps what continues to make the idea of a greater non-Christian missionary effort so enticing is his proclamation:

14 I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise.

15 So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

And it could be added; to the Asian, Euro-Indian, African, as well as the European. If Western civilization is slowly dying (as I believe it is from its own peculiar social isolationism) the question of missionary work among non-Christians is becoming more relevant. The LDS Church has a chance to greatly expand its numbers in an honest world-religion status. Such a situation can only happen when the Saints step back from its tiny larger shell of a shell and consider the greater picture. Having an expanded vision and different approaches (whatever they might be) could make "are Mormons Christians?" seem trivial and banal inter-sectarian fighting. Having success outside of "Westernized culture" could make for a greater diversity of faith and an expanded definition of Zion.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Personal Responsibility is Dying

For the past few years I have had a job where I hear lots of excuses for not fulfilling commitments. Many think that they can just yell a little louder, cry a little longer, and generally give the biggest fish story and everything will just go away. Considering that the business has to make money, and these people are using the product, it is amazing how forgiving the company already is - and in some instances by law. Yet, many of these people act as if it is the company's fault they can't pay. It is as if America for them has become a Communist State where everything is free. I don't work for a credit card company, but I have seen the same thing with them as well. The slogan has become "buy this NOW and pay LATER," with many adding their own, ". . . if at all and no consequences." This is nothing new, but the idea of personal responsibility is approaching a lost virtue.

The trouble is that personal responsibility is absolutely essential to a healthy civilization. When no one accepts mistakes there cannot be a corrective. Worse, what is replacing this is not a lack of concern, but blaming others. When no one takes responsibility, but everyone thinks its the other person's fault, it shouldn't come as a surprise that society is seriously fractured. At a personal level, recognizing mistakes is the first step toward repentance and true happiness:

When faced with the consequences of transgression, rather than looking to ourselves as the source of the discomfort which always accompanies sin, many of us tend to blame someone else. Rather than getting out of a vicious and senseless circle, we fault our neighbor for our pain and try to pass it on. But to repent we must leave the circle.

The first step in the repentance process has always been simply to recognize that we have done wrong. If we are so hedged about by pride, rationalization, machismo, or a misdirected sense of self-esteem as to prevent us from ever admitting that we are part of the problem, we are in trouble. We then may not even know of our need to repent. We will have no idea whether the Lord is pleased with us or not and may become “past feeling.” (1 Ne. 17:45.) But all men, everywhere, must repent. (See 3 Ne. 11:32.) To fail to do so is to perish. (See Luke 13:3; Hel. 7:28.)

To excuse misconduct by blaming others is presumptuous at best and is fatally flawed with regard to spiritual things, for “we believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” (A of F 1:2.) This not only means that we will not be punished for what Adam did in the Garden, but also that we cannot excuse our own behavior by pointing a finger to Adam or anyone else. The real danger in failing to accept responsibility for our own actions is that unless we do, we may never even enter on the strait and narrow path. Misconduct that does not require repentance may be pleasant at first, but it will not be for long. And it will never lead us to eternal life.
-- F. Burton Howard, “Repentance,” Ensign, May 1991, 12

My experiences have made me more hesitant to help other people. I know this goes against the teaching that we should help without question when others are in need. The problem is, just giving to people no matter what might be putting them - and society - in a worse situation. They become beholden to handouts and start living off others. Instead of trying to find solutions and change for the better, they act as if everyone and everything is conspiring against them. Eventually, all avenues are exhausted and the only thing they are left with is poverty and anger. Seeing people like that (and there are many) makes others less likely to show compassion when another truly in need comes along.

Perhaps it isn't about not giving, but trying to give more wisely. Next time someone comes along asking for help, the first thing I will do is ask what have you done or thought of doing to get yourself out of the situation? Most likely that won't help for those I meet haphazard on the street. Then again, there I go blaming others and not taking responsibility for those in need. It is a spiral that is drowning us all.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Romney is no JFK

. . . and that might not be a bad thing for his intended constituency. For about six months the "anti-Mormon" diatribe has been mostly the creation of a liberal press out to give the impression of an epic battle that only exists in their imagination. After all, the only ones that have been posting scathing attacks on Mitt's faith have been the Media with quotes in the stories and some Liberals; hardly a place for Evangelical Christian voices. For that reason, the media have been the ones that have created the "Mormon question" out of thin cloth. The near silence of the Christian Right, despite the untrustworthy polls, on the Mormon faith of Romney seemed a relief.

That has slowly changed. The religious opposition to Mitt's Mormonism has gained some steam among Republican Religious Right advocates. That isn't to say there haven't been outspoken Evangelical Christians who have given support to the Presidential bid. However, there does seem to be a sharp split between those who think it should bar him and those who think it shouldn't. Despite the loud advice that Romney should give a similar rousing "JFK and the Catholic Question" speech, the party and the politics Romney finds himself in could actually make it a failure.

The most important difference is that the Republican Party is not the same as when JFK talked to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. More importantly, JFK was a Democrat in a country relatively secure in the idea of a national religious commonality. Back then there was no Religious Right. Such a movement of conservative religious political activists was still underground from the time of the repeal of alcohol prohibition. That stunning national rebuke, according to some historians, caused the Evangelical movement to turn inwards and shun politics. It wasn't until the 60s when the social traditions of the United States were questioned and attacked that a Religious Right slowly gained political momentum. Now they are in full bloom and very potent.

Religion does matter to a large segment of the Republican party. It has yet to be proven how much of an inclusive or exclusive brand of religiosity is involved. What is known is that any presidential candidate in the primaries has to face issues of faith, or be rejected by a powerful group of voters. That is why Romney cannot act like JFK. Any attack on religious political participation to the degree that Kennedy expressed would alienate the core religious voters. For instance, Romney could never (and probably would never) say anything like:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.


I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him¹ as a condition to holding that office.


I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition -- to judge me on the basis of 14 years in the Congress, on my declared stands against an Ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools -- which I attended myself

Where JFK could get away with this then, as he was a Democrat and his true audience was outside the halls of his speech, those words are anathema to the Republican Religious Right at this time. For starters, many believe that the idea of Separation of Church and State is an un-Constitutional lie and discriminatory to people of faith. Second, related to the former, aid to parochial schools and boycotts against public schools are considered a fight for the rights of religious people to have a voice.

It is for this reason Romney must be very careful about what he says when distancing himself from religious issues. Unlike JFK, who many suspected was Catholic in name only and had a large general election Catholic support, Romney doesn't have the luxury or the political philosophy to draw a sharp line. That would cost him as much support in the primaries as it might save him in the general election. As explained elsewhere about the religious audience he would be talking with:

Romney and his advisers compare the speech he will give to John Kennedy's appearance before the Houston Ministerial Association in which he addressed concerns about his Catholicism by talking about "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." Romney can't say exactly that, since many of the supporters he's courting think the doctrine of separation of church and state is not enshrined in the Constitution and has been used by liberals to take religion out of public life. Plus, he's not asking that his faith not be an issue. He wants it to be an issue. He's running on it, but he wants to be the one to draw the line marking where his faith ends.

The best intellectual argument Romney could use isn't available to him, which is that all religions have their odd traditions and beliefs that look highly quirky under close examination. Romney could use my Catholic Church as an example, but in doing so, he'd risk alienating another key constituency. Imagine what fun he could have had with the Charismatics, some of whom speak in tongues or drink snake venom.

And so Romney is stuck in the middle of a very delicate balance. He is trying to come off (and arguably with more success than compared to the other two legitimate contenders) as "The Conservative" choice, but not have to deal with the "cultic beliefs" that his natural constituents brand him as having. As things have picked up outside the print establishment, his chances are not looking good. At best he has some strong support among Evangelical leaders, but the ground forces are fidgety.

It would be best to take up the mantra of conservative commentator Hugh Hewett, "I'm not looking for a pastor. I'm looking for a President," if the Religious Right is going to have any power in '08 elections. There is still time for that to happen, but no speech is going to sooth souls when faith is more than a side issue. Certainly Giuliani and McCain haven't been friendly to the religiously motivated. It will have to be up to the people to decide if theology or public morality is the ideals driving the political wagon. Those who say you can't have one without the other might find themselves standing alone.