Apologetics Into Doctrine: Romney’s Impact

It appears that Andrew Sullivan published something on Mormons yesterday.  How do I know this without reading Sullivan?  Because there’s a zillion Mormons responding to his comments at sites far removed.  In fact, there’s a bumper crop of Mormon apologetics springing up all over the place and I’m detecting a bit of a common theme.  It is, I think, something of a South Park approach.

Here is the relevant dialogue from the Southpark episode “All About Mormons:”

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. S*ck my b*lls.

Now most of the apologetic arguments don’t end with as much pungency but the gist is much the same:  exemplary behavior is a better indication of discipleship than theological orthodoxy.   And to be sure, if orthopraxy were ever to actually catch on it would revolutionize Christianity.  However, since it’s much easier to recite creeds than to love your crankypants, neighbor, my hopes in this respect are not high.

To bring this into a more distinctly LDS focus, let me show you something said by James Barr in the 1991 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh.    His immediate context was a wider examination of the conflict between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth over natural theology, but I think I can lift out this section without damage:

…argument of the apologetic type, if it is allowed at all, may not only support faith but may also exercise upon it a critical function: it may say, well, yes, we believe and faith is justifiable, but it will be more easily justifiable if we keep it within certain bounds.  We can demonstrate the reality of God, but only if our faith in God remains fairly close to the sort of God whose reality we can demonstrate.  Science may leave room for divine creation, but not if we insist that divine creation took place in one week in 4004 BCE and in the exact sequence described in Genesis.  Historical study may leave room for divine action in history, but only if that divine action is seen in a less crude and more sophisticated way…  Thus, the apologetic functions…do not only support faith but they also tend to act critically upon faith, to correct it, to guide it into certain channels. (emph. in the original)

I think there’s something to Barr’s point.  In the LDS context we claim to be led by revelation and we usually mean specifically that revelation given to a small group of men.   But in a practical sense some limits are set simply by what we’re willing to defend in public, regardless of how the gentlemen in question understood their own pronouncements.  IOW, we are led by revelation but it’s not limited to the revelation experienced by leaders.  We defend LDS revelation based on our own revelation and experience.

In the current situation I think I’m seeing, for example, more and more people who, as they rise to defend the LDS religion, do so by advocating the LDS lifestyle.  There are also many more explicit statements that turn away from defending some heretofore key points.  For example, the historicity of the origins of the BoM is not important to some commenters because what is important is the life into which the text has led them.

And so I wonder how we are all going to be changed by Romney’s foray into national politics.   If Barr is right, I expect less emphasis on doctrine and particularly the more esoteric aspects, except where we can establish that these doctrines contribute to a lifestyle that compares favorably with the wider Christian world.  In particular, I wonder if we will see a softening of stance on the historicity of the BoM.   We shall see.

14 Replies to “Apologetics Into Doctrine: Romney’s Impact”

  1. “In particular, I wonder if we will see a softening of stance on the historicity of the BoM.”

    I think that is the short term we will see a retrenchment were there is a heavy emphasis on the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

  2. “In particular, I wonder if we will see a softening of stance on the historicity of the BoM.”

    On some level, aren’t we already seeing that?

    “I think you’d be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. … We would say: ‘This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I’m going forward. If I can help you work toward that I’d be glad to, but I don’t love you less; I don’t distance you more; I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.’ … We really don’t want to sound smug. We don’t want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.”

  3. As somebody who has less than orthodox views of the origin of the Book of Mormon, I really appreciate that quote. Thanks, Christopher.

    I must say that I have never felt that holding unorthodox views has made me feel unwelcome. I sometime feel out of place, but never unwelcome.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    It is quite easy to find folks on the B-nacle that have unorthodox views of the origins of the BoM, and to find GA responses to these ideas posted here. It’s one result of the community’s knowledge sharing functions. However, the B-Nacle is not a community of average Mormons.

    So what I’m wondering, but lack the skills to really study, is how the apologetics that are now appearing all over the web are influencing a more general audience. These might be people who have never had a reason to consider such issues seriously until they now find themselves “under the microscope” and looking for a coherent response that doesn’t rely on argument from authority, appeal to personal revelation, or the like. Will the attention start to “mainstream” ideas that heretofore have been somewhat unorthodox?

    And to be sure, BoM historicity is only an example. There may well be other facets that will end up being more interesting.


  5. I don’t see Elder Holland’s comments as a softening in the least. The historicity of the Book of Mormon is a central doctrine but it would be wrong to push people out of the Church when they are struggling in their faith. The whole point of home teaching and so forth is to fellowship people struggling with the faith.

  6. How can we say Holland’s quote there is a softening given his talk in GC which was anything but a softening on the historicity issue

  7. I can’t speak for Chris, but perhaps we should opt for a more charitable reading of his post. He may have simply meant that to address the issue in public at all represents a softened response over a strained silence or an angry rebuttal. It is quite possible to write a bit more quickly than one can think through all the nuances.

    In any case, most Mormons now living have not really been constrained to deal with the historicity of the BoM in a personal way, as those who study religion, Bible, history, etc., as either professionals or capable amateurs, must do. Thus, there was no advantage to questioning its historicity and many social advantages to going along with the flow.

    Now, however, a new balance may be appearing, as there are now social advantages for leaving the historicity question more open…


    Note to Chris H.: We have discussed the possibility that you are intellectually and emotionally some distance from where the great body of the Saints might be on these matters. Among other things, I should expect that you have the emotional detachment to look at the issues I am raising and tell us what you see in the apologetic strands that are developing across the intertubewebz if it interests you…


  8. What do I see in these apologetic strands? I see a desire, if not deep graving for acceptance on our own terms. I think the idea that Mormons lead good clean lives has served us a people well in business, sports, and even politics. The Presidency presents a different challenge. This is the one political position in the US that is deeply personal. If I think you are a good person I do not mind you as my Congressman. However, to be President I want to know what you believe.

    Things is…we believe weird stuff. Sure, all religions believe weird stuff, but Mormonism deviates further from the norm. Yet, we see in Mitt the opportunity to have that acceptance…and a Republican President ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

    For Mitt to become Pres, we do not need people to convert, we just need them to like us a bit. This is better achieved by reminding people of their kind Mormon neighbor than by trying to explain Nephites and Lamanites.

    So, I do not think this is in any way a cultural move away from historicity, but a change in our approach to how we present ourselves as citizens.

    I have no idea if that is what you were nudging me to address…but there you go.

    Josh, the church line is that the Book of Mormon is a historical ancient text. That is the line that Elder Holland was strong presenting in that one talk. However, I tend to view such statements the way the Catholics view Catholic Church statements about birth control.

  9. Speaking of historicity, I was banned from the Reuters discussion board for citing the following bit of Mormon history.

    Members of the militia entered the shop and found ten-year-old Sardius Smith hiding under the blacksmith’s bellows. William Reynolds put his musket against the boy’s skull and blew off the top of his head. Reynolds later explained, “Nits will make lice, and if he had lived he would have become a Mormon.”
    Seventy-eight year old Thomas McBride surrendered his musket to militiaman Jacob Rogers, who then shot McBride and hacked his body apart with a corn knife. Several other bodies were mutilated or clothing stolen, while many women were assaulted. Houses were robbed, wagons, tents and clothing were stolen, and horses and livestock were driven off, leaving the surviving women and children destitute.
    By the end of the skirmish at least eighteen Mormons were dead: Hiram Abbott, Elias Benner, John Byers, Alexander Campbell, Simon Cox, Josiah Fuller, Austin Hammer, John Lee, Benjamin Lewis, Thomas McBride (78), Charley Merrick (9), Levi Merrick, William Napier, George S. Richards, Sardius Smith (10), Warren Smith, and John York. Thirteen more had been injured, including a woman and nine-year-old child. A non-Mormon sympathizer was also killed. Three of the 250 militiamen were wounded, but none fatally. After the massacre, the dead were placed in an unfinished well and covered with dirt and straw. The survivors and their wounded gathered at Far West for protection.

  10. Speaking of historicity, I was banned from the Reuters discussion board for citing the following…

    Hm. Well, assuming that there was nothing else to annoy them, that’s sad. A charitable reading might indicate an unserious or overzealous moderator. Less charitably, your comment may not have fit the desired narrative. No doubt things will get uglier as the race continues, and especially so if Romney can establish a credible lead. We shall see.


  11. This post foretells the editorial that appeared in DNews here: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700221874/The-subtler-side-of-religious-bigotry.html?s_cid=s10

    As I see it, the left is far more subtle but fare more insidious. Those on the right are just blatant and up-front about their bigotry that is based in religious competition. Those like Jeffers who call Mormonism a cult are laughable because they wear their bigotry on their sleeve as a sign of their super-self-righteous version of “Christianity”.

    The commentators on the left, like Dowd and O’Donnell, are blind to their bigotry — and that is the surest sign of an ingrained and societally accepted prejudice that runs very deep. While the comments of Dowd and O’Donnell are pathetically laughable to those of us who really know the issues in Mormon Studies and its history, it is no laughing matter. They think that they are more informed and their particular set of liberal values is so obviously superior that anyone who disagrees with them must be idiots. Their arrogance is suffocating.

    But we must not stand for it. If we have to get signs and go sit in the offices of the New York Times and expose CNBC for the not-so-thinly veiled propaganda campaign for the Democratic party that it is, then I say we must do it. We will be treated by others the way we teach them to treat us. If we let them begin with statements like: “can you tell me why Mormonism is so weird” or “why does Mormonism make Romney look stupid,” as the left-leaning publications have begin recent interview, then we buy into their bigoted world-view and assumptions. The response that serves best is: we not weird and those who think we are think that different is weird. Different could just be different, or even hold hints and surprises about a more wholesome and sane way of life.

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