In media discussions of Mormonism, one often comes across the assumption that Mormons are “secretive.” The accusation is rarely accompanied by facts or sources, but the grainy cult-like feel it seems to give the LDS Church has made it a pretty sticky meme for some. I’ve addressed the question at length in a two-part series of posts here and here.
Surprisingly, the New York Times Magazine appears to have ignored RomneyExperience’s take on the question, opting to publish the thoughts of a Harvard Law Professor instead. Noah Feldman authored a long article published yesterday hypothesizing on what about Mormonism so many Americans find troubling. I should note that Feldman is no polemicist or bigot, and he make several insightful points, alongside a few complimentary portrayals of Mormons (“If anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeopoel and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet — rather like being Jewish, but taller.”).
However, when one approaches the central thesis of Feldman’s piece, it becomes quite surprising to notice just how unable he is to support his argument. Feldman begins with a historical view of Mormonism, detailing how Mormons became secretive in their early days in order to protect themselves from outsiders who would persecute them due to their unorthodox beliefs, most prominently the practice of polygamy. Feldman briefly follows this up by noting that once in Utah, Mormons became somewhat isolated from mainstream America (natch). Let’s concede these points and move to Feldman’s central claim:
The Mormon path to normalization over the course of the 20th century depended heavily on this avoidance of public discussion of its religious tenets. Now that plural marriage was out of the picture, the less said the better about the particular teachings of the church, including such practices as the baptism of the dead and the doctrine of the perfectibility of mankind into divine form. Where religious or theological conversation could not be avoided, Mormons depicted themselves as yet another Christian denomination alongside various other Protestant denominations that prevailed throughout the United states.
What Feldman is saying, in essence is that as Mormons have become more mainstream over the last 80 or so years, they’ve decided to clam up about their distinctive doctrines and act like they’re just another Christian church. Feldman gives two examples, positing that Mormons prefer not to discuss their doctrines regarding baptism for the dead and exaltation. He mentions them in the context of a general unwillingness among Mormons to discuss any of their distinctive beliefs.
While he offers these two examples on his own authority, it is important to point out that neither here nor anywhere else in his article does Feldman give an actual example of Mormon reticence on these topics, nor does he cite anyone else supporting the view that Mormons have become secretive about their core doctrine. For a law professor trained to offer citations for every assertion, this is a significant, but telling lapse. I submit that Feldman has failed to offer any support whatsoever for his central claim because the assertion is simply unsupportable.
Feldman does not appear to realize how inconsistent his claim is with a church that has always placed great emphasis on evangelizing outsiders. It would be difficult to convince others to join the LDS Church without noting that there are differences between Mormons and those of other religions. Consistent with their missionary motives, Mormons are actually quite forthright when it comes to discussing their doctrine. You may have heard of the vast LDS missionary program, which features 50,000 or so people preaching the specifics of Mormon doctrine to families all over the world. When they can get someone to listen, LDS missionaries teach a set of “discussions,” which explicitly highlight the doctrine of baptism for the dead, making it a part of their central pitch for converts.
The Mormon doctrine of exaltation, which is admittedly less well-understood than other doctrines, is also certainly not kept in the shadows. LDS people frequently discuss their gratitude that God has implemented a plan to “help us become like him.” A handful of LDS hymns focus on this belief, and LDS teaching materials do so as well. Again, this doctrine has never authoritatively fleshed out in such a way that Mormons may explain its exact contours, but there is no question that Mormons hold this belief among those of which they are most proud. Consequently, most Mormons are delighted to share it with their neighbors.
To realize that the keystone of Feldman’s argument is wrongheaded nonsense is to see that his entire set of contentions is baseless. He posits that Mormons’ commitment to “soft secrecy” is being used as a part of their “assimilationist strategy” to keep bigotry at bay. While there is no question that Mormons have begun to see themselves increasingly as mainstream Americans, and to strive for such status among their peers, there is no evidence at all that this progress has come at the expense of their core doctrines, or their willingness to share them with others. As another Mormon blogger has noted, these doctrines may be found everywhere, from LDS bookstores, to Church publications, to Mormon classrooms, to manuals on sharing the gospel with others. If there’s been a move toward hiding the Mormon beliefs in Baptism for the Dead or Exaltation, the entire Church, both official and un-, seems to have missed the memo.
Feldman may in fact be making a much more limited claim than he at first appears to be. That is, perhaps he is only noting that in the political sphere, Mormons such as Mitt Romney are hesitant to describe the details of their distinctive beliefs. This would be an uncontroversial point. Mormons running for office have nothing to gain by highlighting the things that make them different, and common ground will always dominate political campaigns.
But if Feldman really believes that Mormons in general have become unwilling to discuss their distinctive beliefs with their friends and neighbors, he’ll have to come up with a little evidence. I’ll put my word up against his that there isn’t any, but I’m just one person talking without any outside support. Just like Feldman.