Response to Andrew Sullivan on his views on Mormonism

This is the copy of an E-mail that I sent to Andrew Sullivan of the Dish/ The Daily Beast who recently wrote some very caustic and critical posts about the LDS church.

Where’s the line between a religion and a cult 

Part 2

Dear Mr. Sullivan

I am a long time reader of your blog. During the 2008 election I followed very closely your blog reading it daily. From 2008 to 2010 I also closely followed and enjoyed your views and insight. I recently returned from serving a two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Novosibirsk Russia, and I felt prompted to write to you in response to some of your very negative writings about a church that I love and belong to. I was very disappointed by your very biased and negative comments on the LDS church and I felt that my insights might be useful in some way since I am a convert to the church ( I was baptized just three years ago) from a very different background ( My family are secular jewish and I was raised in South Florida and went to University in Boston). I would be happy to hear your response and to try to engage in a dialogue on this subject.

I would like to quote some of your words and respond to them.

“”I have a few non-doctrinal yardsticks to think about the question of how legitimate a religion is. 1. Does it have secret, sacred places that are sealed off from outsiders? 2. Is there some kind of esoteric teaching involved known only to those high up in the faith? 3. Is it easy to leave the church, i.e. is apostasy without serious consequences? 4. Does it enforce tithing effectively?”

Why cannot non-Mormons come and go in Mormon Temples as they can in Cathedrals and mosques and synagogues? Why is it so hard for some to leave the LDS Church without social ostracism and peer pressure? How much money would taxpayers be automatically giving the LDS church by paying the president his salary? How much control does the LDS hierarchy have over its members? Why is missionary work compulsory? Why were Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents barred from attending her own Temple sealing.

I will respond at least in part from my own personal experiences and in part from the words of LDS leaders (prophets and apostles) from general conference addresses. I use these in particular because there is a very important to note difference between what is taught as doctrine and the result of ill-informed members that do not apply the teachings of their leaders and live in disharmony with the teachings of Christ. This is really important with some of your concerns: to give one example…Shunning or excluding family members that have left the faith has been explicitly discouraged by the leadership of the church in several high profile addresses. Meanwhile poorly informed members continue to do so despite the disapproval of such actions from the pulpit.

For instance just two years ago Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the quorum of the twelve spoke on this very topic

Love and Law

“If parents have a wayward child—such as a teenager indulging in alcohol or drugs—they face a serious question. Does parental love require that these substances or their consumption be allowed in the home, or do the requirements of civil law or the seriousness of the conduct or the interests of other children in the home require that this be forbidden?

 

To pose an even more serious question, if an adult child is living in cohabitation, does the seriousness of sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage require that this child feel the full weight of family disapproval by being excluded from any family contacts, or does parental love require that the fact of cohabitation be ignored? I have seen both of these extremes, and I believe that both are inappropriate.

Where do parents draw the line? That is a matter for parental wisdom, guided by the inspiration of the Lord. There is no area of parental action that is more needful of heavenly guidance or more likely to receive it than the decisions of parents in raising their children and governing their families. This is the work of eternity.

As parents grapple with these problems, they should remember the Lord’s teaching that we leave the ninety and nine and go out into the wilderness to rescue the lost sheep. 11 President Thomas S. Monson has called for a loving crusade to rescue our brothers and sisters who are wandering in the wilderness of apathy or ignorance. 12 These teachings require continued loving concern, which surely requires continued loving associations.”

Another landmark on this topic by President James E. Faust in April 2003 urged love, prayer and forbearance and certainly did not encourage shunning or exclusion.

Dear are the sheep that have wandered

In the most recent conference in April 2012 President Dieter F Uchtdorf addresses a family in which members were divided and not speaking to each other and spoke for love and compassion for all and urged us to not judge each other!

In terms of personal experience in regard to this question I can point out two things.

First of all, is the response from my own Jewish parents who when I told them I wanted to be baptized threatened that they would no longer consider me their son and continue to strongly oppose and criticize at every opportunity. In contrast, at least in my experience interacting with hundreds of members in Siberia as a minister/missionary, I found that most families have at least one or more people that have fallen into inactivity, but that the relationships in these families can be described as being ones of love and tolerance and prayer. In my two years in Russia, I only heard of one example of a member being shunned because his family left the church (and even then the branch president and several of the prominent members remained good friends with him and his family even going on hunting trips together.). As mentioned by Elder Oaks in the talk I quoted, family face a difficult decision of how to deal with the sinful actions of relatives while continuing to love and support them. However, I have not seen anything in the teaching of the church to justify exclusion or hatred and indeed quite the opposite.

“Why is missionary work compulsory?”

First of all, missionary work is not compulsory in any way shape or form. In this case I will begin from personal experience and then quote a couple of sources. When I joined the church I faced the very difficult decision of deciding whether or not I should serve a mission. I was excepted to a prestigious law school and faced a very difficult decision. Of course as one would imagine as part of my deciding I spoke in depth with my ecclestiastical leaders ( Bishop and Stake President) seeking their feedback and advice. No one ever tried to tell me that I had to go on a mission. Quite the opposite, I was explicitly told that it was my choice and that I would be considered an active member in good standing whether or not I went and served. To bolster this fact, several of the leaders I served with on my mission has not served missions as youth ( including my mission president Jon C. Trejo and Elder Webb who served as a senior missionary with his wife in the mission office. Elder Webb had also served as a bishop several times and a stake president some of the most important callings members can hold.) This shows that members are not punished, demoted, not trusted or anything else for failing to serve a mission.

Of course one could say that serving a mission is viewed as a duty and a great responsibility for male members. That has been explicitly stated many times. In January 2012 there was a question and answer feature in the church magazine Ensign/Liahona which spoke about this. There is a great difference between a duty and compulsion.


Why is there so much pressure on young men to go on a mission? Isn’t it a personal decision?

The personal decision each young man must make is whether or not he will fulfill his priesthood duty to serve a mission. As President Thomas S. Monson has said: “Every worthy, able young man should prepare to serve a mission. Missionary service is a priesthood duty—an obligation the Lord expects of us who have been given so very much. Young men, I admonish you to prepare for service as a missionary” (“As We Meet Together Again,” Liahona and Ensign, Nov. 2010, 5–6).

Preparing for a mission is part of a young man’s Aaronic Priesthood experience. It is his duty, and he should feel the appropriate weight of that duty. Of course, he should not serve a mission simply because it is expected or because he feels pressure; he should serve because he desires to share the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with others.

But as he prays about serving a mission, he should also remember that by receiving the priesthood, he has already accepted the sacred responsibility to “warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ” (D&C 20:59), including by serving as a full-time missionary. If young men are not able to serve because of poor health or a disability, they are honorably excused.

Worthy male youth are expected to serve and strongly encouraged. If they decide not to serve however there isn’t supposed to be any kind of punishment or push-back. In the end, leaders of the church have for years been urging people to only go on a mission if they have a testimony and a personal desire to serve.

This question has a page on Mormon.org with members sharing their answers which I think is a pretty good source http://mormon.org/faq/serve-missions

Of course this should make sense in our civic society where there are many duties that do not carry with them any penalties for failure to act but many rewards/blessings for action. For instance, voting is my civic duty as a citizen of the United States, but I can choose to not vote and aside from loosing an opportunity to influence the political system am not penalized.

Again I can testify from my personal experience in Siberia. All of the probably around 100 missionaries with whom I interacted were excited to serve a mission and chose to do so out of their own desire. Of course, their families were supportive ( unlike mine) which made serving easier. However, I truly believe due to my experience ( and I thought otherwise before I left on a mission) that the vast majority of missionaries serve out of their own desire or at the very least a sense of duty to God and not from any social coercion or pressure.

I will close this e-mail though I will happily write more with the question of tithing

“4. Does it enforce tithing effectively?”

 

The church enforces tithing very very well. However it is able to do so without coercion or force. One of the unique things about LDS services is that there is no plea for donations during the meetings whatsoever. All giving is done quietly and not publicly. The information about who is or is not a tithe payer is not public and there is not public scrutiny of how much one tithes. As a missionary, I did not even know whether or not the members I met with and taught were full tithe payers or not. The question of tithing is never a barrier to attending church meetings at meetinghouses. Those that do not pay are almost never disciplined or excommunicated. Once a year members are encouraged ‘but not forced’ to have a meeting with their bishop and declare that they are a full tithe payer, but even many active members do not do this yearly meeting.  The assessment of whether one is or is not a full tithe payer is personal and one is not told to pay more than a fair share. Tithing only becomes a really issue in regard to determining if someone is qualified to hold a calling ( a leadership position of trust in the church) and to attend the temple. It makes sense that someone asked to lead other members should be exemplary in their obedience to the commandments of God and in a church with lay leadership it is a key quality control for those given the ability to influence others for good or evil. It also makes sense to require tithing before entering the temple in lieu of the lords warning in Malachi 3 about bringing tithes and offerings to his house.

Andrew I think that if you look honestly and objectively at the actual lived experience of a Latter Day Saint that you would see that the church is one that does not coerce or force but teaches principles and urges its members to live by them. It is in my estimation a marvelous work and a wonder and an institution guiding people to a better life. Have you ever attended a latter day saint service? How many active members have you talked to while writing your pieces slamming this church? Its easy to draw false conclusions by only looking to dissenters, but I used to think you were far better than that. I really hope that you will actually explore more about what it means to be a latter-day saint from a believers perspective and portray that to your readers.

All the best

Daniel Ortner

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2 thoughts on “Response to Andrew Sullivan on his views on Mormonism

  1. Daniel,

    I love your blog! It is so inspirational and good to hear from you again. I really hope he responds and if he does, please post his response.

    Have a great day!
    Maryn

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