I like to think I’m a pretty open-minded guy when it comes to people who hold religious beliefs different than mine. I’ve realized lately, however, that I am not immune to religious prejudice. In my own faith journey, I have moved from a narrow understanding of how God works in the world to a much broader one. I do my best to avoid generalizations, stereotypes and judging those holding beliefs different from my own. Sure, I have my close-minded slip-ups, but generally I pride myself on being open to all different kinds of religious people. Well, as the good book says, “Pride goes before the fall,” (Proverbs 16:18) and I’ve been swallowing my pride this year when it comes to my self-perceived open-mindedness. Yes, I’ve bumped up against the limits of my “open” mind thanks to what many commentators are calling “the Mormon Moment” with two Latter Day Saints running for the Republican presidential nomination: Mitt Romney and John Huntsman.
Having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I grew up from birth learning that the only way to heaven and the only way to truly be in a “right” relationship with God was “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.” As I grew up and my exposure to people of different beliefs than my own also grew, I began slowly to see that God could work in the lives of people who held different beliefs than I did. First, I learned that God was present in the lives of non-Southern Baptist Christians. I was shocked to discover that Methodists, Lutherans, Nazarenes and others were actually Christians too. Later on, I began to drop my suspicions of Catholics, Pentecostals and Charismatics. When I went to college and seminary, I got the chance to study and even meet adherents of non-Christian religions; what a disconcerting process it was to learn not only was there much I identified with in other religions but I also could sense the love and compassion of the God I knew at work in them.
I developed a new kind of humility towards my own beliefs, and I slowly but surely came to a place where I learned to unashamedly claim my own religious beliefs while at the same time stop short of concluding that my beliefs necessitated that anyone who did not share them be misguided at best and on the side of evil at worst. I’ve learned to tell my own religious story and to learn from the stories of others rather than to engage in debates over who possesses the one and only truth. I have also learned to judge religious beliefs less on the tenets of a particular faith and more on the ethics those tenets result in. I have discovered that dangerous and unhealthy forms of religion exist everywhere—including in my own little corner of the sacred—just as there are life-giving and healthy forms of religion everywhere.
All this sounds nice and happy, but old prejudices die hard. A few weeks ago, when the pastor of FirstBaptist Church of Dallas, TX declared at a religious political event that MittRomney was not a true Christian and a member of a cult, I knew exactly what he meant. There was a part of me that even agreed with him. Back in the 1980’s, there was a film called The God Makers going around in conservative church circles which purported to show all the crazy non-Christian beliefs of the Latter Day Saints or Mormons. I watched this film multiple times and I think I still even have the companion book that goes along with it. As I heard that Southern Baptist megachurch pastor utter his opinion of Mormons, I found myself sort of agreeing with him—which is frightening in itself, since I doubt seriously I would agree with him about anything else. My suspicions were aroused that my understanding of a fast-growing American religious movement was based upon some drastically biased secondary information.
So, in recent weeks, I’ve been trying to rethink my prejudices towards Mormons and to do a religious gut check to see what other groups I unfairly judge. I’ve been reading the writings of JoannaBrooks, a college professor, feminist and self-named “unorthodox Mormon” . She offers a critical yet loving perspective as a person who grew up Mormon and remains a part of its culture that somehow blurs the line between insider and outsider. A recent interviewwith her on the public radio show OnBeing helped me to understand and even empathize with Mormons even as it confirmed some—but by no means all—of what I thought I already knew about Mormon beliefs. Although there’s plenty about LDS or Mormon beliefs I do not share and even some things that are difficult for me to understand, I have discovered God at work in a movement that I had previously regarded as decidedly beyond redemption. Sure there are plenty of cases of unhealthy and destructive uses of religion in LDS life, but they are hardly alone in that regard—think of the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal, hate speech by Protestant Christians towards LGBT people, etc., etc., etc.
I share my experience of reevaluating Mormonism, because I think all of us need to reassess how we regard and treat people of different religious beliefs and practices. In the world we live in, religion can literally be the spark that ignites a firestorm of violence. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, I expressed my dismay at how the beliefs of Barack Obama’s Chicago church were misrepresented for political gain, in the same way, my hope is that the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney and John Huntsman will not be similarly abused. If we are truly to love our neighbors as ourselves in the way of Jesus Christ, I believe we must find ways to live in a society that is religiously pluralistic. We can be faithful in our own beliefs without operating from distorted perceptions of the beliefs held by others.
Grace and Peace,