Big Tent Mormonism

It’s not news that more and more people are leaving organized religion. Mormonism is not immune, although I think the overall growth rate  trends upward, perhaps largely because of growth in Africa. Personally, I know people who have left Mormonism. And I get why some choose to leave the church, really I do, but I still believe religion matters. Nonetheless, here I’m not going to get into why people should stay, rather I want to dig into what type of person Mormonism is meant for. The answer is, and I hope this is obvious – that Mormonism is for every type of person, and we should want them exactly as they are.

Now this sounds obvious, but I think we are too often terrible at this. There are aspects of our religion that make this kind of openness challenging. For one thing, the first Sunday of every month, we have what basically is an open-mic meeting we call “Fast and Testimony”. For about 30 to 35 minutes of this meeting, random members of the audience, at their own discretion, get up to extemporaneously share something of themselves. Needless to say this can be interesting and beautiful and strange and everything in between. We also rely on lay leadership. Nobody except for, I suppose, the very top leadership, gets paid. In congregations throughout the world, men and women give up precious hours of their own time to pitch in to the church congregation to make it run. Additionally, you cannot choose your congregation, you attend based on where you live. And then every member is asked to visit and serve and befriend other members in that congregation. This all requires some number of highly-functioning, engaged, committed enough to spend hours of their own time individuals to make this all work.

But it’s challenging to accept everyone because everyone is difficult, some more than others. We naturally want to be with people just like us. And church is not a building, it’s made up of people and relationships, working and serving each other. Sometimes we simply do not fit in to the ward we’re assigned, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps we find that we’re politically liberal in a congregation filled with nothing but Glenn Beck listeners. Or we can’t quite accept polygamy was ever of God and wonder how a prophet could have introduced it over his wife’s objections. Or we’re upset that women don’t have more of an equal seat at the table. Or we have a gay brother who will have to fight and work and demand acceptance. Or we struggle with employment or poverty in a congregation filled with those with more success. Or when we’ve been down, we’ve looked at pornography and can’t stomach the shame and the guilt that can come attending church after having done so. Or we just can’t kick the cigarette habit and are afraid others may smell the smoke on us. I could go on and on and on.

But Mormonism needs every one of us and our messy lives and our imperfections and our crazy ideas and our diversity. We all need each other. A few quotes:

“Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service” President Hinckley (meeting, Nairobi, Kenya, 17 Feb. 1998).

“If you experience the pain of exclusion at church from someone who is frightened at your difference, please don’t leave or become inactive. You may think you are voting with your feet, that you are making a statement by leaving. [Some may] see your diversity as a problem to be fixed, as a flaw to be corrected or erased. If you are gone, they don’t have to deal with you anymore. I want you to know that your diversity is a more valuable statement.”
-Chieko N. Okazaki

“Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity. Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg Machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg Machine. In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide. Charity is a willingness to have our lives made difficult by people we did not have to help, objects we did not have to save, thoughts we did not have to think. Theology is gratuitous because theology is grace, and grace, by definition, is unearned, unwarranted, unnecessary, unconditional, gratuitous. Theology is free. Theology isn’t gratuitous because it receives without giving but because it gives without thought of return.” – Adam Miller from Rube Goldberg Machines

And finally, the baptismal covenant:

8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
Mosiah 18:8-10

So, let me offer a caveat. I think the one general condition is a willingness to participate in good faith in a way that’s cooperative and faith-promoting. I get why the church would not tolerate those who are disruptive or dangerous. But beyond the most extreme examples, yes, we need each other…

3 Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;

D&C 4:3

And that’s it. Mormonism at its core requires desire, a desire to serve God and that’s basically it.  A desire to serve in our imperfections.