by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
Your recent post included a comment saying that caffeine will keep you out of the Mormon temple. That isn't exactly true; only coffee or tea will keep you out. Coke, Dr. Pepper, Mt. Dew and even Red Bull are ok; only tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and tea are specifically prohibited.
You're also seeing a decrease in excommunications, as the leadership is learning that very few people who are excommunicated come back to the church. They might be disfellowshipped (still technically members, but prohibited from participating in services) but are only excommunicated in extreme cases.
Another complicates the view of Mormons further:
Residents of Independence, Missouri, the first "Zion" named by Joseph Smith, are neighbors with an entire denomination of "Jack Mormons". It is a Mormon "Bizzaro World" where the Book of Mormon is routinely quoted on Sundays, yet in congregations often pastored by ordained women, where coffee is served after church, where they are actively considering greater inclusion of gays in church life, and where their very unique temple, open to all visitors, dominates the Independence skyline. Formerly called "The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," and now called "The Community of Christ," the church was led for 120 years by the son, grandsons, and great-grandson of Joseph Smith by his first (and they would say, only) wife. Founded in opposition to the polygamy-promoting Brigham Young, the church has grown to 250,000 members in 50 countries, and has traditionally sought a role within the larger Christian community. Interestingly, women even serve on their version of a "First Presidency" and "Quorum of Twelve Apostles."
I have to take issue with some of your reader's comments about liberalization and evolution within the Mormon church, and about the place for Jack Mormons in this church. I, like him, grew up in Utah. I, like him, am gay, and have not been an active church-goer for 15 years now. But unlike him, I do see tremendous amounts of diversity of thought in Mormonism – and room for it within the institutional church. Your reader says he does not see a movement like Reform Judaism coming out of Mormonism because of the church's tradition of strict adherence to black-and-white rules. He is wrong for several reasons.
First, Judaism has the advantage of being thousands of years older than Mormonism, so it's had much more time to branch and grow and shift and ebb and flow into the full spectrum it is today.
Second, Mormonism already has a history that is much less rigid than the current church might suggest.
Until the mid-20th century, Mormonism was a much more flexible, open-source, bring-your-own-beliefs type of faith. Starting in the 1920s but really ramping up in the '50s, the institutional church implemented a program called the Priesthood Correlation Program. Known today widely as just Correlation, it was an effort to rein in all the divergent theologies and doctrines rampant among Mormon congregations as the church spread beyond the "Book of Mormon Belt" of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, and southern California. Before Correlation, top leaders of the church often bickered and debated very publicly about specifics of doctrine or theology.
Brigham Young especially had some really interesting, controversial theories, such as the Adam-God theory (that Adam himself was God in a human body), which other church presidents and leaders have denounced or disavowed. Brigham and one of his apostles also famously argued about the question of "eternal progression," which holds that all beings spend the eternities constantly growing, learning, and progressing. Since part of that progression includes the possibility of our own godhood someday, it stands to reason that God himself is still progressing and is not yet perfect. In the early days of the LDS church, some Mormons embraced that idea as a beautiful reminder that, just like ourselves, God is still growing and getting better and better; others found the implication that God was less-than-perfect blasphemous.
The point is that, in those days, it was perfectly acceptable to argue and debate points of theology, even with the Prophet himself, even in public. Mormonism was a spiritual framework, a cultural identity, a mindset, and a movement, and every person brought his or her own viewpoints and spiritual insights to that movement.
Which brings me to my third rebuttal of your reader. A budding movement of "uncorrelated" Mormons has been around for several decades, and seems to be having a major moment of its own right now. It's been spurred largely by the Internet and the unprecedented availability of information about the church's history, doctrines, politics, etc. (Mountain Meadows Massacre, Adam-God, Prop 8, Joseph Smith's polygamy and polyandry, genetic and archaeological in the Book of Mormon, to name only a tiny fraction).
I am addicted to a podcast called Mormon Stories, which looks at the dramatic tapestry of lives that make up modern Mormonism – gay Mormons, feminist Mormons, intellectual Mormons, liberal Mormons, orthodox Mormons… One of the foremost bloggers in the Mormon blogosphere – known often as the Bloggernacle – is Joanna Brooks, a brilliant, pro-gay, feminist Mormon herself. A Mormon stake in the Bay Area (a stake is like a diocese) recently called an openly and unrepentantly gay man to a high-profile position within his congregation.
In this Mormon moment, many of us who have strong historical, familial, cultural, and, yes, in some ways spiritual ties to Mormonism are finding plenty of opportunities to reclaim a Mormon identity for ourselves, even if we don't embrace all the quirks of the theology, the politics, or the orthodoxy. Your reader wrote, "I might be considered a Jack Mormon (except of course as a gay man who long ago left Mormonism behind, I doubt I’d be granted that status)." But I'd argue that the Mormon community is increasingly headed in a direction where our Mormon identity is not about something that's granted to us; it's something we are free to claim as our own.