Religious Field Research -- Interview with a Mormon
There are many myths and misunderstandings about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- also known as Mormonism -- that are based in many cases on a lack of knowledge. The misunderstandings are also the result of the fact that the Mormon faith is -- to the traditional Protestant, or Catholic, or Muslim or Buddhist or Jew -- somewhat mysterious. Perhaps the Mormon faith is mysterious because it is so very different from other faiths. When there are misunderstandings about a particular philosophy or religious practice myths and even hateful stereotypes can emerge from society. In this paper some of the most common misconceptions and misunderstandings will be presented along with an interview with a Mormon, a person that will respond to questions and be authoritative in his responses.
Misconceptions / Prior Understandings / Steps to Minimize Myths
There is the ongoing belief that Mormons are prejudiced against African-Americans. Clearly it is known that since 1978 the LDS Church has been accepting Blacks into the priesthood. There is a misconception that Mormons that they are the chosen ones and only through Mormonism can a person arrive in Heaven after passing from this earth. I have learned that the official position of the Mormon Church is that all Christians will make it to Heaven providing they follow the teachings of Christ. It is common for non-Mormons to wonder why Joseph Smith was the one that God and the Angels chose to be the discoverer of the "golden plates," given that Smith was supposedly / allegedly a counterfeiter, treasure-hunter and fortune teller. Mormons have a conviction that everything in the story about Joseph Smith is true; moreover, every religion has historical origins that must be taken at face value, and Mormons are no different in that respect.
My understanding of the Mormon faith was not altered dramatically by my interview, but by digging into the research to prepare me for asking the questions I did learn more about Mormonism than I had known before. For example, in Terryl Givens' book, The Viper on the Hearth, he explains that the practice of polygamy, the belief in the "…irksome doctrine of exclusivity," and other controversial policies "…contributed to the 'Mormon problem" (Givens, 1997). Misconceptions of other religions are very common; religions other than the ones individuals believe in would naturally seem strange. For example, Christians could not be criticized for wondering why Muslims get down on their hands and knees and face east several times a day. To the average Christian, having faith, attending church services and following Christian principles (and the Ten Commandments) is enough.
Questions for a Member of the Mormon Church
The interview with David took place in the education center of a Mormon Church on a Sunday afternoon following all of that day's religious meetings and activities. David was not an officer in the church, but he was a man in his late 20s who was born and raised a Mormon and attends services regularly. David served hot herbal tea for our interview (which he did not want to be recorded on a digital recorder; so note-taking was used) and was gracious when he said "…Ask me any questions about my faith and I'll try hard to give you the most honest answer I can give based on our beliefs and based on my understanding of what we believe as a Christian Church. My answers won't necessarily be the official Church liturgy but I am fully conversant with all our Church covenants and philosophies."
Question: Mormonism is based on golden plates that Joseph Smith was said to have been led to by Angels. Why are those golden plates never seen by the public or members of the Church; and are they really buried deep in the earth in upstate New York? Also, Joseph Smith was said to be "…a counterfeiter, fortune-teller and treasure hunter" (Gordon, 2001). Why was he chosen to reveal the prophecy of the LDS Church?
David: We accept on faith that the story of how Joseph Smith was contacted by God. We also believe that the original church that was established by Jesus Christ was lost but when Joseph Smith received the calling it was a way to reestablish the Church.
Question: In the Mormon Church's website ("What Mormons Believe") is it revealed the Church has more than 13 million members in 176 countries, and the Church builds a new chapel "…every working day" (whatmormonsbelieve.org). Why would Mormons send missionaries to countries that are predominately Roman Catholic (like South American countries) or in a heavily Buddhist and Hindu nation like India?
David: I just read the other day that there are about 7,500 Mormons in India. That doesn't seem like very many in a country with over a billion people. We have missionaries in many countries.
Question: But the question skeptics might ask, is, do Mormons send missionaries to India because the Church believes Buddhism and Hinduism aren't sufficient for the moral salvation of those 1.25 billion Indians? Is that a fair question David?
David: It is a fair question and I don't mind at all. No, Mormons don't believe that any particular faith is better than any other. We just feel like we have a story to share about Jesus Christ and the need to believe in his teachings. There are more than 50,000 missionaries out there now in many countries sharing the story of Mormonism. Mormons don't go out in the world to share our story because we feel we are better than any other faith. We are committed to teaching and building new Mormon communities.
Question: Why does the Mormon Church limit the contacts that missionaries can have with their families back home? Let's say a 19-year-old from Alabama is in Australia as a missionary; surely he gets a little homesick but he can't contact his family just to get caught up?
David: That's not really true. You bring up things that are part of the myths about Mormonism. The missionaries are in fact allowed to contact their families and loved ones through emails or snail mail letters. They can call on the phone on occasion, too. In the Mormon website (Mormon.org) it says the Church wants the missionaries to "…focus wholeheartedly on serving the Lord and the people where they serve…" and they are dedicated to studying and learning and teaching people about Jesus. Too many distractions could take them away from their important assignments.
Question: There is rumor that the Mormon Church is racist against African-Americans. History shows that Bringham Young banned Backs from the priesthood in 1849 (White, 1992); and African-Americans were not allowed into the Mormon priesthood until 1978. What is the position of the Church on African-Americans?
David: All I can go by is the fact that all ethnicities are welcomed into our Church. It was unfortunate that there was a ban on Blacks becoming members of the Mormon priesthood, and of course it was very unfortunate and blatantly unkind for Blacks to be put into slavery by the United States so many years ago. Times change and people change, institutions change and churches change as well. I have Black friends who are Mormons. We share beliefs as Christians, not as one ethnicity with another ethnicity. Does that answer your question?
Question: Thank you, yes it is a fair answer. What about the rule on tithing? I know the concept of tithing is addressed in the Bible and in my parents' church they are encouraged to tithe -- donate ten percent of their earnings to the church. But what I have read states that members of the Mormon Church must tithe in order to make it to heaven -- is that true?
Answer: Tithing is a commandment, not a request. So like other denominations and religious faiths, we take a commandment to be a serious doctrine and we follow it. We see it as a privilege and an opportunity, not an unreasonable demand.
Question: So an outsider that is perhaps skeptical about your faith sees these enormous, multi-million dollar, fabulously elaborate Mormon Temples, like the one in San Diego near the freeway. Members of the church are financing these temples with their required tithes. Doesn't that seem unfair for middle class families struggling to make ends meet?
Answer: We believe in our Church doctrines and we are proud of the temples that are built, because they are a kind of calling to our faith. The golden statue on top of the highest spire on a Mormon Temple is the Angel Moroni; he is the one who showed Joseph Smith where the golden tablets were located. Today he calls all people to believe in Jesus and to join our Church.
Question: Is it true that Mormons aren't supposed to drink coffee or tea? I am enjoying this Celestial Seasonings tea you served.
Answer: That is a myth. We are asked to avoid caffeine, and alcohol. This tea as you…