“Knowing Mormons”


A friend told me about the time a time when, back in the 1960s, he was asked, as a recent college graduate bound for seminary studies, to address his home congregation—an all-white congregation in the Midwest—about his hopes for studying for the ministry. One thing he mentioned to the congregation was his desire to be more effective as a Christian in working for racial reconciliation, specifically between whites and blacks.

An older member of the congregation was very upset with him for bringing up the issue of race. “You don’t really know what these colored people are like,” the man told him. “I hope that seminary will cure you of these liberal ideas!”

Three years later that same congregation invited my friend to preach. In his sermon he shared with the congregation some positive experiences about racial reconciliation that he had received during an extensive student internship that he had recently served at an all-black inner city church.  Afterward, the same church member was once again critical of what he said about race relations, but this time his complaint was different: “You’re just saying all these nice things about the colored people because you have spent so much time with them. You are not capable of being objective!

My friend found this very frustrating. It is one of those “You can’t win” situations. Either your views about a group are judged to be based on inadequate experience with the group, or you are seen as having too much experience. You’re either ignorant or duped.

I have felt that same kind of frustration recently with regard to my relation to Mormonism. Having published a couple of pieces lately arguing that Mormonism is not a “cult,” I am getting two kinds of angry responses. Some folks insist that I simply do not understand Mormonism. Read Walter Martin, they say. Or watch the video The God-Makers, produced in the early 1980s by Ed Decker and Dave Hunt. Or they recommend books by ex-Mormons who have become evangelicals.

Actually, I am very familiar with all of that. It was precisely my dissatisfaction with the basic approach in that kind of thing that motivated me actually to start talking to Mormons themselves—a sustained conversation that has now been going on for almost a dozen years.

Other folks see that long-term dialogue itself as the real problem. You know them too well, these people tell me. Having spent all those hours with Mormon scholars and church leaders has dulled your ability to see things clearly. They have duped you. Now you are one of their apologists.

It’s hard for folks to dupe you over many hours in discussion with them in a twelve-year period. Those of us involved in dialogue with Mormons have not only listened to what they say to us, we have also listened to what they say to each other. Not only, for example, did Elder Jeffrey Holland, one of “the Twelve” in Salt Lake City, say to me that he believes that Mormons need to put more of a central emphasis on the atoning work of Jesus Christ, completed on the Cross of Calvary—he also has been preaching that at annual General Conferences, to tens of thousands Latter-day Saints.

“You don’t really know them” and “You know them too well” are false choices. The alternative in any relationship with people with whom we disagree on eternally important matters is to listen carefully and patiently, asking questions, discerning patterns of thought—and working diligently not to bear false witness against our neighbors!