How (Not) to Understand What Mormons Believe

Shame. Shame stinging my face and burning across my ribs. That’s what I felt when I first clicked into marginal Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger’s website Top 10 Craziest Mormon Beliefs. And that’s just what Fred Karger wanted.

Karger first took aim at Mormons during and after California’s bitter Proposition 8 campaign. He used the internet to document the extent of LDS involvement in the Yes on 8 campaign, as well as to warn against potential Mormon involvement in other state LGBT equality battles.

But his new site has nothing to do with redressing the damage from Proposition 8. It’s all about using the 2012 presidential campaign to make Mormons feel ashamed just for being Mormons.

The site itself is flat and juvenile. It’s been denounced by the Los Angeles Times. (And it’s already been infiltrated by savvy Mormon folks and their allies.) But it participates in a mode of anti-Mormon mockery shared in by Bill Maher, Maureen Dowd, Harold Bloom, and the late Christhoper Hitchens. It wouldn’t be worth addressing Karger’s site alone, were it not for the fact that—as Mitt Romney puts the Gingrich surge behind him and keeps moving towards the nomination—Mormons are expecting more of the same in the year to come.

Are there racist statements in the Mormon past and polygamist dimensions of the tradition that many Mormons would like to put far, far behind us? Absolutely. Are there esoteric elements of Mormonism? Absolutely. LDS temple ceremonies especially mobilize elements of secrecy that have disappeared from most modern mainstream religious cultures. Are there exotic elements of historical Mormonism? Absolutely. Our ancestors said some things that leave even orthodox Mormons scratching their heads.

Many of the “beliefs” Karger, Maher, and others like them set up for mockery are such headscratchers, while others are fragments and remnants of Mormonism’s nineteenth-century speculative theology.

That speculative theology was what drew many people to Mormonism in the first place. Like other early Mormons, my ancestors joined the Mormon movement to escape lives of misery, toil, death, and boredom. They were working-class spiritual seekers who wanted to know not only that redemption was possible in the next life but that this life and the world around them was alive with spiritual power and meaning. An expansive cosmology, a radical take on the eternal potential of the human soul, a literal view of the gathering of the tribes and other last days phenomena—these have all been part of the Mormon worldview.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, LDS Church leaders attempted to discipline and systematize Mormon doctrine through a process known as “correlation” that gave contemporary Mormonism most of its curriculum. But vestiges of Mormonism’s richer speculative past are very much alive in our oral tradition. And although most of us know how to sort out the central beliefs and values of Mormonism from its fringe elements, some esoteric and exotic aspects of Mormonism maintain a distinctive familiarity and warmth: they remind us of the originality of this homegrown American faith tradition and its power to inspire imagination and devotion.

Is this something to be ashamed of?

Last week, my friend Lisa (who is gay) suggested, “You should just own the words weird or cult the way gay people have owned the word queer.” I think she’s right. In fact, I hope that everyone can own without shame whatever it is that relieves the misery, toil, death, and boredom of this life and makes it more inspired and more inspiring. I hope that everyone can live without being ashamed of what is not shameful.

In trying to use the 2012 presidential race to make Mormon people feel ashamed about our tradition, Karger is putting shame to the wrong political purposes. Shame directed at those who commit acts of hurt, wrongdoing, and exploitation for their acts of hurt, wrongdoing, and exploitation is an accepted part of the political lexicon. It is a way to hold people accountable. But shame directed at people for the way they believe or love achieves nothing. It feeds no one. It protects no one. It restores no one’s civil rights. It advances no progressive agenda.

May all of us—including Fred Karger—enjoy shame-free holidays and a shame-free 2012.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.