Why David Brooks is Wrong about The Book of Mormon Musical

In “Creed or Chaos,” today’s column on The Book of Mormon musical, David Brooks criticizes not the musical (which he thoroughly enjoyed) but its good-natured rejection of rigid and literalistic belief claims.

According to Brooks, it’s creedalism—insistence on orthodox professions of doctrine—and rigorous theology that give religions like Mormonism their power. With the only other alternative to creedalism, as the title suggests, being, well, irredeemable chaos.

But Brooks has it all wrong: Mormonism is not a creedal religion.

There is no catechism or creed Mormons must ascribe to when we are baptized into the LDS Church. The Book of Mormon itself teaches (in Mosiah 18, for those of you who have a copy) that being baptized is first and foremost an expression of desire and willingness to belong.

No one was more suspicious of creedalism than Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, who once said, “Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty to believe how I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled.”

Smith viewed the Mormon belief in continuing revelation—the idea that truth will continue to unfold as people of faith live their lives and gain experience—as inimical to creedalism.

Nor does Mormonism have anything approaching a rigorous, scholastic theology. It’s a lay church, run almost entirely by lay people, with no professional seminaries.

It is true—as Brooks observes—that many Mormons profess a literal belief in our tradition’s doctrines that often gives Mormonism a special intensity.

But even in the LDS Church, orthodox literal believers are a minority. The LDS Church counts 14 million members of record worldwide. It’s reported that less than 20% of those members attend church once a month. And even among active members, not everyone professes an orthodox, literal belief in the totality of Mormon doctrine.

And yet all 14 million members count as Mormons—to the Church, and to me too.

For what I’ve learned in a lifetime as a Mormon is that what gives religion its power is the very hunger to belong and the transformative relationships that grow from that shared hunger.

David Brooks says that “vague, uplifting, non-doctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last.” If Brooks were to attend his local Mormon congregation for a few months or years, he’d see how wrong he actually is.