Friday, 21 February 2014

The Mormonisation of Christianity

I've been thinking about writing an article on this topic of "the Mormonisation of Christianity" for some time now.  I see this phrase as describing something that's been going on in a wide variety of Christian churches (particularly in the "evangelical" churches and in the conservative wing of many mainstream churches) since the early 1980s. 

"The Mormonisation of Christianity" is the phrase I use to describe the situation where many Christians believe they are obliged - as a matter of Christian duty - to take the most conservative position possible on any issue that relates to gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  It's about the situation where many Christians believe that their fellow-Christians somehow deny their faith when they do not take the most conservative position possible on any issue that relates to gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  It frequently seems to be a "package deal".  And, whenever and wherever this happens a lot, I say that "the Mormonisation of Christianity" is going on.

Now, I'm not trying to be negative here about Mormons.  I like Mormons.  As an ecumenical staffer, I enjoy getting invitations to Latter-Day Saints functions.  I look forward to attending these gatherings.  I almost always try to re-arrange my schedule so that I can attend them.  My problem with the LDS is merely with the fact that Mormons almost always take the most conservative position possible on any issue that relates to gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  And that's not always very helpful in terms of relating the Christian faith to the wider community. 

And whenever other Christians, whether evangelical or mainstream, take a similarly predictably conservative (and similarly unhelpful) position on a whole range of issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics, I think about Mormons.  And, thus, I call it "the Mormonisation of Christianity".

Let's leave the LDS for a moment.  But I'll return to them later.  The historical background of their ethical position is rather interesting.

Historically, there was a time when things were different.  This process I call the "Mormonisation  of Christianity" began in earnest in the early 1980s.  During that time, many conservative Christians in countries around the world were moving toward a more deliberate style of networking with conservative Christians in other denominations, largely under the influence of political groups trying to mobilise what has since been called "the Religious Right".  And, for the most part, this networking has been of a political nature rather than an ecumenical one, with a strong emphasis on influencing public policy and with very little growth in the relationship between evangelical "Protestants" and Catholics (either conservative "Brideshead Catholics" or mainstream "Vatican II Catholics") in areas of faith and spirituality.

One thing that took place as part of this process, beginning in the early 1980s, was that conservatives within a range of denominations picked up each other's issues.
  • Evangelicals "discovered" the anti-abortion movement, which had been pretty much exclusively a Catholic concern until the '80s.  (And, to be fair, abortion is not only a concern for conservative "Brideshead Catholics".  Among the Catholics I know, liberal and middle-of-the-road "Vatican II Catholics" have a similar attitude toward abortion as conservative Catholics.)
  • Conservatives within the Catholic Church reemphasised some of their church's traditional criticism of homosexuality, which had become rather low-key for much of the 20th century.
But, while they picked up each other's issues, they still "did" them very differently.

For example, there always seemed to be a difference in the motivation for different conservative Christians to oppose abortion.
  • For most Roman Catholics (whether conservative "Brideshead Catholics" or normal "Vatican II Catholics), their opposition to abortion seemed mainly to be grounded in a feeling of compassion for the fetus.
  • For many evangelicals, there always seemed to be a primary motivation of hostility to the women having the abortions, the doctors performing the abortions, the staff assisting, and the judges and politicians who enabled the process; with the well-being of the fetus being almost an afterthought.
Similar comments could be made about the approaches of different groups of conservative Christians toward homosexuality.  For conservative Catholics, the approach is much more theological and philosophical with heavyweight medieval theologians and ancient philosophers frequently brought into the argument.  For evangelicals, there seems to be far less Aristotle and far more locker-room homophobia in their approach.

Importantly, though, for conservative Christians, whether Catholic or "Protestant", there always seems to be a real sense of a "package deal" in responding to a range of issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  If you take a conservative view of your faith, you're generally expected to take a pretty conservative view on the whole range of these issues.

At the same time, for less conservative Christians within the ecumenical mainstream (mainstream "Vatican II Catholics", most mainstream non-evangelical "Protestants" and Anglicans ...), for the most part, we were fairly quiet on many of these issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  (We sometimes faced these issues as "in-house" matters in our church communities, but we did not, for the most part, address these issues in speaking with the wider community.)
  • For those of us (whether ordained or lay) who studied theology, there was a strong realisation that issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or bioethics were not high on the theological radar for Jesus or for the gospel writers. 
  • For the average lay person, his/her commitment to middle-class "niceness" also led to a commitment to an inclusive church in which people of "all sorts and conditions" are welcome, regardless of their marital status, sexuality, etc. 
  • As well, the average lay person's commitment to middle-class respectability frequently led to an impatience with those (on either the theological "right" or the theological "left") who argue excessively about issues of gender, sex, marriage, or bioethics. 
Crucially, for those who are not part of the "religious right", there is far less of a "package deal" in our responses to the whole range of issues.  For example, among a worshipping congregation of mainstream, ecumenical Christians, whatever the denomination, the same individual could simultaneously be:
  • strongly supportive of a greater acceptance regarding couples cohabiting before marriage, divorced and remarried people, and people in same-gender relationships
  • ambivalent in her/his views regarding abortion, and,
  • holding markedly conservative views in terms of euthanasia;
while another person in the same congregation could hold to a radically different cluster of opinions.

And, in doing so, neither individual would not necessarily feel any sense of inner conflict, as there was no real necessity to hold a particular "package deal" of opinions.

This sense of a "package deal" is important as we briefly return to thinking about the Mormons.  Historically, the Latter Day-Saints faced a crisis in the late 19th century.  The Territory of Utah, where most Mormons lived, was applying for statehood in the United States.  The Mormon practice of polygamy was a definite barrier to Utah becoming a state.  In 1890, the LDS Church ended its practice of polygamy, leading to Utah's statehood six years later. 

However, the earlier Mormon practice of polygamy still dominated popular perceptions of members of the LDS Church.  In their search for social acceptance and political approval, the leadership of the Latter-Day Saints strongly emphasised Mormon "normality", particularly the closeness and stability of LDS families.  For much of the century that followed, so as to counter the 19th century's popular cultural image of the Mormon man as a randy polygamist, a "package deal" soon developed for 20th century Mormons  involving making the most conservative responses possible to a range of issues relating to gender, sex, marriage, or bioethics.  Whether this was a conscious PR move or not, it worked.  Both in the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the Latter-Day Saints moved from being a fringe sect to becoming part of the conservative "establishment".

And, thus, when many conservative Christians in the 1980s developed a "package deal" of issues of personal ethics ranging from pre-marital cohabitation to euthanasia, it recalled the earlier Mormon "package deal".  For many conservative Christians, it became a way to exert influence upon politicians.  For many Christians who were not so conservative, many people's perception that "the churches" were all supporters of "the religious right" became one more cultural factor leading to the marginalisation of the mainstream churches and, as a result, to the growing secularisation of the culture.

In my opinion, this period of "the Mormonisation of Christianity" may soon be drawing to an end.  I date the end of this period to an incident that took place last year.  On a flight from Brazil to Rome, a journalist asked Pope Francis a question about homosexuality.  The pope's initial response was a simple, "Who am I to judge?"

This simple and Christlike response was, in my opinion, a healthy sign.  I believe Francis was saying that, whether he himself took a conservative view or a more accepting view on any particular social issue, his role (and the role of all church leaders) was to be a pastor rather than a cultural warrior.  I believe (or, at least, I hope) that, by making this simple statement, Pope Francis announced the beginning of the end of the "Mormonisation of Christianity".

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.