Sects on the Highway

Here in the east, it’s not unusual to see Amish buggy road caution signs. Well, not so much in New Jersey, but in my somewhat frequent trips into Pennsylvania and upstate New York. On a recent trip to western Pennsylvania I mentioned to my mother that I’d never seen any Amish along the infamous route 322, where such a sign resides. Driving down 322 on my way home from that trip my wife and I passed three Amish carriages and one baby stroller. Religion has a way of surprising you along the highway. Roadside sects are not uncommon. Apart from the many biblical billboards I’ve been seeing lately, there are any number of indications that once you get out the urban areas of the nation, religion is alive and well. While driving to Ithaca, New York recently my wife and I simultaneously spotted a sign we’d never seen before. We have made this trip to upstate many times, mostly along Interstate 81. The sign was for a tourist attraction called “Historic Priesthood Restoration Site.”

Being hopelessly mainstream, we assumed this meant Catholic priesthood. The problem was, what was either historic about this area north of Scranton, or what might be this restoration? Once we found wifi access again, I learned that the priesthood referenced was that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have to keep reminding myself that Mormonism had its start in parts of upstate New York—an area so prone to religious flare ups that it was called the Burnt Over District back in the day. So Joseph Smith and Emma Hale had lived just over the border in the area of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania while Smith was working on the Book of Mormon.

A great deal of America’s religious history may be found on roadside markers. We are an inventive people when it comes to ways of exploring what we consider the divine world. Mormonism has been one of the more successful brands of American religion and although we tend to associate it with Utah now, it was a faith that grew up here in the green hills of the mid-Atlantic states. Being inveterate seekers, Homo sapiens go after new revelations with surprising aplomb. And we’re willing to change the constitution of old religions to fit new prejudices. Religion is anything but static. To test this theory simply get behind the wheel and drive out into rural America. You’ll be surprised how much you can see even at highway speeds, if you have eyes to see.

Latter-Day Scouts

Physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. And prepared. That’s what Boy Scouts are supposed to be. My attempts to become an Eagle Scout were about like my attempts to become a priest—fraught with peril from the beginning. As a child I wasn’t physically strong, for one thing. The runt of the litter, I was scrawny and often sick. Mentally awake remains a reasonable goal, as does morally straight. Such are the realities of life. Then why are the Mormons parting ways with the Scouts? In a recent Washington Post story by Samantha Schmidt, the Latter-Day Saints are formally separating from the organization now known as Scouts. Whether it’s because they now allow girls to join, or if it’s because they’ve openly permitted gays, the Scouts are no doubt becoming accommodationistic in the eyes of some. In a pluralistic world it’s the only way to survive.

Girl Scouts, on the other hand, have historically not raised the question of sexual orientation. When the social dynamics of a society disadvantage girls, it’s natural that an organization to help build confidence and positive self-attitudes should exclude boys. They have no official affiliation with any religious group. I didn’t realize until reading this article that Mormon boys were automatically part of the group formerly known as Boy Scouts. It fits the image, though. If you’ve ever been on a Boy Scout retreat, however, you know that image and reality aren’t the same thing. I dropped out of Troop 3 after frequent leadership changes frustrated me from getting beyond Tenderfoot. Besides, church was taking over more and more of my life at the time. I guess I was headed for morally straight. Our troop, after all, met in a church basement.

This is about symbolism, of course. To be a Boy Scout meant you were making an effort to be good. In fact, it was kind of hard to grow up thinking you could be good without that guidance. Boy Scouts, they used to say, helped the elderly across the street. Apparently what they do behind closed bedroom doors raises the specter of morality. When I was a kid the issue seemed to be more the mentally awake aspect. The Scouts I knew were like everybody else. There was no special purity there. I never knew anyone who made it all the way to Eagle. The Boy Scout law was like a twelve-step program: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. I wasn’t a Mormon, but the church had proved itself a rival. Especially for the reverent part.

Contemporary Scripture

Being born into a religion makes all the difference. I say this as someone who was born into a family that would now be labeled Fundamentalist. That orientation stays firm unless a reason arises to question it. And that reason must be compelling. Many today wonder how, for example, Mormons can believe the narrative of golden plates told by Joseph Smith and that led to the Book of Mormon. Like many non-LDS members, I am curious. While this isn’t the main question in Terryl L. Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, he does address it. The answer comes in the form of a community of belief. The idea is perhaps surprising in an age of individualism, but communal belief has been, historically, the mainstay of religion. A few individuals in any tradition dig deeply and ask questions. They rise into leadership roles, and steps along the way confirm their convictions. Most, however, are everyday believers.

The Book of Mormon is an interesting scripture. The idea of tribes from Israel colonizing the New World has its challenges. The Bible itself tends to go silent about what happened to the northern tribes (“Israel” proper) after the exile. This opens the door to all kinds of possibilities. Various cultures have claimed to be the remnant. Native Americans, of course, tend not to apply the idea to themselves. As Givens points out, the Book of Mormon states that the Israelites of the New World died out long ago. Probably when the Latter-Day Saints are few centuries older, it may happen that metaphorical views toward the Book of Mormon might become prevalent. It took over a millennium before “mainstream” Christians began to ask some pointed questions about their own Scriptures.

Scriptures are products of their own periods. No matter how sacred or inspired they are thought to be, they were written down in human time and human space. Hints are often left along the way regarding authorship, origin, bias, and perspective. The Book of Mormon is rare in having a known publication date, and that in the nineteenth century. Autographs—original texts—are available, even if the golden tablets are not. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a scripture come into being. We know who wrote the Book of Mormon, and when. Its printing history is known, as is its context in the Second Great Awakening. All that’s needed are a few more centuries for scholars to see how things develop. Those who study scriptures are inclined towards the long view anyway.

Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

And a Blessed New Year

A new year is always a time for predictions and prognostications. Although the religious basis for New Year’s Day is often deeply sublimated, the changing of the year is one of the oldest and most widespread holidays worldwide. Since every beginning is also an ending, experts look forward to see what might be coming. A story by Nadia Whitehead on NPR presents the opinion of Pew Research Center that over the coming years the growth rate of Islam will surpass that of atheists, based partly on procreation trends. At the same time Christianity will continue to grow, but at a slower rate than Islam. This sacred number crunching suggests that by mid-century Muslims will represent the largest world religion, surpassing Christianity for the first time. As the article states, this is merely a projection based on current trends, and new developments could completely change the dynamics. I’m sure this trend will distress some people, but popular understanding of Islam is biased through media tactics to glean more readers.

Equally troubling to some will be the suggestion that atheism, considered by many to be enlightened, simply won’t keep up. Even though the trend is growing, particularly in Europe, and to some extent in the United States, those who side with no-faith tend to have fewer children than those who do. Religions have often seen procreation as a divine mandate, leading to the kind of growth figures businesses envy. Large families with children taught the family faith from the cradle ensures rising numbers, all things being equal. Again, it comes down to the numbers. Since history of religions is not a growing field of study, many may not realize that major religions have peacefully coexisted for millennia. Globalization, however, brings differing value systems into swift and intimate contact.

Coexist

In addition to organic growth rates, religions also grow through proselytization. Some groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have been phenomenally successful in their missionary efforts. Atheists often try to convert through reason or rhetoric. Religion tends to appeal more to the emotional needs that all people share, regardless of how deeply they are repressed. Reason, in the face of personal tragedy, is cold comfort. Not many people are willing to be steely about it, to “toughening up” when fate deals a cruel blow. Better to counterstrike with a caring deity or two. Religion is so basic to humanity that it is difficult to understand how major universities and centers of learning are trying to cut back on its study. And if it might be suggested that mine is a typical humanities-lover’s response, this time I can point to the numbers. Check with Pew; you don’t have to take my word for it.

Imagining Things

Having a child in college is one way for me to stay attuned to popular culture. You can absorb quite a lot by simply paying attention while on campus. For example, on the last several visits I’ve heard the song “Demons,” by Imagine Dragons, being piped into various venues. Given the biblical language of the song, I wondered about its origins, but, like many a distracted parent, had too much on my mind to pursue it. Well, on a recent visit, the song got stuck in my head. Partially this was because during an a cappella concert the Christian group did a cover of the song. This sent me to the internet—the only place where information on contemporary culture is instantly at your fingertips—to do a bit of poking around. Secular groups, after all, frequently use biblical references unnoticed.

When I learned that two members of Imagine Dragons were from Brigham Young University, I just had to know if they were Mormons. From what I’d seen of concert photos, white shirts and ties were rather conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, it turns out, according to the web, that the group does have some LDS in its bloodstream. I’m not so naive as to think that being of a particular religious background makes rockers religious. The debates raged in college over whether U2 was a Christian group because some of them were Catholics. I don’t recall seeing any crucifixes on the album art. This is all especially intriguing because Christianity and rock-n-roll are considered by many to be natural enemies. The origins of rock in the sexually suggestive blues had many 1950’s parents quite worried.

Religion changes, however, once you get away from the parents. I’ve known Mormons that I couldn’t identify as such until they told me. I’ve known Catholics about which I still harbor doubts. Religious affiliation is sometimes purely cultural. That won’t prevent you from being excluded from consideration for a teaching position at any of their schools, however. Scholars of religion can be the greatest believers of fiction to be found. Still, I have to admit to myself that the song “Demons” does keep me coming back. I wonder if the Christian group performing the song was aware of its Mormon tinge, or if they even cared. Sometimes theology can be had for a song.

ImagineDragons

Exceptionalism

UnderTheBannerOfHeavenSome years ago I was invited to a famous person’s house along with some intellectuals—we’re all mature here, so names aren’t necessary. It’s no surprise that I ended up at the children’s table, being soft-spoken as I tend to be. The discussion had turned to international affairs, and since I can barely manage my own affairs I didn’t have much to say. Eventually it was suggested that if rule of law could take hold in the Middle East, strife would end. I finally spoke up, loudly injecting a “no” into the conversation. The problem with religious-based conflict is that the rule of law has been subordinated to the divine will. That is very well illustrated in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. As Krakauer explains in his conclusions, he had set out to write a book that explored the history and background of his polite, abstemious, and law-abiding Mormon neighbors and friends. The story, however, takes a darker turn.

What Krakauer delivers is not a slam on Mormonism, but rather something far more difficult—an attempted even-handed history. As even Mormons at the various trials depose in the book, the faith has some strange beliefs. All religions do. For a religion less than 200 years old, the Latter-Day Saints also have an impressive violence in their history; parts of this book are like a fantasy novel, they seem so unlikely. Again, nothing unusual here. All religions have violent episodes. In general, religions aren’t violent—people are. The problems arise when the true believer (and there always will be) insists that religion trumps the rule of law every time. As Krakauer shows, those who violate society’s laws are not insane. They are, however, not judging the world by the same standards of the wider society. It’s just that, occurring as it does in the light of an historical period, the strangeness of how a religion starts is clearly illuminated in Mormonism. No number of apocalyptic horsemen will be able to stop the religious imagination once it is fired up. The problem with lines in the sand is that they easily move.

Perhaps the most disturbing tenet of Joseph Smith’s latter-day revelations is that of polygamy. Like a young Augustine, Smith had an eye for the ladies. Personal indulgence at the hand of a religious founder is not at all unusual. The problem is, the women in this book have been abused and traumatized in a religion, not unlike Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that asserts (or has asserted) male superiority. Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen being married off to men three times their age to join what is essentially a harem doesn’t offer these young ladies a chance to become their own person. The majority of Krakauer’s study focuses on Fundamentalist Mormon sects, and not the mainstream Mormons who have great political power and occasionally run for president. Still, this is a very important book. It is not primarily about the Mormons. It is about those who can’t see beyond a blind faith in what would otherwise be a perfectly good piece of fantasy literature.

Equal Measure

Far off in the woods of Wisconsin sits a seminary. In these woods, I’m told, wolves eat little girls. That seminary has for decades distinguished itself by its stance against women priests. I knew of, and respectfully disagreed with this policy when I was hired to teach there in 1992. I didn’t make waves, but rollers have a way of finding you nevertheless. It doesn’t take much to capsize an unstable boat. Within my first year a student challenged me, “Did your life change forever on July 29, 1974?” I was unfamiliar with the code and asked what happened on that date, vaguely thinking perhaps it had something to do with the run-up to the Bicentennial. On that date, it turns out, Barbara Harris was ordained among the first female priests (the Philadelphia Eleven) in the Episcopal Church in the United States. I suppose my life should’ve changed—for the better—but I was a Methodist at the time. Perhaps my life changed then, for I was 12, but that change had little to do with what the student intended. Or maybe everything. I wouldn’t have had a problem with a woman priest in any case. In 1989, Harris was elected bishop, the first woman to hold that title in the Anglican communion. Just three years later I found myself in the lion’s den.

When I asked male students what their problem was with women priests the answer invariably pointed to three factors: Jesus had no women disciples (wrong, according to a certain sacred book they claim to have revered), the Roman Catholic church did not ordain women, and the Church of England did not ordain women. The problem with backing and filling is that filling always overtakes backing. By 1994 the Church of England was ordaining women. Yesterday, at long last, the General Synod approved of female bishops. Welcome to the twentieth century. Now only Rome stands in the way. I am confident, despite the certitude in the eyes of my Nashotah interlocutor, that Rome will eventually come around. I may not live to see it, but justice will be served.

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

There is good evidence that most religions, prior to the monotheistic triad, had women priests. Something about the singularity of deity seems to have contraindicated a protective mother in the psyche of male clergy. Ironically, the same day that the C of E decided to do what was right, Oxford University Press’s blog ran a post on Mormon women bloggers. Among the newest monotheistic faiths, like the traditions before it, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has not recognized the sacerdotal role of women, leading some to be excommunicated for speaking out. We are told that God is a jealous god. This is, after all, the wilderness. After yesterday’s long-awaited decision the woods seem a little less dense, and the threat of the wolves may have been exaggerated all along. If religions would only see people as people all our lives might just change forever.

Myth-story

ChristMythTheoryEither there was, or there wasn’t. An historical Jesus, I mean. I just finished reading Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, and I have to admit that it raises some interesting points. In short, Price positions himself among the Christ Myth school—scholars who doubt that there was an historical Jesus. This proposition may come as a shock to many who are raised never to question the orthodoxy of religion handed down from parent to child. Given the popularity of Christianity worldwide, it may seems like a difficult premise to accept. Price suggests that the figure of Jesus might’ve been a midrash (commentary) on Hebrew Bible texts. When you look closely at many of the Gospel episodes, they are couched in language from the Hebrew Bible, and for those familiar with ancient midrash, the elaborations he proposes aren’t that far-fetched. The real question, for me, is a bit more broadly based—how do we ever know what really happened? Religions, as I suggested yesterday, are echoes from the past. The past, despite the internet, is inaccessible to us beyond what ambitious writers and artisans have left behind for us. The bulk of making history is interpretation.

This should give us pause. Yes, there are undeniable events, witnessed and recorded by many. What really happened, however, is an atomistic enterprise. Take Lincoln’s assassination, for example. It happened, we’re pretty sure. What happened, we reconstruct from what we have left for us in witness accounts. But as National Treasure 2 shows, a little imagination can throw the whole picture askew. Or even closer to our own time—what really happened at John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Some of the facts we have, others we never will. Some posit high-level withholding of information. Try to put that together with a truly messianic figure that some claim is actually divine. The Gospels differ a bit on the details, particularly after Jesus’ execution. What really happened? A harmonization of the Gospels? Anything at all? Who was there to see it?

Religions are deeply tied to past events. Even the modern religions that are constantly emerging—new ones are formed on a nearly daily basis—soon distinguish themselves because of their histories. To get at those histories that we didn’t witness, we need to rely on the records of those who did. Some of those religions just won’t take off—the Shakers, for example, are slowing going extinct. The Oneida Community is already gone. Others, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, scrape the stratosphere with their success. And these are just examples of religions from the Second Great Awakening. Did Joseph Smith really meet all those figures he claimed? How can we know? When it comes to Jesus, we might think we’re on solid ground (as Smith would agree, if he existed). Price asks us to consider that assumption anew. Direct evidence may not be plentiful, but on the strength of ancillary evidence, most of us see Jesus as historical. Of his life we have very little. What you make of him, however, is a question of faith. And interpretation.

Heilige Geist

Poltergeist is one of those movies that evokes mixed emotions. Sure, it was one of the really scary ones when it just came out, and the rumors of a curse after the tragic early death of Heather O’Rourke probably added to the mystique. I actually didn’t see the movie until over a decade had passed since its release. It came out when I was in college, and I didn’t often splurge to see a movie in those days. VCRs were still expensive and your only real option was to rent a movie. In any case, a few years back I bought a cheap DVD and, after having seen many horror movies, it felt a little tame. And the ending was over-the-top. I have a theory that being unemployed makes you vulnerable to suggestion. Over the weekend I was looking for a movie I could watch for free on Amazon Prime, when Poltergeist II showed up. I hadn’t even realized that there had been a sequel, and after watching it, I think I understand why the movie was buried.

Poltergeist-2-the-other-side

Poltergeist II: The Other Side picks up where the original left off. An added character, Taylor, a Native American shaman, brings good spirits to the Freeling family as the original poltergeists start to haunt Diane’s mother’s house, where they are staying. Interestingly, the ghosts are revealed to be those of a traveling, apocalyptic preacher and his followers. The preacher, Henry Kane, led his group to the desert where they awaited the end of the world and then died after it did not come. They were apparently the ghosts haunting the original Freeling house, and not those of the “Indian burial ground” that the first movie touted. Taylor brings the healing, Native American spirits into the conflict and they win out over the Christian sect ghosts. All of this was becoming more unbelievably campy until Carol Anne was rescued by her now deceased grandmother, in the form of an angel. This mythological cocktail left me feeling a bit dizzy.

Some interesting subtexts floated through this film. Native Americans were now good, rather than the haunting spirits of the first movie. Kane’s sect, which had to be a veiled reference to the Latter Day Saints, showed Christian millennialists as the truly dangerous otherworldly residents. Kane is a preacher (and Mezcal worm) that doesn’t really want to pass over into the light. Why he travels all the way to Phoenix to try to pick up a nine-year-old girl isn’t really clearly explained. Horror movies, of course, frequently make use of religion as a vehicle for what truly frightens. Often it is religion misunderstood. Kane was not a believable character, in this case, without the abject cynicism of an unholy ghost who traveled to the desert southwest to set up a new religion. Once Mormonism breaks into the mainstream, perhaps I’ll have the stomach to watch Poltergeist III and see where the evil shifts the next time.

Mr. Hubbard’s Legacy

churchofscientology As a child just discovering the joys of reading in the early 1970s, I found science fiction captivating. We were poor, and our town had no library, so I’d buy my books on Saturday trips to Goodwill. In other words, you take what you can get. I recall buying a book by a guy named L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t remember the title or the story, but I recall my surprise when, as a religion major some years later, I learned that this same sci-fi author had started a new religion. Scientology was not something you’d likely encounter in a poverty-stricken, sub-Appalachian town in rural Pennsylvania, and with no Internet it wasn’t so easy to learn about such things even if you had. We did have TV, though, and we watched Welcome Back Kotter (Risky Business was a little too risky). When I discovered that John Travolta (“Vinnie” as we thought of him) was a Scientologist, I was curious. But only to a degree. When I first taught World Religions and spent a few years researching the Scopes Trial for a book I never had the chance to write, I became very interested in American religions. They don’t come much more American than Scientology (and Latter-Day Saints).

As soon as Hugh B. Urban’s book The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion appeared, it immediately went onto my reading list. Like most interested laity, I’d found it difficult to trust much of what I’d read on the Church of Scientology from media sources. Now I had a reliable guide! Even better, Urban frames his study around a question that pervades this blog: who gets to decide what is a religion? As Urban deftly points out, it is odd that government agencies are often those tasked with a job more fitting for those of us who’ve studied religion with the rigor that a physicist devotes to quarks and neutrinos. Some of us have parsed religious texts to bare bones and then dug up the skeletons beneath and examined their ossified remains as well. The world doesn’t take religion studies too seriously, however.

Urban’s book, well written and solidly researched, maintains that rarest of academic feats: objectivity. When approaching a religion, particularly a controversial one, emotions are easily engaged and objectivity is challenged. While confessing that he isn’t a Scientologist, Urban lets the historical facts speak for themselves. He doesn’t try to belittle those he studies, but he doesn’t coddle either. Reading his fascinating account, many questions are raised about the rights of religions and the role that secrecy plays. And we know that Urban is only skating across the surface of a deep and mysterious pond here. Sitting in my room with a yellowed, used copy of some L. Ron Hubbard pulp fiction story in my hands, I would’ve never guessed, as a child, what I was really holding.

To Obey the Scout Law

Society’s prurient interests have been on display again with the intense media blitz concerning Boy Scouts of America and the fraught issue of sexual orientation. As is to be expected, certain religious bodies have sounded the final trump once again as they frenetically posture against equality. The story is so old it is difficult to see how it counts as news. When I saw that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the oldest sponsor of Boy Scouts and the denomination with the highest numbers) had made a statement about the issue, I almost didn’t even click on the link. We already know the official stance of such conservative groups, right? So I was genuinely surprised when I saw the note. This Mormon Church has no problem with the admission of homosexual boys since, and rightly so for a youth organization, the members are expected to behave according to the code of conduct. That code forbids sexual relationships, no matter a boy’s orientation, no matter with whom.

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We all know that ideals are seldom observed. We should lead by example. I spent my high school years deeply involved in the feeder program for future clergy in a major Christian denomination (the one with the second highest number of Scouts). The youth programs frequently involved having hundreds of youths together for multi-day events. Chaperoned, of course. But kids with active hormones are about the most clever creatures on the planet. I frequently heard that opportunities to find some time alone with your favorite “spiritual advisor” were not difficult to arrange. And when I enrolled in a program to study for the ministry officially, I learned that the name seminary was somehow overly appropriate. Codes of conduct exist for a reason, and those who hold to them reward the trust of adults who institute them. Society can’t operate without such rules. What happens in reality, however, is a different matter. Anyone who reads the headlines can see that.

I applaud the Mormon Church’s stance on this issue. The Boy Scouts is a social organization with nary a merit badge for sexual knowledge or experience (at least not in the Handbooks I’ve seen). Those matters, as with adults, are private. Religious groups often act as if admitting admitted homosexuals somehow changes the Jamboree into a Woodstock. The problem is with the imagination of puritan adults. The solution to the anxiety is rather simple. For those concerned, volunteer to lead a troop. Attend a meeting. See what actually goes on. The fact is, kids will be kids, and making rules to satisfy uptight adults will not change that. Many groups could learn from the Mormons here: Scouting is not about sex. It takes the imagination of adults to make it so. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys.

Believer’s Market

It seems that the world has lost another messiah. Sun Myung Moon, founder and leader of the Unification Church, died yesterday in South Korea. When I was younger “the Moonies” were known as a cult, but scholars of religion have abandoned both terms (Moonies and cult) as pejorative ways of referring to alternative religious beliefs. Monotheistic religions tend to be, by their nature, supersessionistic. They claim that they are the final revelation, but then as the world ages new religions appear and those of more time-honored traditions wonder how to define the new-comers. Accompanying the speed of technological development, religious developments keep apace. Now we are so accustomed to a world full of religions and most people are ill-equipped to tell the difference. Other than the highly public mass marriages, what can the average non-Unificationist tell you about the religion?

This dynamic illustrates a basic fact of human beings—we are meaning-seeking creatures. Founders of New Religious Movements, often convinced that they have something valuable to offer, seldom have difficulty locating followers. We are not trained to think for ourselves in religious matters; in fact, most religions would prefer to have unquestioning followers. Not based on the same logic as physics or mathematics, religions are easily backed into the “it’s a mystery” corner when logic breaks down. That is not to suggest that logic is the only way to know the world, but it does mean that the choice of correct religion often comes down to a feeling, an emotional satisfaction. Problems frequently arise when practitioners of a religion mistake it for science (or when a religion itself makes that mistake).

Over time the New Religious Movements that survive become benign elements of the religious landscape. Although many Americans are still scratching their heads about what exactly Mormons are, they are certainly nothing new or unusual. As a religion the Latter Day Saints are less than two centuries old, but since many people have trouble distinguishing a Baptist from a Presbyterian (on a theological level—the political spectrum is fully represented in both traditions) and could tell you very little about when either tradition began, what do they know of Joseph Smith’s followers? We are far too busy to spend time researching religion. Most people stay with the one they’re born into, and every few years a new one makes it onto the radar of public awareness. The Unification Church, which has at least five million members, may or may not survive the death of its messiah. Either way, there will be plenty of new options for anyone shopping around for a new faith.

Burned Over

Western and central New York State, in any religious history of America, have acquired the nickname, “The Burned-Over District.”  This graphic metaphor arises from the constant evangelizing and, more importantly, the fertile soil for new religious movements left in its wake.  This region could claim to be the home of Seventh-Day Adventism, Spiritualism, the Oneida Society, and the Latter-Day Saints.  It was also an early home of the Shakers and the land chosen by the Publick Universal Friend for her new Jerusalem.  The sense of place is important to religions.  The Latter-Day Saints, however, grew restless in this region where Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and began a torturous trek that would land the Mormons in Utah.  Joseph Smith never made it that far.  Religious leaders being persecuted are nothing new; Smith had been tarred and feathered, was wanted on charges of fraud, and was eventually murdered for his beliefs.  He was also one of the most intensely creative individuals America has produced. His extraordinary creative venture is often overshadowed by the religion that grew out of it.

With Mitt Romeny’s campaign stoking up steam, many people find themselves wondering about Mormonism.  I first learned about the Latter-Day Saints from a rather biased World Religions course at Grove City College.  One aspect which was true in that course, however, was the great secrecy surrounding Mormon teachings. Of course, the Book of Mormon is in the public domain and is easily available to those who wish to read it.  Official Latter-Day Saint beliefs, on the other hand, are frequently inscrutable.  For all its problems (and they are sometimes significant), mainstream Christianity is very open (and often vocal) about its belief system.  The same holds true for Judaism (mostly) and Islam.  If you want to know what they believe, just ask.  Americans tend to be a little perplexed by the Latter-Day Saints because there is always a feeling that there is something they’re not telling you.  It goes all the way down to the underwear.  All religions are concerned with sex.  Some may not disclose the details in public, but they all deal with it somehow.  Latter-Day Saints have rules about underwear–I’m sure other religions do too.

If Americans are really, seriously curious about the religious heritage of a potential president, a great way to find out is to read a bit of our own history.  I learned about the Burned-Over District back in college and have periodically read about it several times since then.  It is no secret.  Our society is not likely to expend the energy needed to learn about its own heritage.  As several of my recent posts have intimated, even higher education has no time for the study of religion (or history, or anything that doesn’t make money–Romney surely does!). Instead we will charge fearlessly ahead into the dark.  And when we are in the dark we may start to wonder why we’re wearing this unusual underwear. Wondering about religion is far easier than supporting those who study it.

Have you seen this man?

Scared Mittless

Once again Time magazine has presented an article where the intelligent are left scratching their heads about religion. Jon Meacham’s Commentary, “An Unholy War,” details how evangelical concerns about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has an undue weight in regard to his presidential candidacy. For many years the media industry has considered religion passé and without teeth. Sure, the street-corner preacher can still give you a good gumming, but it is rarely fatal. What those who’ve never felt the utter urgency of religion can’t appreciate is, well, its utter urgency. In a day when Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns are wired up to electrodes and told to find that spiritual sweet spot, it is easy to forget that these aren’t just laboratory fictions. For many people in the world, their religious experiences are very important and of sometimes deadly—sometimes eternal—consequence. The sophisticated, the educated, laugh it off as so much hoodoo, and try to get on with human progress. For those raised religious, however, escape is neither easy nor desirable. Those in positions of actually influencing the public need to recognize that religion is not a luxury, a trapping that might be cast off. It is a life choice cast in iron.

Just as serious as the analysis of religion is the incredible influence of religious teaching itself. Take a young child, barely old enough to understand death, and tell him or her that the worst thing they can imagine just can’t compare with the torment God has cooked up for those who step out of line. Repeat. At least once a week. When said child becomes an adult, these early ideas are deeply embedded. Since the 1980s elections in the United States have been restyled as religion popularity contests. With eternal consequences riding on the ballot, political analysts ought to be required to have had taken at least Religion 101. Probably a few upper-level courses would also help. Despite the optimism of scientists and academics, religion is not going away. The reluctance to take it seriously will not diminish its power in people’s lives.

As became very clear reading Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs, it has only transpired that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints has been recognized as un-culted for less than a hundred years. As a relatively new religion, Mormonism was a “cult” until it had survived long enough to gather a band of respectable followers, such as Mitt Romney. Many Christian groups, particularly evangelical ones, have not released their perception of Mormonism as a cult. Romney, in their eyes, is effectively as pagan as Obama. Their votes, as the eight-year nightmare of the Bush administration demonstrates, can decide elections. Still, we the sophisticated laugh off the country rubes who still believe in God. And although we don’t believe in it, we already have, and may well once again, come to suffer through Hell to show just how educated we are.