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.

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.

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

Fundamental Fear

Something truly scary landed on my desk. Working for an organization that has many different departments, there’s no way to know everyone. So when something bible-ish arrives in the mail, it gets directed to me. Now, I don’t follow the afterlife of creepy religious people through prison, so it took a few minutes to remember who Warren Jeffs is. I knew I’d read about him but I couldn’t remember where. Then I remembered the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jeffs was once the head of this church before being put into prison for child sexual assault crimes. So why had he sent a copy of Jesus Christ Message to All Nations to my publishing house? It is already published, and it is rather modeled on the Bible, at least at a surface level. No letter, no instructions. Just a book that I felt I needed to wash my hands after touching.

IMG_2571

I’d not heard of this book before. The author is boldly listed as Jesus Christ. “President Warren S. Jeffs, Mouthpiece of God” it says, given credit for, I suppose, putting pen to paper. What’s to prevent me, I wondered, from claiming God wrote what I framed into words? It is far too easy a claim to make and the credulous follow where the bold lead. That’s the way human authority, unfortunately, often works. Someone with a surfeit of testosterone declares that he speaks with absolute authority—I think of angry atheists as well as televangelists here. Such sense of irrational conviction must feel god-like. I can only guess from the sidelines. And I wonder about those who wrote what are recognized as scriptures in other religions.

Did those who wrote the books of the Bible, for instance, ever feel that they were writing unquestioned truth? Might they not have been a bit more circumspect? Maybe they were writing in the heat of inspiration, but not with the confidence of claiming divinity. Somehow I doubt even that. Writing is a human activity. The creator of an entire universe shouldn’t need to use it. Still, religions are often built around written texts. Parts of the New Testament claim to come from Jesus of Nazareth, although he’s not the actual writer. I guess he must have been working on later works of which I’ve never heard. And I do wonder how the doctrine of the faulty vessel applies in cases like this. I know better than to ask a Fundamentalist of any stripe, because I already know the answer they would give.

Going In, Coming Out

Being primates, perhaps it is no surprise that we are fascinated by who is doing whom. We, literally, by nature, find sexual alliances fascinating. Despite the fact that close observation of nature has indicated that homosexuality is indeed natural—it has been observed in many species, and isn’t even limited to mammals—we can’t help but make it a deciding factor in what an individual is. Two unrelated news stories over the past week have focused on homosexuality as the overwhelmingly defining trait of a person. In the first story, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has elected its first openly gay bishop. (Gay bishops, even in the pre-Reformation church, have not been exactly an endangered species.) The Rev. Dr. Guy Erwin, however, is so much more than a partnered gay man. He is a highly educated person who had held that most rare of positions—a bona fide academic position in higher education. He is also a member of the Osage Nation. His election as a Native American or as an academic would not be newsworthy. His orientation, well, that’s a whole different story.

Meanwhile, across the planet, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is cutting its ties with the Boys Scouts of America because the BSA has decided to make honest men of its boys. BSA has recently voted to allow gay boys to remain in the Scouts, something that the Mormons had no problem accepting. Quite apart from the misguided SBC move, I was saddened to see CNN’s inaccurate headline, “Baptists plan exodus from Boy Scouts.” The story does not indicate that the Baptist brand of Christianity has withdrawn, so to speak, from BSA, but the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists are much more broad-minded than the SBC brotherhood (I use the phallocentric collective intentionally) would indicate. All Baptists, it seems, are guilty by association.

SBC in the White House

SBC in the White House

People are complex. Putting them into neat categories is unfair to who a person really is. The category “gay” is notorious for subverting all other qualifiers for decent human beings. As the National Socialist Party recognized, the easiest way to build a case against a people is to put them together in a class that “deserves” our fear, mistrust, and hatred. Don’t look at the individual beneath the label. You might be forced to change your mind. Did that individual overcome the difficulties of being a “minority” in his or her own native land? Did that individual work hard to climb through the educational system to attain an advanced degree? Did that individual commit his or her life to another person, no matter what the social stigma? None of that matters, as long as we can talk about his or her “orientation.” It is society itself that requires reorientation.

And Lowe

Hate is harder to muster for people just like us. I mean, if they live like us and look like us, what grounds do we have to distrust and fear them? This appears to be one of the premises behind the TLC show “All-American Muslim.” Many people know Muslims without knowing it and fear them without being aware of whom they fear. With this insidious kind of fear and hatred, religion must be involved.

Over the weekend, CNN online ran an article noting how Lowe’s is pulling advertising from the program. It seems that conservative Christian outcry is rising like the children of Israel in Egypt; the Muslims aren’t shown as bad guys—they’re like your next-door neighbor! Fear of takeovers has long been on the Neo-conservative agenda. If Romney is elected we will by overrun by Mormons. If we sleep, we’ll awake to Muslim neighbors. And we certainly can’t expect to all get along. If it weren’t for the media, we would probably never even know they held a different religion.

I’ve lived lots of places. With the exception of Grove City College and Nashotah House, I never once was aware of the religion (if any) of my neighbors. If they are civil and respect my right to believe what I will, they are entitled to the same. Religious supersessionism and maybe a pinch of jealousy play into this attitude of keeping others a minority. Is it because Muslims and Mormons are more effective at winning converts? The modern evangelicals have been relying on political bullying to get their way. Why not learn to appreciate your neighbor’s religion instead?

Religious freedom is a two-edged sword. Many of those who are worried now were quite happy when they were in the clear majority. When the lines get blurry the trigger finger gets itchy. Come on, Lowe’s! Educating ourselves about other religions is the best home-building project out there.

Mystic Messiahs

It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. As a student of religion I early found myself drawn to the question of where religions begin. In the case of many religions we have an identifiable founder. Frequently that founder ends up being a god him (or more rarely) herself. In order for any putatively revealed religion to attain any credibility, the ultimate source must come from on high; God himself. So it is that we look askance at any religion that has appeared in the last couple of centuries, when, as we knew at the time, the earth was no longer the center of the universe and science had taught us to know better than to accept the old-timey stories of a god in the clouds. We can accept the ancient, time-honored stories, venerated as they are by centuries. If someone today tells us that God has spoken to him or her, we refer them to psychiatrists first, and then to the mind-altering drugs.

Jenkins, writing in the shadow of the tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco and the ritual suicide among the members of Heaven’s Gate (one of the members’ sons was one time a student of mine in seminary), tries to demonstrate that such groups are part of the fabric of religion. What is new in such movements is not the fact that they suddenly come into existence, or that society reacts violently to them, but that we now have a concept of “cult” to label them. Jenkins convincingly illustrates that fear of new religions stretches back for centuries. Even in the seventeenth century people experimented with new religions. When they survive, they become “churches.” Consider the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. They all began as “cults” and are today considered just another variety of Christianity. Most adherents to religions do not inquire too closely as to the origins of their brand. Historically we know that the three denominations mentioned above are well under two hundred years old.

In a fascinating twist, Jenkins describes how the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century was ripe for such developments. One of the sources, ironically, was the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His weird stories often invoked cult-like groups devoted to unusual practices that sometimes turned deadly. Also during that same time period, Christian Fundamentalism began as an effort to sort out what was “fundamental” to Christianity that set it apart from the cults (including Pentecostalism, now one of the most dominant Fundamentalist sects). As Jenkins points out, when these new sects become mainstream, they vehemently seek to destroy all new comers. Christianity began as a cult in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.

Religions are inherently conservative. As we will see in the approaching election, the religious background of a candidate plays a major role in public acceptability. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, but only to a point. Jenkins should be required reading for every religious believer. Tolerance would be the only proper and reasonable response.