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LDS scholars share perspective on Mormonism

Published: Monday, Feb. 6 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

The Salt Lake Temple shines in the reflection pond in the Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Several prominent LDS scholars are joining in the national conversation about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sharing their views and perspectives as Mormonism continues to shine in the media spotlight.

Matthew Bowman, an LDS Church member who holds a doctorate in U.S. religious history from Georgetown University and who is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, went on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program to talk about his new book, "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith."

Mormonism, he said in answer to a question, isn't "weirder" than other religions — "it's simply newer."

"Through the years, people have accused Catholicism as a cult — Judaism was also considered a cult at one time," Bowman said. "Many religions that are now in the mainstream were once considered 'weird' or 'cultish.' The same accusations now being thrown at Mormonism were thrown at Catholicism when John F. Kennedy ran for president. So Mormonism would appear to be about 50 years behind the Catholic Church in gaining mainstream acceptance."

As a native American faith, Bowman said, the LDS Church "expresses a lot of things that Americans like to believe about themselves."

"Mormonism is an amateur religion, a religion founded by people who had no training in religious theology or organization or anything like that," he said. "Mormonism is a religion that is still very egalitarian. It is a religion that is very optimistic about human potential and human possibility. All of these are things that really express what Americans like to believe about themselves."

At the same time, Bowman continued, "Mormonism has a lot of characteristics that Americans are wary of and leery of," citing the church's hierarchal organizational structure, its long-ago polygamous past and the perceived "secrecy" surrounding LDS temple worship.

"You cannot be a secretive faith and be in the mainstream," Bowman said. "Americans just will not tolerate that."

While Latter-day Saints both within the official church organization and outside of it try to respond to many of the concerns about Mormonism that are being addressed in the media, "it's impossible to counter all of them," according to Jana Riess, an LDS author and blogger who was quoted in Friday's Chicago Tribune.

"It's like playing whack-a-mole," Riess said, adding that the tenor of the public debate about Mormonism "has reached a new level of urgency."

The problem is complicated when matters of theology are intertwined with the mixed messages of political campaigning. While the church is officially reluctant to say anything that might be perceived as being supportive of an individual candidate, some Latter-day Saints are being more aggressive in their responses to misinformation they see in news reports.

"Mormons are reticent to go and become defensive and bash people," said John Lynch, founder of Mormon Voices, an offshoot of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, aimed specifically at correcting misinformation that is spread about the LDS Church. "Bigotry in religion, when it comes to Mormons, has been winked at and tolerated — and it shouldn't be."

Still, Riess acknowledges the difficulty of correcting misunderstandings or challenging outright misstatements of fact and providing clear and accurate information about LDS Church doctrines, practices and policies — particularly those that are significantly different from mainstream Christian theology.

"I think people in the church PR department understand that any theological nuance about any complex doctrine is pretty much going to be lost on the average person who doesn't want to spend a lot of time wading through doctrine," she told the Tribune.

But that doesn't stop the LDS Church from trying to clearly and concisely explain its theology. Most recently, the church has posted on its website an essay by Robert L. Millet, professor of religion and emeritus dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University. The essay looks at the critical question of whether or not Latter-day Saints are Christian, and tries to look at the issue from both the perspective of the LDS Church as well as the perspective of more mainstream, traditional Christians.

Within the essay Millet responds to seven key questions regarding LDS Christianity and concludes: "Latter-day Saints seek only the right to define themselves in today's world and explain what they really do believe."

"While we have no desire to compromise our distinctiveness or ignore our differences with other religious groups, we feel it is appropriate to celebrate our similarities and work together to recognize and remedy many of the moral and family issues in our society," Millet continued. "In that light, we ask only to be invited more regularly into the larger religious conversation; we think we have significant contributions to make."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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