Over the past few weeks, I've tried to use this column to provide Mormon takes on hot-button issues like illegal immigration and the Ground Zero Mosque. In response, some readers have cast me a sort of counterweight to intolerance and closed-mindedness, referring to me more than once as "a voice of reason."
And I admit — I enjoyed the compliments at first. As a young journalist, I am drawn to the idea of challenging the conventional wisdom and speaking truth to power. As I sifted through the tremendous number of e-mails prompted by my recent articles (both positive and negative), I briefly began to fancy myself a champion of reason and moderation within the Mormon community.
Enter Sam Wright.
A 29-year-old strategy consultant and researcher, Wright is a Latter-day Saint with a background in economics and, apparently, an impressively insightful worldview and self-awareness. While generally agreeing with the sentiments expressed in my immigration columns, he challenged my belief that such views were "counter-culture" in the LDS world. He rightly cautioned me against setting up "Straw Man Mormons" based on generalized stereotypes, and then arguing against what I perceive their opinions to be.
I devoured his e-mail, which weighed in at more than 1,000 words, and ultimately knew I wanted to write about this idea. But I soon realized I wasn't able to say it much better than he did. So, with his permission, I've included a big chunk of his e-mail below, lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
"I've read several research reports (e.g. Pew research, Independent research), but I always find myself poking holes in the methodology and questioning. For example, Pew research reported that Mormons are one of the least likely groups to believe in evolution. The problem is that the question they asked was, "Do you believe evolution provides the best explanation for life on earth?" The fact is that many Mormons would say that God uses evolution to bring about his purposes. So the question does not accurately reflect the fact that Mormons may believe in evolution but that it is a tool in God's hands.
"Other research has similar problems if not with the questions themselves, at least with the methodology they use to collect the sample. So then, where do we turn to describe the typical Mormon?
"Often we turn to our own observation. This can be a very useful source. However, the problem is that we often look at data through our own biases and we tend to give more weight to the data that CONFIRMS our biases. So if I believe Mormons are judgmental, I will give greater weight to experiences that confirm that bias, even though the majority of evidence may prove otherwise.
"Along with this observational bias is the tendency to create what I refer to as Straw Man Mormons. For example, "Utah Mormons are sheltered and judgmental," "the Mormon church stifles disagreement in its congregations," or "Mormons are good, hard-working people." We know that these examples are simplified, but we use them because we believe they are generally true and they make for easy comparison.
"The problem I'm beginning to find with these Straw Men is that they may be more destructive than helpful. For example, perhaps 75 percent (ridiculous approximation but directionally correct) of conversations I have about the church involve someone sharing a problem or disagreement they have and then ending by suggesting they cannot have such serious conversations with most people in the church. And yet, I have had these conversations with Mormons from many different backgrounds. So who exactly are these blind faith Mormons that never question what they believe? …
"My profession leads me to work with people of various religious and irreligious beliefs. While there are some generalizations that prove true (Mormons do live clean lives for the most part), I find that people are people, whether in the church or not. There are good and there are bad. There are closed-minded and open-minded. I don't think the data significantly support large deviations from the average person outside the church. Some researchers may disagree, but I then go back to the questions they ask, interpretation and methodology.
"Let me bring this home. As humans, we want, and often are required, to categorize people. And some categorizations do work. However, in an organization as large and diverse as the Mormon church, categorizations often fall short. Indeed, they can be destructive.
"Some I know have left the church because they believe themselves to be too different from Straw Man Mormons, and therefore believe there is no place for them in the church. And sometimes our beliefs that others will look down upon our perceptions actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy where people don't end up sharing comments with which most people in a Sunday school class would agree."
Championing moderation, reason and compassion is certainly a worthwhile goal, but Wright's letter provided a good reminder that I'm not the only Mormon who holds these views. Indeed, I may sometimes be debating an imaginary Straw Man Mormon — and then patting myself on the back for handily winning.