Joseph F. Smith was 19 years old, returning from his mission through lawless territory. A group of armed and drunken men rode into camp on horseback.
Some of the men Joseph was traveling with hid, but Joseph continued about his business — carrying wood to the campfire. One of the intruders pointed a cocked pistol squarely at his head and declared, "I'm a killer of Mormons, boy. Are you a Mormon?"
Young Joseph looked the man squarely in the eye and boldly answered, "That's tough to define. There are varying degrees."
No, wait. I remember now. What he actually said was, "Yes, siree, dyed in the wool, true blue, through and through."
It's strange what fear can sometimes do to our convictions. Those lightly held are easily denied; and when we have conflicting fears, we sometimes try to waffle and equivocate in order to avoid both negative outcomes. Often the result is that we suffer both.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of politics. A politician aiming for national office, but with a power base that began in Utah, might be keenly aware of the negatives that come from being identified as a Mormon. It would be so much easier if he could shed that affiliation.
At the same time, his core of support in Utah, where it's good business and good politics to be identified as Mormon, would be surprised to discover that he isn't a believer after all. What to do? Such a quandary.
I'm a Democrat, myself, so I won't be voting in the Republican primaries. I'm not trying to advance anyone's candidacy, or tear anyone down. All I'm talking about here is how public figures define their relationship to the church.
I think of Mitt Romney, a politician with whom I often disagree. He has never waffled on his Mormon faith, and it has cost him. Teddy Kennedy ran an anti-Mormon campaign against him in Romney's losing run for the U.S. Senate a few years back; in the last presidential campaign, Mike Huckabee's thinly veiled anti-Mormon slurs might have done Romney some damage, too.
At the same time, Romney has gained, I believe, from being — and being seen as — a man of solid convictions, who does not temper his core beliefs according to the prevailing political winds (though he does change his mind about specific political issues, as all of us should, whenever we learn better).
You can't fake firm convictions. If you don't have them, you shouldn't pretend you do. The pretense is obvious soon enough, and you end up gaining nothing.
The Book of Mormon is clear on this: A believer who loses his faith is under no obligation to continue in the church.
Mormonism is not one of those coercive religions that punish former believers who change their minds and leave.
I would hope that no Latter-day Saint would vote against a candidate merely because he was once a member in good standing, but has since lost his faith. As long as he is not hostile to the church, his religion should not matter to us.
But I can't help feeling a little puzzled about someone who says his relationship with the church is "tough to define." What can that possibly mean, except that he no longer accepts the church as the sole authorized representative of God? Mormonism has a small but clear set of tenets which you must accept to be a Latter-day Saint. The nature of God, the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ, the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, the Restoration of the gospel by Joseph Smith, the authority of the living prophet.
Having these beliefs doesn't mean we are necessarily good at keeping all the commandments — we all vary in our degrees of righteousness. Nor does it mean that we deny the goodwill of believers in other religions.
But declaring our faith is what makes us part of this community of believers, and denying it removes us from it. In that sense, there are no "cultural Mormons," and no "varying degrees."
I think of former Olympic athlete Peter Vidmar who, having been chosen as chef de mission for the U.S. Olympic team in the 2012 Games, came under fire because of the LDS position on the definition of marriage.
Vidmar didn't find his relationship with the church "tough to define." When it became clear that he couldn't do a good job of leading the U.S. Olympic team while his loyalty to LDS doctrine led to controversy, he easily distinguished between a job he wanted and could have done well, and his core faith. He withdrew from the Olympic post.
Those of us who lead public lives have the opportunity of standing for something. I have never concealed my commitment to my faith and to the church.
My bio on every publication tags me as having served an LDS mission, and while I don't use my fiction to proselytize and I reach far beyond the church for my audience, I never deny or evade my commitment to the gospel of Christ as defined by the modern prophets.
Is there a cost? Of course. I have been rewarded with savage slanders, heckling at public appearances and various attempts to boycott my work.
Time and again, various interviewers have tried to offer me a way to avoid these negatives. All I have to do is oppose the church on this or that issue.
All I have to say is that my relationship with the church and the gospel is "tough to define."
Even Mormons seem to expect this. I am amused and exasperated by letters from church members who claim to admire my books, but then assume that I was merely "raised Mormon" and no longer believe in the gospel — as if I can't be a man of letters and a faithful Latter-day Saint.
Then there are the fundamentalist Christians who assume that all my writing is part of a Mormon conspiracy to subvert the faith of "real" Christians; balance them against the atheists who assume that my claim of faith means I am either deceived or a deceiver.
The result is that I am not invited to speak or teach at most universities, despite the popularity of my fiction on college campuses; I am rarely mentioned for awards in my field. Few are the fellow writers who list me on social networking sites, or make positive references to my work (though I admire the courage of those who do).
What my critics don't understand is that if I did not declare for the gospel of Christ, that would be the same as a declaration against it. But I am for it, and if I denied my faith and loyalty I would not be the same man who writes the books for which I am known.
If a member has lost his faith, but still has respect for the church and its believing members, what would it cost him to say so? Far less, I think, than to try to have it both ways.