Books on Mormons: LDS, non-LDS authors try to explain the faith

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 7:50 p.m. MDT

"With the growth and exposure of Mormonism in recent years, more and more people are curious about our actual beliefs and practices, and they want it straight and undiluted from sources they can trust," Sweat writes in an online Q&A about the book. "This book fills that niche."

The book is divided into three sections: Mormon Beliefs, Mormon History and The Mormon Way of Life. It is written in a lively, approachable style, with lots of color photos, infographics and short articles that attempt to make Mormonism more easily understandable.

"It's just a fun book to look through," Sweat says. "It's not a boring textbook. There are graphs, images, charts, pictures, paintings, QR codes you can scan with your smartphone to watch videos and a host of other aspects of the book that will not only help you better understand and know Mormonism, but enjoy yourself in the process."

'Theological weirdness'

Cragun and Phillips, on the other hand, approach their book on Mormons from a decidedly different perspective. Although both men were raised in the LDS Church and served full-time proselyting missions, both of them have chosen to leave the faith of their childhood. Still, each says he harbors no ill will against the church. Indeed, their stated purpose for "Could I Vote for a Mormon President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney's Religion," is to prevent what they see as the spread of misinformation about the LDS Church.

"This book is designed to demystify Mitt Romney's religion and address the major concerns — raised by both liberals and conservatives — about Mormonism," the authors write in their introduction to the book. "We aim to make the weird familiar. And you won't find many people more familiar with purported Mormon weirdness than us."

The book looks at Mormon history, practice and theology, spending a good deal of time on what some might consider to be the exotic fringe of speculative Mormon theology rather than the core doctrines that Latter-day Saints actually teach and talk about each week during worship services. It addresses controversial social issues including feminism, abortion, homosexuality and racism, and it asks and answers the provocative question: "Would a Mormon president take orders from Salt Lake City?" (Their answer: "Just as fears to JFK's ties to Catholicism turned out to be overblown, worries that Mitt Romney will be a mouthpiece for the Mormon prophet are greatly exaggerated.")

The authors conclude that, all things considered, they could vote for a Mormon for president, although they indicate they won't be voting for Romney — but for political and philosophical reasons, not because of his faith. After all, they write, "theological weirdness is in the eye of the beholder."

Vetting LDS theology

Theologically different or not, Mansfield said he considers the LDS Church "one of the great success stories in American culture." He also feels his book debunks myths about the church and presents some of the key Mormon beliefs in a way that he feels readers can understand them — not necessarily as the LDS Church itself would present them. Within the book the context of those doctrinal presentations would be considered both positive and negative, although he says he considers himself a "friend" of Mormonism.

And as a friend, he says, he is concerned.

"During the coming months, there is going to be a general vetting of LDS theology because of the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney," Mansfield said. "I don't know that the church is ready for that. I'm not sure members of the church are prepared to see their doctrines and practices examined under a public microscope, and I don't think the church itself is prepared to respond."

For example, he says, acidic entertainer Bill Maher, who is known for his venomous attacks on religion in general and Mormonism in particular, is creating a documentary on Mormonism.

"You know Bill Maher — you know it will be ugly," Mansfield said. "And my hunch is the church won't say anything about it."

And Mansfield thinks that is unfortunate.

"You ought to have articulate Mormons who are good at presenting themselves in the media going out there and talking about these things," he said. "But the LDS Church does not broadcast itself. It packages itself, but it doesn't broadcast itself. And it needs to, because otherwise you just have Bill Maher out there controlling the message."

A conclusion with which Hatch, Cragun, Phillips, Sweat, Trepanier and Newswander might take issue.

email: jwalker@desnews.com

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