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

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

Best-selling author Stephen Mansfield can see it coming.

"We're going to have a collision on Mormonism," said Mansfield, who has just published "The Mormonizing of America" through Worthy Publishing. The book chronicles what he calls the "unprecedented leap forward" The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken during recent years in terms of public acceptance.

Other authors – including Sen. Orrin Hatch, Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander, Anthony Sweat and Ryan Cragun and Rick Phillips – have similarly noted the rising profile of Mormonism in the public square. Some, like Mansfield, are not LDS but are interested in the phenomenon from a sociological and/or political perspective. Others, like Sen. Hatch, are devotedly LDS and want to explain their church or defend it against perceived attacks from the outside. And others, like Cragun and Phillips, are "former Mormons" who feel they are uniquely qualified to explain the church and its doctrine, policies and practices.

In every case, these authors have recently published books that seem to be perfectly positioned to take advantage of the "Mormon moment" that has existed for most of the past two years and was so clearly manifest during the recent Republican and Democratic national conventions. Ostensibly, these books are all intended to help people better understand the LDS Church, its teachings, policies and practices, and in some cases, how that faith background might impact a certain candidate for the presidency of the United States.

For his part, Mansfield said he began to see the "collision" to which he referred taking shape several years ago when he was working on a book about Mormonism.

"I do a lot of work in government and diplomatic areas, and I came to understand how valued BYU graduates are in intelligence services, Foreign Service, things like that," said the author of the best-selling "The Faith of George W. Bush" and "The Faith of Barack Obama." "This wasn't something I read or heard, it was something I saw. A recruiter told me, 'Given the choice, I would prefer a BYU graduate.' I began to pay attention to that."

And the more attention he paid, the more he became fascinated by it.

"It became clear to me that we are headed for some kind of collision between the popular acceptance of Mormonism and the vetting of Mormon doctrine," Mansfield said. "As Mormonism becomes larger and more influential, how will people respond to Mormon beliefs and doctrines as they are publicly scrutinized? That's what fascinates me."

Which is why he chose to write "The Mormonizing of America" instead of continuing his literary series with something like "The Faith of Mitt Romney."

"I thought that the story of Bush at the time was bigger than the story of evangelicals and the 'religious right' at that time," he said during an interview with Religion News Service. "I thought the story of Obama personally was bigger than the story of the 'religious left' that he was sort of the champion of. But in this case I think that the story of the Mormon moment or this Mormon ascent is a bigger story than Mitt Romney.

"There's something broader going on and he's not so much the champion of the movement, maybe just at the vanguard of it," Mansfield said.

That movement is also what interested Trepanier and Newswander – political science professors at different universities who share an academic interest in the relationship of Mormon culture to American civilization – to join forces to write "LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of the American Dream."

"The role of Mormonism in America has been simultaneously both exaggerated and undervalued," write the authors in their introduction to the book. "Mormons have played a substantial role in the shaping of the social, cultural, political and religious makeup of the United States, a role that is neither conspiratorial nor marginal and that has not been properly acknowledged in the academy or by the general public."

Which is why Trepanier (an associate professor of political science at Saginaw Valley State University, who is not LDS) and Newswander (an adjunct professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, who is) use their book to "explore the contributions Mormonism has made to American civilization and to the values that civilization claims to espouse."

In the process they also discuss LDS history (especially polygamy), Mormons in popular culture, Mormon fundamentalism, Mormons in politics and Mormon theology.

"By challenging the accepted parameters of what it means to be Christian in America — particularly in their source of revelation and their understanding of the role of Christ and America's place in Christian theology — Mormons have indirectly questioned the religio-cultural foundations of America," the authors conclude. "This challenge has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream, and has been met at alternate times with prejudice, reservations and partial acceptance."

Even so, they continue, "Mormons have been able to contribute to defining American civilization. In this sense, Mormonism is not only the most American of religions, but it is the religion of America itself."

Standing up for the faith

At the very least, it's the religion of Sen. Orrin Hatch.

"I'm a firm believer," he said during a recent telephone interview. Which is why in 1995 he published "Higher Laws: Understanding the Doctrines of Christ" with Deseret Book. It was, in his mind, a way to "stand up for my faith."

"My desire is not to let anyone get away with slandering or libeling my church," he said. "That book gave them plenty of reasons not to."

When Deseret Book took "Higher Laws" out of print ("I was kind of shocked when they decided to do that," Hatch said), the senator reacquired the rights to the manuscript, waiting for the right time to publish it again.

That time, he said, is now, referring to the swirl of media attention that has been focused on the LDS Church as a result of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign.

"There is so much information – and misinformation – about the church out there right now, and there's more to come," Hatch said. "I believe that during the coming months there will be some really dirty stuff pulled to try to discredit the church, and in the process, to discredit Mitt."

And so Hatch has worked with Cedar Fort Publishing & Media to re-publish his book as "An American, A Mormon and a Christian." The book is scheduled to be released in September, in time, Hatch hopes, to provide answers to those trying to understand Romney's Mormonism.

"It's impossible to handle attacks on the church in a sound bite," he said. "That's why I wanted to publish this book now. The whole purpose is to answer the basic questions that people might have about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My hope is that if people will read this, no matter what else is said they will see that we are not only good family people, but that we are Christians and we live Christian lives."

Hatch said he tweaked the book a little from its previous incarnation, but acknowledges "mostly it's the same." And while he said he hopes the book will provide accurate information and correct misinformation, he makes no bones about the fact that he hopes readers will be persuaded by his words to embrace the LDS faith.

"I am a missionary at heart," he said, "and this book is basically my testimony. I know the church is true, and I'm not afraid to let people know that."

Taking a similarly faith-based approach to defining Mormonism to a broad audience is Dr. Anthony Sweat, an LDS Church Educational System employee and a popular speaker at various LDS conferences and workshops. His "Mormons: An Open Book" is published by Deseret Book – which is owned and operated by the LDS Church – under its Ensign Peak imprint. It approaches the subject from the perspective of orthodoxy.

Like Hatch, Sweat is a believer, and he wants to share and explain what he believes.

"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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