PROVO — Mormon scholar Patrick Mason knows a woman who is considering joining the LDS Church. She has been attending meetings and regaling him with reasons she loves them.
"I thought that was my role," Mason joked on Friday during the 18th annual FairMormon conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center in downtown Provo.
The woman recently had one question about church members in the congregation she visits: "I just don't get why they're all so defensive."
Mason, who holds the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, thought her comment was more perceptive than she knew.
"As I look across nearly 200 years of Mormon history, I see a people who have been motivated first by faith, but secondly by fear," said the author of a book on anti-Mormon violence — "The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South" from the Oxford Press — that gave him an understanding of the origins of that fear. He also acknowledged that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continue to endure "more than their fair share of misunderstanding and misrepresentation."
However, Mason also published a book this spring — "Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt" — about why some members struggle to stay in the church and others have left in recent years, and he said fear plays a harmful role.
"(Fear) has led us to think and behave in ways that are not always welcoming either to outsiders or to those within our midst who have questions, different perspectives or who otherwise don't fit a certain mold," he said.
What those with questions and doubts need are active, sympathetic listeners. "We're so eager to defend the church," he said during the question-and-answer part of his presentation Friday, "that we talk, talk, talk, talk, talk when people just want to be heard."
He also said some people don't share their concerns because they worry about the stigma associated with doubt in some LDS congregations.
"My strong belief," Mason said during his presentation, "is that the most important thing we can do to empathize with and minister compassionately to those who are experiencing doubt and disaffection is make the church a more welcoming place for those who struggle. It is our responsibility in our church callings but also as parents and siblings and friends to create conditions in which people can feel comfortable working through their questions and doubts in the midst of the body of Christ, rather than feeling excluded from it.
"I believe that a more embracing Mormonism may be the most important factor in helping people more fully embrace Mormonism."
Such openness would match the vision of the faith's founder. "The gospel revealed through Joseph Smith is grand, sweeping and capacious," Mason said, "not narrow, petty and restrictive."
Mason said Mormons can best move forward by rejecting fear and creating a faith culture that is humbler and more self-possessed.
"Without forgetting our past or wilting in the face of opposition, I believe it's time for Latter-day Saints to move forward with the courage of our convictions. I would suggest that doing so will go a long way in addressing the current predicament of doubt and disaffection that so many of our members are experiencing."
Mason said the young faith's first century focused on origins and basic survival, its second on stability, respectability and growth.
"Only now, as we approach Mormonism's third century are we in a position where we can think bigger and bolder. I believe that Mormonism's challenge and opportunity in the 21st century will not be simply to survive or even to grow, but rather to contribute, to give something novel and unique that the world desperately needs and could have no other way."
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