With the 2012 Republican presidential primaries rapidly approaching "critical mass," it's important to understand the enigmatic culture that spawned delegate leader Mitt Romney — with his elitist, relativistic, image-centered values and tendencies.
Even more than controversial Mormon doctrine, Mormon culture is the pervasive influence in the LDS church that produces what insiders call "cultural Mormons" like Mitt.
Because of its highly controlling nature — arguably the most controlling among modern religions — Mormon culture deserves to be closely examined if voters are to appreciate who Mitt Romney is, and why he thinks and behaves the way he does.
In this installment of our series on Mormonism, we'll try to come to grips with the essence of the church's influential culture. We'll go into more detail in upcoming discussions.
Culture vs. doctrine
It's important to stress up front that it's the culture of the LDS church that determines Mormons' commonly-held beliefs — not the other way around. To be a "Mormon" is mainly to buy into the longstanding traditions and values that typify Mormon society. LDS doctrine, on the other hand, with its often curious elements — is secondary to the social environment that binds members together.
This kind of dichotomy between culture and doctrine could be said of many other groups and religions, of course. But in the LDS church, doctrine clearly takes a back seat to the culture — pure and simple — so the doctrine becomes even harder to define accurately than the culture, which itself defies casual analysis.
Hence the difficulty most people, including Mormons, have pinning down exactly what the church is, and what it believes.
As we note in "Who is Mitt Romney" (Feb. 10, 2012), this results in a decidedly relativistic doctrinal tradition.
In fact, in the LDS church, the prevailing culture is in reality a repudiation of the official doctrine of the church — resulting in most of the questionable beliefs for which the church is generally known.
The more substantive official tenets of the church — those consistent with biblical Christianity — are largely unknown to outsiders, and only superficially appreciated by most members.
With that overview of our challenge, let's compare LDS culture and doctrine, and try to make sense of things.
Conformity is in
As I mentioned in my Feb. 10 piece on Romney, Mormon culture emphasizes conformity by LDS members to the authoritarian control of church leaders — who more often than not believe they "have a divine right to impose their will on others." This tradition has long defied the official canon of church doctrine.
Even those leaders who recognize the doctrinal limitations of their authority are prone to be overbearing, due to pressure at all levels of the church to keep members dependent on their leaders. For church members, there's no escaping the long-held tradition of submission to church authorities as an implicit duty of membership. The social pressures to conform are very real.
Curiously, LDS doctrine absolutely forbids — in strong language — such authoritarianism, and the dependency on human authority it spawns.
One familiar (but largely ignored) passage in the church's canon warns that when Mormon leaders undertake to "exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn," the authority of those leaders becomes null and void. (See D&C 121:34-37)
Another passage in the canon states that the church's official purpose is to liberate members from reliance on "the arm of flesh" — so that "man should not counsel his fellow man," but "that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world," through direct reliance on Jesus Christ and his "everlasting covenant" of the gospel. (See D&C 1:17-23.)
Still another passage says: "Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost" (2 Ne. 28:31) — a passage that is to be understood in the context of a verse a few chapters later that leaves it to the individual to decide when someone is speaking for God (see 2 Ne. 32:5).
There are ample similar passages in the church's canon of doctrine forbidding reliance on leaders above reliance on God. Yet the culture of the church continually gravitates toward the first and deemphasizes the second.
You could explain such disparity between doctrine and practice by noting that the church is overseen by lay members elevated to high position and given inordinate authority to "represent God" — individuals who themselves tend to be products of Mormon culture and do not necessarily understand the church's canon.
In that cultural mix, you could also add the element of human nature. The church's canon emphasizes that "it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion" (D&C 121:39). When people are given to believe they have authority to speak for God, the potential for mischief obviously multiplies.
The crux of LDS doctrine
Let me stress that I can understand the intense aversion evangelical Christians generally hold toward purported LDS doctrine. But I would submit that it's actually the culture of Mormonism (rather than the doctrine) that is more problematic.
Properly understood and defined — using the church's official canon — the core of LDS doctrine is in fact very "evangelical" in its tone and substance, emphasizing personal surrender to Jesus Christ above all other values. LDS culture, on the other hand, tends to ignore that core and focus instead on virtual worship of leaders who are presumed to speak for God by virtue of their church callings. This phenomenon results in willful submission by members to church control, and to ungodly dependency on church authorities, who are viewed as virtual "demigods" authorized to tell members how to think, what to believe, and how to act in every detail of their lives.
As I point out in my book A Mormon Story, the central message of the LDS church is the need for all persons to "come unto Christ" and be "spiritually reborn" by the power of the Holy Ghost — fully, not just partially, and not just professed, but for real — if they want to be saved. The Book of Mormon stresses this repeatedly, and teaches that Christ sacrificed His life precisely to make possible such rebirth, and the resultant childlike reliance on Him that rebirth makes possible, so all mankind might have a way to overcome their fallen condition and, through Christ's Spirit, know for themselves "all things what [they] should do" (2 Ne. 32:5).
To talk with the average "cultural" Mormon, you'd never suspect that such biblical doctrine is the core message of the LDS church. Mormons focus instead on such things as temple ordinances, priesthood rites and advancement, obedience to church leaders, formal education, family (as though the church had a monopoly on family-centered values), making money (in a quest for undoctrinal "self-reliance"), and appearing to be "nice" without actually becoming converted to Jesus Christ.
As someone who's had over 60 years experience observing the Mormon church from the inside — yet who's never adopted the church's undoctrinal traditions (preferring to stay grounded in biblical principle) — I can attest that these doctrinal facts and cultural characterizations are accurate.
An enigma — and a cultural threat
In my judgment, LDS culture — along with the institutional LDS church — is the most authoritarian, controlling culture on the face of the earth, and the fruit of that culture is the lack of doctrinal knowledge among members. LDS culture is at odds with the emancipating, Christ-centered gospel of Jesus Christ taught both in the Bible and in Mormon scripture.
As a result, the church is an enigma to outsiders, as well a significant threat to the American way of life, which is based not only on respecting and obeying Jesus Christ above human authority, and on being spiritually transformed by being truly born again so one might truly please Him — but on the right to do so without unjust interference or persecution from anybody, including the LDS church.
I know firsthand whereof I speak. My book describes in detail the many years of intrusive persecution my family and I have endured for our commitment to the scriptural "doctrine of Christ," and to our rights as American citizens.
In my experience, the church is unwilling to give up its control of its members and teach them to rely solely on Jesus Christ, through — as the Book of Mormon teaches — "yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit," so Mormons might thereby enjoy salvation promised those who submit to Christ's eternal gospel. Church leaders act as though salvation comes through them, or through the church. That's an undoctrinal proposition wholly at odds with the simple saving message of Jesus Christ found plainly throughout Mormon scripture, as well as the Bible.
Are Mormons Christian?
The disparity between biblical teachings and the extreme authoritarianism found in LDS culture is quite stunning, and supports the observation by evangelicals that Mormons are not genuinely Christian.
I should point out that God Himself condemns Mormons on much the same basis in a well-known passage in the LDS canon, in which He invites the church's membership to take seriously the "new covenant" of the gospel — "not only to say, but to do" — with a warning that continued neglect of the church's core doctrine will leave the church under a divine curse.
It could be argued that part of that curse — or "condemnation" — is the way outsiders to the church view LDS members who are steeped in servile features of "Mormonism," and who therefore have little appreciation of Christ's atoning sacrifice, or of the saving principles by which the rebirth His sacrifice made possible is available to all willing to yield their hearts to Him.
In the church's canon, Jesus Himself is quoted as declaring:
And ye shall offer unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and the Holy Ghost. . . .
Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me, ye ends of the earth, and be saved. (3 Ne. 9:20, 22, emphasis added; see also Matt. 18:3)
This simple formula for salvation from its own canon summarizes the doctrinal core of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a fact undoubtedly new to most people, including (I believe) most LDS members. It's a message that easily gets lost in the extremely authoritarian, leader-dependent culture of the church.
The result is a society of more than 13 million adherents who are trained in childish reliance on lay leaders who themselves lack doctrinal maturity, at the expense of childlike conversion to Jesus Christ and His eternal gospel.
What about Mitt?
As far as Mitt is concerned, I would say he appears to have bought into the culture. Is he a Christian, nonetheless, as he claims? That's, of course, for the Judge of All to determine — but it hinges on Mitt's commitment to biblically-sound teachings above the traditions and cultural notions of the LDS church.
Can Mitt make such an orthodox commitment, being a seemingly-acculturated LDS member? Christian voters this election would like to know — especially those troubled by Mitt's classic "Mormon" words when he said he'd "support and sustain" Roe v. Wade several years ago as the law of the land.
"Support and sustain"? That's a phrase used by Mormons when they vote routinely in church settings to retain authoritarian church leaders no matter their worthiness.
Talk about being acculturated.
Stephen Stone is the president of RenewAmerica.com