In select subsets of evangelical culture, there exists a barbaric practice that I call “Mormon-baiting.”
Essentially, it involves the Christian — usually an evangelical; usually a man — inviting into his home missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during their door-to-door proselytizing. The catch is that the evangelical really isn’t the slightest bit interested in what the Mormons have to say; the goal is to engage them in a highly aggressive round of pointed and trick questions until they scurry away with their tails between their legs.
I’ve had several men in more than one evangelical church tell me, with unmistakable pride in their voices, something like, “The Mormons are too afraid to come to my house anymore.”
If you haven’t guessed, I think the practice is testosterone-fueled, Eldredgian nonsense. If you want to talk to the Mormon missionaries and ask them hard questions, then by all means, do it. They are sort of asking for it, and they’re trained for that kind of thing.
But I don’t recall Jesus ever saying that deliberately humiliating people of other faiths is a perfectly acceptable pastime.
My friend Emil talks to the Mormons, but he’s not a Mormon-baiter. They came to his apartment one time when my wife and I were over visiting, and he asked them to come back another time. And they did. And they’ve kept coming back, every couple of weeks, for a few months now.
Emil asks hard questions. But he insists that he does not see them as “projects,” and he insists that they don’t see him that way either — despite the fact that they are, you know, missionaries.
This past week, Emil invited me to join him and his Mormon friends in a “tour” of the Big White Castle in Portland. (By the way, I don’t think calling the temple the Big White Castle is derogatory. It is big, and white, and it’s very impressive.) I agreed. I didn’t know all the much about the LDS church, and I’m a freelancer, so I can do that kind of stuff now.
Emil’s three friends were all about our age, or younger. You probably know the uniform: clean shaven, short-sleeve white dress shirt and tie, black or gray slacks, name tag. They all went by “Elder (Last Name).” They were very friendly and knew some stuff about “The Lord of the Rings,” so we weren’t entirely without fodder for small talk.
You’re not actually allowed to enter the main part of the temple unless you’re a member (and you also have to be dressed in white and have a formal recommendation from a church elder). Emil and I weren’t any of those things, but we did get to go inside the temple atrium and see lots of extremely slick video presentations in the visitor’s center.
The center’s short film chronicling the life of Joseph Smith had a distinctive “Anne of Green Gables” meets “Little House on the Prairie” feel, with a heavy-handed dose of old school religiosity, for good measure. The basic premise was that Smith grew up in a Christian home, but was confused by the myriad sects and denominations within Protestantism. Following the exhortation of James 1:5, he sought wisdom from God and received a vision that he would be called upon to “restore” the gospel of Christ.
It’s a powerful appeal — who couldn’t identify with the young Joseph Smith? How many people have you seen walk away from organized religion altogether because of frustrations with the splintering of the modern church?
And yet, (and I told the Mormons this) the answer for doctrinal differences seems to be to be to take a healthy dose of 1 Corinthians 2 or 1 Timothy 1 and call the doctor in the morning. With all due respect, founding an entirely new sect seems like a pretty bad way to fix the problem of too many sects.
The video did not, unfortunately, go into much detail regarding subjects I probably would have found more interesting, like Smith’s infamous golden plates, “Reformed Egyptian” or the early history of the LDS church (including its murky relationship with polygamy and its cross-country migration to Utah following Smith’s murder by a violent mob at age 38). But it did, at least, explain the Mormons’ answer for the main question I had.
You see, LDS members and mainline Christians agree on many things (on paper anyway), including that Jesus is the Son of God who came to earth to atone for human sin and that the Bible is divinely inspired (“as far as it is translated correctly”). So, in my mind, that raises the question of, “If Jesus is the way to salvation, why was another prophet, another testament, and more work needed?” (On the cross, Jesus did say, “It is finished,” after all. He didn’t say, “It will be finished in another 1,800 years or so.”)
Their answer is that parts of the Bible were changed or corrupted over time (even though the thousands of copies of the scriptures we have indicate that they’ve remained remarkably static), and that the martyrdom of the early apostles created a break in the priesthood Jesus supposedly set up (even though the New Testament authors record nothing that looks remotely like the complex system of hierarchical orders and intricate rituals propagated by the LDS church).
So, no, neither Emil nor I left the temple grounds that day convinced that we needed to convert or perish. But I will say this. If I had gone to just about any Protestant or Catholic church in the country and said, “Hey, I’m fairly certain that I don’t want to join your religion, but I would like to ask you a bunch of incredibly difficult questions about your faith for the next two hours,” I doubt they would have welcomed me.
But the Mormons did. And they gave me a free book, too. So I think that’s pretty cool.
The LDS church may indeed be wrong about some things. I certainly believe they are. But guess what? So am I.
Galileo Galilei is quoted as having once said, “I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.”