Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chapel Mormons Versus Apologists

In the latest episode of Mormon Expression, John Larsen and Bridget Jack Jeffries interviewed Seth Rogers and Kevin Barney, who are both involved with apologetics for the church to some extent. During the podcast, the following discussion occurred:

John Larsen: The charge has also been levied that the Mormon religion as represented by FARMS or FAIR may be considerably different than the religion that's commonly believed or practiced in the pews, that there is kind of a gulf between say, the Internet religion and the religion that occurs in the chapels. How do you all respond to that charge?

Seth Rogers: I think the chapel views would be more similar to the internet views if they were out there dealing with the same arguments. But they don't have to deal with the same arguments. So they have a different experience with their religion, and a different way of articulating it.

Kevin Barney: Yeah, obviously I (disagree?) with the genesis of that distinction. I think there's something to it. When you say "internet Mormons", it's not just apologists. You look on the Bloggernacle, that's a very self selected group. They tend to be young, they tend to be well educated, they tend to be very knowledgeable about the church. Even though most of them don't see themselves as apologists, you can throw out any obscure issue regarding the church, and most of those people are familiar with it and not bothered by it. That's a very unusual subset. You go into an average ward and that's not the case. You've got a much broader range of people. My own mother doesn't even know how to do email. ...
You've got a huge gap in terms of comfort and familiarity with the resources of the Internet there. So yeah I think there's something to it, but, for example, the apologists I know all consider ourselves faithful and believing. We're active in our church communities, we participate with them, and I don't think we really perceive ourselves as "other" in that way. But it's true that kind of by definition that we have a certain education on these issues that maybe your average Mormon doesn't have.

Seth Rogers: In some ways I find the question interesting but in other ways I'm really not interested by the question of whether there's a distinction between internet and chapel Mormons, simply because this is a faith where you gain your own testimony. You gain your own conviction of the church, and you're (repeatedly?) encouraged to do so. So am I different from other Mormons? To a certain extent I don't really care if I am or not, because ultimately this is my religion and it's my testimony and it's my faith. I have to own it. I have to take ownership of that and come up with the conclusions that I come up with after reading the scriptures, reading the history, (sustaining?) the modern prophets and taking it all together. So a part of me doesn't really care if I'm driving the bus or not, because in some ways we're encouraged to do so. I think there is a lot more diversity of opinion held privately within the Mormon church than people give it credit for. I mean we all wear white shirts, suits, and ties, right? And we all gather in the same conference center and there are millions of us and all that sort of stuff, you know, and it's easy for people to think that the church is basically one big Borg cube from Star Trek. But really on the private level there's a surprising diversity of beliefs. I read one blog post from a Jewish blogger who has a bit of an interest in the Mormon church talking about how they were taking a motorcycle tour through Utah and stopped over in Manti, and they sat in on the local high priests and Sunday school gathering. And they talked about how there was just a wild variety of viewpoints being shot out in that high priests group and in the Sunday school. And the Jewish blogger who was well familiar with Mormonism said in a lot of ways these guys were well off the reservation. But in another sense they were the Mormon (______? something like archetype?), so firmly Mormon and so firmly identified as Mormon that no one was going to question whether they were, based on the (____?), just the ideas they were holding there.

Kevin Barney: You should also be aware that there is plenty of diversity within the ranks of apologists as well. Sometimes people have the idea that that's a single hive mind or something, and that's not true at all. It's a little bit like high priests group sometimes with the various opinions and perspectives on things, so there's plenty of diversity to go around.

I think that the reason why people bring up this difference between chapel Mormons and internet/apologist Mormons is that sometimes when a common chapel belief is brought up as an example of Mormon belief, a more apologetic Mormon will respond with, "Psh, I don't believe that. You obviously know nothing about Mormonism."

In other words, apologists will sometimes use their own unique take on Mormon doctrine as a basis from which to refute claims about what Mormons believe. This makes less and less sense the more their beliefs stray from what an average church attending Mormon might hear every week from the pulpit and Sunday school.

There are many beliefs which I have found in my experience to be standard among chapel Mormons, and which I have seen internet Mormons and even some apologists typically reject. A few examples:
  • Very literal belief in Bible stories such as Noah's ark, talking donkey, the Tower of Babel, etc, etc, etc.
  • The leaders of the church have a direct line to God and can be considered, though still imperfect, still much less fallible than any other kind of leader as a result.
  • The Book of Abraham was directly and literally translated from ancient texts.
  • Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using the Urim and Thummim by looking at the symbols on the gold plates.
  • Homosexuality is evil, people fall into it rather than being naturally homosexual, and Prop 8 was a happy ending.
  • People who leave the church do so because they are iniquitous or offended.
  • Pornography will blast a crater in your brain.
  • Masturbation is a self abusive and sinful act.
  • Joseph Smith was a picturesque and ideal man who had a poignant and beautiful monogamous relationship with Emma.
  • Polygamy was God's doing.
  • Joseph Smith was incarcerated out of pure satanic, anti-Mormon hatred and nothing else. People in the mob's future generations reaped misery and sorrow because of it.
  • Mormons never did and never do anything to warrant such awful persecution.
  • Men and women should all follow traditional roles.
  • The Sunday school manuals and church magazines are like manna from heaven.
  • If you don't receive a testimony through the Moroni challenge, you're doing it wrong. Keep doing it until you get the right answer.
  • The blacks & priesthood issue was God's doing.
  • Wearing two earrings are a solid indication of a morally lacking character. (IT'S NOT ABOUT THE EARRINGS ALRIGHT?!)
This is the kind of stuff that gets preached at the pulpit, the front of the Sunday school class, and even from general conference. It does no good to say, "Psh, I don't believe that." You may not believe it, and you may not be required to believe it, but the majority of Mormons absolutely do believe it and preach it.


  1. I think the crux of the problem is in the correlated manuals (and the fact that the members are not allowed to go around/beyond them to have any kind of in-depth discussion of doctrine). It creates a situation where members don't know what their fellows believe, and consequently misrepresent "what Mormons believe" -- without any deliberate intention to deceive.

    I've written more about this point on my blog here.

  2. What you are arguing about matters though.

    Often, these "Psh" moments happen in the context of the ex-Mormon or critic using what he/she considers the chapel Mormon view to refute Mormonism AS A WHOLE.

    You get this a lot from Mormonism Research Ministries for instance. They'll seize upon something like Spencer Kimball's book the Miracle of Forgiveness - an undeniably popular and influential book for Mormons - and claim that it contains really all there is to say about Mormon notions of grace, repentance, and sin.

    Well, they might have a point if they were claiming - as you are here - that this book IS pretty-much the last word on all those subjects for an awful lot of Mormons.

    But this is not what they claim. Instead they claim that Kimball's book constitutes all that Mormonism can ever offer on the subjects. It is definitive of - not just many (or even most) Mormons - but rather is definitive of MormonISM.

    If that is the claim, then a "Psh" moment is, in my opinion, quite appropriate. Because the claim is fallacious.