We know there’s a problem. Here’s how the bulk of us as Mormons see the problem:
SYMPTOMS: Americans have an anti-Mormon bias which manifests itself on the right with Evangelicals who call Mormonism “non-Christian” (and who cost Mitt Romney the Iowa Republican Caucus) and on the left with secularists and atheists decrying Mormonism’s foundational stories as an obvious “fraud.”
DIAGNOSIS: Mormons are “persecuted” by non-Mormons for their “weird” beliefs.
RECOMMENDED TREATMENT: De-emphasize (or eliminate) weird beliefs. Explain Mormonism using highly-nuanced language, which we (as Mormons) believe will satisfy non-Mormon ears (“milk before meat”).
We keep going back to the doctor because the symptoms persist. We keep refilling the prescription — and we now seem addicted to the medicine.
Unfortunately, that the diagnosis is wrong. Weird beliefs are not causing the symptoms. In the past generation, America generally has become increasingly tolerant of weird beliefs. America is more broadly pluralistic because of the influx of traditional religions that were previously unrepresented in the US (and therefore are filled with unfamiliar, weird beliefs), e.g., Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, and also because the rise of indigenous weird beliefs: wicca, neo-paganism, American Buddhism and the various New Age ideas. (Is America ready for a neo-pagan president? No, because the masses of neo-pagans are college kids. Is America ready for a Sikh president? No, because most Sikhs are 1st generation immigrants. Is America ready for a Mormon president? Yes. Mo Udall would have beaten Gerald Ford, if he had bested Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Democratic primaries.) My point is that our society is prepared to be more broadly pluralistic than ever before. The primary component of pluralism is tolerance for our neighbor’s weird beliefs.
If it’s not so-called weird beliefs, what’s the real cause? I believe the cause of the problem is medicine we keep taking and that the underlying and resulting problem we face is credibility. It’s the milk before meat approach itself that undermines Mormon credibility. The examples of how this true problem manifests itself are so numerous — even in the past year alone — it’s hard to pick from among them. Let’s consider just one of 21 Questions Answered About Mormon Faith that the Fox News prepared in conjunction wiht the LDS church’s PR folks:
Q: Does the Mormon Church believe its followers can become “gods and goddesses” after death?
A: We believe that the apostle Peter’s biblical reference to partaking of the divine nature and the apostle Paul’s reference to being ‘joint heirs with Christ’ reflect the intent that children of God should strive to emulate their Heavenly Father in every way. Throughout the eternities, Mormons believe, they will reverence and worship God the Father and Jesus Christ. The goal is not to equal them or to achieve parity with them but to imitate and someday acquire their perfect goodness, love and other divine attributes.
Whachama-come again? This is a hefty dose of the medicine of de-emphasizing weird beliefs when speaking to non-Mormons. Can you argue that this bizarre answer is “not false”? Of course! And whenever anyone argues that any one of these medicinal answers is false, apologetic Mormons across the blogosphere will leap into heroic action in the answer’s defense.
And that is the problem! The problem is not whether the medicinal answers can be argued to be “not-false.” The problem is that these answers are not open and forthright, and that they thus lack credbility.
The real problem Mormons face is not that we have weirdness. It’s that we lack credibility.