Editorials on Mormonism in the Salt Lake Tribune Summer 2011

By Eric Johnson

On Friday, August 19, 2011, an article appeared in the editorial section of the Salt Lake Tribune titled “Five Myths about Mormonism.” It was written by popular Mormon blogger Joanna Brooks and you can visit this initial article here.

The following Monday I wrote the Salt Lake Tribune to request a chance to respond, which the editors approved. Hence, on Friday, August 26, 2011, it was printed here. There were 254 comments about my article; some were congratulatory, others were nothing more than angry flams.  Let me provide just a few of the interesting comments:

Positive:

“This was really an excellent article.  I read it this morning in the paper edition, and just wanted to thank Mr. Johnson for taking the time out of his (for sure) busy schedule.  It was an interesting read that kept my attention the whole time.  At lot of opinion pieces start out strong but really slow down.”

“I’d say Eric hit the proverbial ball out of the park.”

“Excellent.  I had some of these thoughts as I read through the original article.  I was confused, as Brooks seemed to be confirming the ‘myths’ rather than challenging them.”

Negative:

“Says the guy who has nothing substantive to say and hides behind a fake name.” (Interesting, hiding behind a “fake name.” I’m only on the radio and television and this is certainly not a pseudonym. I wrote back, “Really, how about lunch, Arthur?” “Arthur” never responded.)

“Reading this was a waste of time. If you’re going to criticize Mormons, at least come up with something interesting. Eric Johnson, you must be a douchebag”

“This guy’s a teacher?  I’m glad my kids aren’t in his class!”

Then, the following week, Thomas G. Alexander wrote a rejoinder to my article, which I am printing here. I will underline my response, with the regular type remaining as Alexander’s article, in its entirety:

Mormon myths that aren’t

Sunday Salt Lake Tribune opinion page, September 4, 2011

By thomas g. Alexander

One hopes that Eric Johnson does not misinform his students the way he misinformed Salt Lake Tribune readers in his Aug. 28 guest column, “Battling myths about Mormonism, creating new ones.”

Right off the top, Professor Alexander goes after me personally with a slam on my ability to teach by claiming I am misinformed. It’s a cute but quite deceptive tactic. But let’s see what a history professor is going to say about my arguments from the previous week.

An analogy equating the difference between Mormons and other Christians with the difference between Buddhists and Hindus would be laughable if he were not serious. An educated person should represent the views of opponents as they would represent themselves. Johnson fails miserably.

Wow, an excellent example, professor, of an ad hominem attack. “…laughable if he were not serious”? “An educated person” would do it differently? I believe such language lacks respect. I certainly did not try to be rude to Ms. Brooks and I will not mock this professor as well. I’m fine if he wants to disagree with me. All I ask for is to keep the dialogue to a respectful level. Anyway, I maintain my assertion that the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism have plenty of similarities, especially since Buddhism was initiated in India and is closely related to Hinduism. I should point out that I have taught college and seminary level classes on the topic of world religions, and while that alone doesn’t mean I’m right, I believe I have a basis for my point. For example, the idea of Karma and reincarnation are very similar.

Despite their similarities, however, it would be wrong to say that Buddhism is the same as Hinduism. No, they’re unique religions. In the same way, I believe Mormonism and Christianity—though adherents may use the same terminology—are much different. To make it appear that the two religions are synonymous does neither one a service. According to Joseph Smith’s First Vision account (Joseph Smith—History 1:19), God the Father and Jesus declared that all of the churches were corrupt and their doctrines were all wrong.  Why would Mormons then want to be associated with “Christianity” in any matter? You would think the church would want to avoid any connection whatsoever. I also don’t understand why Mormons are so concerned about what others think of them.

In addition, Mormon leaders have clearly explained that Mormonism is not the same as biblical Christianity, as the two faiths disagree on such topics as the Godhead and Jesus Christ. He claims that I fail “miserably” because I have somehow created strawman arguments. Yet throughout his rejoinder, he is not able to refute one point that I made. If I can provide support for my views, these are not fallacious arguments but just the facts. Instead of making empty accusations, let’s just deal with the issues at hand.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not consider themselves Christians just because they try to be moral. As he observes, many who are not Christians are moral. Rather, Mormons are Christians because they believe in and try to practice New Testament Christianity.

We could write reams on this topic, and if Professor Alexander would like, perhaps we could arrange a debate (whether written or oral) on the topic. But let me explain in just five ways how Mormonism is not the same as “New Testament Christianity”:

1.   The New Testament church did not believe that God was once a man (a sinner even?) who lived a mortal life prior to becoming God. Instead, they believed He is not changeable being, something taught both by the Bible (Ps. 90:2) and the Book of Mormon (Moroni 8:18).

2.  The New Testament church worshipped Jesus as God. They did not consider him to be the spirit brother of Lucifer who was created before the foundation of the world.

3. The New Testament church did not worship in temples. The early Christians never practiced marriage in the temple for “time and eternity,” they never did work in the temple on behalf of those already dead, and they certainly did not receive new names and learn special handshakes that were meant to be kept quiet between spouses.

4. The New Testament church did not replace apostles once they died, with the exception of Matthias in substitution for Judas. In addition, there were others (besides the twelve) who were considered “apostles,” including Paul. The organization of the church was not the same as is practiced today by the LDS Church.

5. The New Testament church did not withhold privileges if a person didn’t tithe. According to the Mormon Church, only those who tithe are eligible to get a temple recommend, thus allowing them into one of Mormonism’s temples.

The LDS Church’s prophet, Joseph Smith, restored New Testament Christianity and some aspects of Old Testament practice. As Christians, every believing Mormon subscribes to Paul’s testimony: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”(Galatians 2:20)

Professor Alexander is misleading here. He says that Smith restored New Testament Christianity. I have listed five reasons above why this view is wrong. To which aspects of Old Testament practice is he referring? Because of lack of space, I’m sure, he doesn’t support his case. How Galatians 2:20 applies to Mormonism, unfortunately, he also fails to make an explanation.  I must point out, however, that just because a religious group accepts “Jesus Christ” does not make it Christian. If so, then we must lend the same label to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and many Hindus as well.

Mormons and other Christians believe that Christ is the literal Son of God, that he was crucified for our sins, that he arose from the dead and that through His grace all humans will be resurrected.

The professor wants the reader to believe that because he can use terminology understood by Christians (i.e. Son of God, crucified for sins, arose from the dead, resurrected), Mormons somehow ought to be considered Christians. Let’s deal with each point. First, he says, Christ is the literal Son of God.” Yes, Mormons do believe this. But what exactly does this mean? According to Mormon leaders, He was not begotten of the Holy Ghost (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:18) but was instead a product of “natural” action (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 8:115). Heavenly Father came down from heaven and “sired” Jesus through the Virgin Mary “in the most literal sense” (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of the Prophet Ezra Taft Benson, p. 7). This is certainly not the Virgin Birth as the Bible depicts it. In addition, Professor Alexander says Jesus was “crucified for our sins.” Interesting, since the Garden of Gethsemane is emphasized so much more than the cross by Mormon leadership over the years. Also, have you wondered why the powerful symbol of the cross is not used by Mormon chapels? To church leaders, the cross is not a positive symbol, even though it was respected as a powerful reminder of Jesus’ resurrection in the days of Paul and by Christians over the past two millennia.

Since they are New Testament Christians rather than traditional Christians, Mormons do not believe in un-Biblical doctrines like Trinitarianism. Would Johnson exclude from the body of Christians those believers who lived before 325 C.E. even though Trinitarianism does not appear in the New Testament?

Please, not another attack on Nicaea! This is such faulty logic that I am surprised a history teacher would make this claim. He really ought to know better. The Council of Nicaea was formed to deal with a heresy called Arianism; the goal was to discover just what the Bible really did say about Jesus. Was He a created being? Or was He God in the flesh? We can use our Bibles to show the case for Trinitarianism. As far as the word “Trinity” not appearing in the Bible, he’s quite right. However, the concept is certainly there: One God, three persons. As far as a particular word not appearing in the Bible, will he admit that Heavenly Mother doesn’t exist because she’s not mentioned in the Bible or any of the Standard Works, for that matter?

What he says about post-mortal polygamy is essentially correct. That is, however, irrelevant to charges of the continued practice of polygamy today. The belief that Mormons continue to practice polygamy is pervasive. It is not just “some” who believe this. In part, the erroneous belief has persisted because some folks simply have not taken the time to study the matter. They are the “ignorant” whom Johnson mentions. I have run into quite a number of them.

To have Professor Alexander say that he runs into ignorant people who believe Mormon leaders still teach in polygamy for this life is nothing more than a red herring. I agreed in my original rebuttal that there are ignorant people everywhere. But it’s misleading to make it appear that plural marriage is completed repealed. What about the three LDS apostles who look forward to being married polygamously in the hereafter? Indeed, polygamy for eternity is still a valid practice. Both Brooks and Alexander want the whole issue to go away and be swept under the rug, but it won’t go away because the doctrine is still being practiced today. Or, please show me that I’m wrong and that marriage for eternity between one man and more than one woman is no longer practiced in LDS temples today.

More seriously, however, the persistence of this belief has resulted from media sloppiness, sensationalism or dramatization. Because the media often use the general term “Mormonism” for groups that continue to practice polygamy, otherwise well-informed people frequently associate the practice with the LDS Church. Moreover, I would expect that because of LDS President Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto of 1890, President Joseph F. Smith’s Second Manifesto in 1904, and persistent teaching, Mormons would remain monogamists even if the courts overruled current law.

Mere speculation. The author is not a general authority or a psychic. In fact, how does he know what God will or will not say? Certainly Mormon prophets Brigham Young (“If we are not admitted until [the denial of polygamy,] we shall never be admitted” (Journal of Discourses 11:269) and Wilford Woodruff (“If we were to do away with polygamy, it would only be one feather in the bird, one ordinance in the Church and kingdom. Do away with that, then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gift and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians and do as the world does…”) never believed that polygamy would one day be banned in the church. Thus, isn’t it presumptuous that the professor thinks he knows what God will do in the future?

Unfortunately, Johnson is right in his belief that most Mormons are conservatives. He assumes, however, that a Mormon president would follow the dictates of the prophet. I ran into the same brand of bigotry in 1960. I was living in California at the time, and one of my friends said that he would never vote for John F. Kennedy because Kennedy was a Catholic. He believed Kennedy would take orders from the pope.

Notice, I never said that a person shouldn’t vote for a candidate just because he is a Mormon. But we have to wonder: If a man is considered to be a “prophet” with direct connection to God, wouldn’t the LDS candidate have to take this man’s opinion  seriously? This leads me to the next question: Would a candidate like Romney be willing to do what Kennedy did when he said that he would not listen to the pope’s advice? I think these are valid questions—I certainly am not the only one asking them—and it’s  something that Romney needs to address if he  wants to take a serious charge at the presidency of the United States.

If nothing else, the recent public dispute over immigration should lay that argument to rest. Many right-wing Mormons have openly disputed the church’s views on the question, in part by asserting that the church leaders simply did not mean what they said. In addition, in numerous other cases of historical note, church members have ignored or opposed public policy supported by the church leadership.

Now, I understand that I may have misinterpreted some of the things Johnson has written. If so, I apologize. On the other hand, he should seek in the future to represent the views of those he opposes as they would represent them.

We disagree, that’s all. I’m not sure how the professor feels I have misrepresented the views of Mormonism. I stand by my assertions made in my previous rebuttal and don’t feel Professor Alexander has adequately addressed my objections to Brooks’ original article published two weeks ago. I am requesting the Salt Lake Tribune for a chance to officially write a response—we’ll see if they agree.

Thomas G. Alexander is Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at Brigham Young University. He lives in Provo.