Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pew Forum: New Study on Mormon Demographics, Practices, Social and Political Views

"A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S." is a new study by the Pew Forum that might help you better understand what kind of people make up the Latter-day Saints in the United States. Part One of the "Landscape Survey" looks at age, gender, race, geographical distribution, and other statistics. You may find a couple of surprises in the data, such as Latter-day Saints being more racially diverse (i.e., less white) than several other religious groups including mainline Protestant churches. The report also examines the differences in age, education, and race of converts versus life-long members. (Unfortunately, the fact that I'm 0.2% Mohawk probably didn't make it into the stats - but I'm proud to be more diverse than I look.)

Part Two may be even more interesting as it explores the beliefs and practices of Latter-day Saints. Some of the information surprised me.
A similar pattern is seen when it comes to frequency of prayer and Scripture reading. Three-quarters of Mormons (76%) say they read Scripture outside of religious services at least once a week, more than double the figure among the general population (35%). More than nine-in-ten Mormons pray at least once a week, with 82% praying daily. And a majority of Mormons (55%) say they receive a direct answer to a specific prayer request at least once a month.
That's better than I expected. But what really surprised me is that 58% of the general population prays daily, and only 18% never prays. Prayer is a big part of American life - something you would NEVER suspect from popular media depictions of American life in movies, television, and the popular press. I think most of the people in charge of the media fall into that 18% minority. In their world, if someone is praying daily or reading the scriptures, you know they will end up being the child-abusing, pension-stealing, environment-trashing villain who is planning to kill the Mother Theresa-like saints at the local abortion clinic. But I digress.

Part Three deals with social and political views. "A significant portion of Mormons (68%) also agree that their values are often threatened by Hollywood, which is much higher than among the general population (42%)" - whoa, where does that kind of thinking come from? And there was another surprise:
Mormons are very politically conservative. Six-in-ten Mormons identify as conservative, about three-in-ten (27%) say they consider themselves moderate and only one-in-ten identify as liberal. This is in stark contrast to the general population, in which roughly a third identify as conservative (37%), a third as moderate (36%) and 20% as liberal.
This caught me by surprise. Based on what I've been seeing on television, I thought 80% of the population was liberal and the other 20% lived in caves (only coming out occasionally to spread hate and fear, eat a few children and hunt an endangered species into extinction). Guess I need to get out of my cave more often.

Overall, a valuable reference for understanding who the Mormons are, in broad, general terms. But for best results, don't forget to actually chat with some of us.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pondering the Complexities of Transgender Issues

A very intelligent and kind friend of mine shared with me her journey that began with her birth as a boy and ultimately led to sex-reassignment surgery. Her story is amazing but reasonable and sincere. It compels me to recognize that clear-cut models of life and human gender don't capture the wide diversity that can occur in mortality. What might make sense for the vast majority may not do justice to the complex situations that some may be in. As a result, I feel a renewed need to be more cautious and to withhold judgment in cases that transcend my experience or ability to relate.

In discussing and defending the Church, I frequently make reference to the fallible nature of all humans. Only God and Christ are perfect - here in mortality, all else is open to question and "complexity." Those who demand perfection, absolute valor, or even consistent good behavior from any human will invariably be disappointed (my wife being the sole mortal exception I know of). Even revelations and scriptures that pass through mortal hands will be subject to apparent error, apparent contradictions, or other complexities. The pervasive puzzles and contradictions of mortal behavior extend to the biological side of mortality as well.

My friend suggests that just as height, weight, skin color, athleticism, and other physical characteristics span wide a wide spectrum, so can characteristics often associated with gender and gender identity. I accept the LDS Proclamation on the Family and its statement on gender: "Each [human] is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." I believe that is true. However, when it comes to the specific expression or manifestation of gender in this mortal realm, there may be some gray areas or puzzling contradictions and complexities that require me to step back and recognize I don't have all the answers. Perhaps the best I can do is to focus on my duty and be charitable toward others, even when I cannot possibly understand or relate to their complex journey.

Similar thoughts extend to the area of homosexuality. I've been reading Born That Way? by Erin Eldridge, an LDS woman who describes her almost superhuman effort over many years to transcend her same-sex attraction and comply with her understanding of how she should live here in mortality. While her story challenges the idea that change in behavior is impossible, it does show that it can be painfully hard, and that simple "cures" and solutions others may offer may not be helpful. Patience, unconditional love, acceptance, and charity are needed to stand by those who do wish to change (and shame on those who condemn them for trying!). I think the same principle should apply to those who wish to make changes that we disapprove of, such as sex-reassignment surgery. Patience, love, and kindness are the most we can do. Perhaps there are matters of behavior or belief that a person's Church leaders may need to deal with, but for the rest of us, withholding judgment (and freely offering love and kindness) may be the best we can do.

I offer my typical disclaimer that these are easy things to say. Having true charity when we cannot understand another person can be difficult - indeed, charity, actually comes to us as a divine miracle and is one of the least natural human behaviors. But charity is the kind of change in human behavior that I think we all can endorse and hopefully strive for, with God's help.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"But Isn't It Wonderful?" Strange Dream of the Week

Woke up from a dream this morning which offered an interesting insight into life, especially in the society to come (thinking here of the great Millennium).

I was at a meeting of investors and venture capitalists who were concerned about the declining scope of intellectual property rights. Several examples were being raised. The discussion turned to a recent Federal Circuit Court case in which a drug related to ibuprofen was found to be obvious and unpatentable relative to ibuprofen itself (this was a fake dream case, with details apparently drawn from a recent case on a gene patent). I volunteered some technical details that helped the group better understand the case and the regrettable loss of property rights that may have occurred, when a friend of mine, an atheist scientist in real life who was and still is an important mentor and ally, stood and explained to the group that an article written about this case had transformed his life and helped him see how foolish it is to focus on material things, and that there are much more important higher values we must pursue. He was really choked up by the insights he had obtained. He asked for a break to retrieve the article that began his transformation so he could share it with us, and I needed to look up some more info on the case.

I went to a computer, got some information about the chemistry involved, and then sought out my friend (I really was looking at ibuprofen chemistry this week). I saw him at the end of a large public park at the bottom of a hill where I stood. I started running, delighted with how much faster and athletic I tend to be in dreams (better looking, too). As I ran into the park, I had to watch out for all the kids and adults enjoying themselves, running around and playing games. A girl tossed a basketball that might have hit someone, I worried, so I caught it while running and set it down gently with a smile. Had to dodge a family opening an umbrella. Then I saw a woman with a little shop selling food and other items. She was in front of the shop and was walking back toward it when a child came zooming by on a bike. She had to leap to avoid a collision and was remarkably agile. She had a white hat, long brown hair, and a white glove – this may have been an attempted Michael Jackson sighting by my dream engine. As I ran by I complimented her: “Wow, that was good. You’re very quick on your feet!” Her response, referring to the frenetic activity of all the people in the park, surprised me: “Oh, with this going on all day long, you have to be. But isn’t it wonderful?”

Then a strange and delightful feeling swept over me. In this park were a thousand people of all kinds and ages, cheerfully pursuing a thousand different directions, and yet I could feel that we were all connected, all tied to each other, all part of each other’s joy. And it was simply wonderful. Wealth, power, prestige, and even patents didn’t matter. It was the joy of love and of being that did.

That’s when I stepped on the skateboard . . . wait, that’s tomorrow’s dream. Mine ended with happiness. Never saw the article my friend wanted to read to me. Maybe tomorrow.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Another Reason Why Active LDS People (and Active People in Other Faiths) Tend to Be Happier

While I've called for understanding, patience, and even a touch of guarded empathy for those leave the Church or choose to become less active in their faith, I believe that they and their families will find more happiness and joy by living and embracing what I consider to be the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Some who leave the Church or drop into inactivity may complain of all the sacrifices the Church had demanded, both in time for service as well as money such as tithing and fast offerings. Yes, Latter-day Saints are asked to be a giving people, freely giving of our time for service and our money for charitable purposes, including building up the kingdom of God and helping others in need. Utah, a heavy LDS state, is the most charitable state in the nation by far in term of percentage of income given. For members who abandon the Church, I hope they find happiness elsewhere, but if their idea of happiness is being free from all the opportunities for service and charitable giving that the Church provides, they may not find the happiness they seek. This is my extrapolation, anyway, from an insightful speech given by a Roman Catholic speaker at BYU recently.

Arthur C. Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute. His speech, "Why Giving Matters," has been printed in the latest BYU Magazine. Terrific read. I'll admit that he almost lost me in the first two paragraphs with his praise of John D. Rockefeller, of whom I'm not terribly fond. Glad I was able to get past that and keep on reading. Please read the whole article, but here is one excerpt that I like. It begins after he discusses his investigation into the link between giving and prosperity, showing from multiple perspectives that that the act of giving or volunteering appears to bring significant financial benefits to the giver. It's not just that rich people have more to give and thus give more - the results are much more suggestive of giving as an apparent cause of increased prosperity. It was counter-intuitive and perplexing.
The more I ran the numbers, the more I kept getting this crazy result. But still I refused to believe it. In desperation I finally went to a colleague who specialized in the psychology of charitable giving. “I’m getting this result I can’t understand,” I told him. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s like the hand of God or something on the economy, and I can’t believe it’s true.”

“Why don’t you believe it’s true?” he asked me. “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”

This shook me a bit, but just for a second. “Yeah, but I’m also a social scientist,” I shot back. “We’re not supposed to believe those things. I need a more earthbound explanation.”

“Well, I’ll give you one,” he said. “We’ve known this for 30 years in the psychology profession. You economists— you worry about money all the time, and money is boring. We worry about something that people really care about—the currency by which we really spend our days—and that’s happiness. We’ve known for 30 years that people who give get happier as a result.”

Now I knew from teaching at a business school that the best way to run a successful business is to hire happy people. If you want to be a productive person, work on your happiness. Happy people show up for work more, work longer hours, work more joyfully, and are happier with every aspect of their productive lives. Happiness is the secret to success. Charity brings happiness, and happiness brings success.

People who give to charity are 43 percent more likely than people who don’t give to say they’re very happy people. People who give blood are twice as likely to say they’re very happy people as people who don’t. People who volunteer are happier. You simply can’t find any kind of service that won’t make you happier.

Studies show that when people give, it lowers their levels of stress. People who do their jobs with less stress tend to be more productive and successful. Throughout our lives, if we can find ways to relax, we will profit from it.
Outsiders frequently comment on the apparent happiness that active Latter-day Saints have, and my admittedly biased observation suggests that those who were active and give up on the Church seem to have lost something. Some stay active in giving and serving, and based on the link between giving and happiness, they may fare well, and I hope they do. Those who give less and serve less may find less happiness, I fear, all else being equal (this neglects the potential role of spiritual gifts and the divine claims of the Gospel).

Bottom line: For your own good, if you choose to be inactive and to leave the Church, don't forget to keep pay tithing and keep up your home or visiting teaching. Or something of the sort.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dealing with Disaffected Mormons: Why a Little or Even a Lot of Knowledge (Alone) Can Be Dangerous

When it comes to defending one's faith, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A lot of knowledge can be even more dangerous. The problem with knowledge comes when one relies on knowledge alone to respond to questions or attacks. The more knowledge one has that seems to refute an argument, the greater the temptation is to share it and dump on the person with the question. A thirty-minute soliloquy exploring the ins and outs of a topic may not be what was needed. Sixty minutes is no improvement. Sincere listening might have been the right thing to do first. Sometimes the wiser approach is to first understand, empathize, and then, if appropriate, share alternate perspectives in a dialog, not a knowledge and testimony dump. SO EASY TO SAY! Hard to do when you've got your finger on the trigger of a loaded fact gun (still dangerous, even when it's loaded with blanks). I've made many mistakes in this area. I regret some of my overly zealous efforts to persuade others in my younger days.

If one thinks his or her knowledge is so sound and bullet-proof that any other view is due to ignorance, then we've got a real crisis of cinematic proportions in the works. The resulting spray of fact bullets are going to injure a lot of bystanders without ever hitting the target, like so many gun battles in the movies. All that ammo used without doing any good, just creating mayhem. Knowledge needs to be there, written resources need to be provided with documentation and insights, but the application needs to be with restraint, with kindness, with respect and not animosity for the target, or all is lost. Again, so easy to say!

In Forays Amongst the Disaffected, John Lynch discusses his efforts to reach out to former Latter-day Saints on a forum for ex-Mormons. His experience is consistent with that of many who have sought to understand the concerns of those who leave the Church. His advice is outstanding.
I discovered that most who leave the church and associate on that web site do so because they perceive some violation of trust occurred. Perhaps there was a teaching they held that they found out to be false, and they could no longer trust a long time mentor to whom they had anchored their testimony. Perhaps the failings of a member created an offense, and the person could not reconcile their expectations with reality. When it is a leader that disappoints, it seems the sting is so much the greater. Perhaps they found an unflattering piece of history on the Church (ironically almost always directly or indirectly through some Church or Church-sponsored source), and they feel that the truth had not been told them. In all cases, the issue was that somehow they had an unmet expectation that resulted in feeling a trust they had granted someone or something had been violated.

Several shared accounts of their attempts to reconcile their sense of violation by approaching leaders, family members, or close friends with their concerns. Whether real or imagined, these same people indicated that the reaction to their inquiry was too often met with hostility. The very people they felt could help them often responded by either dismissing their concerns or become hostile to them, treating them more as a threat than a cherished acquaintance.

I very much realize that there are two sides to every story. Fears and insecurities may have well led at least some to interpret others' reactions harshly. However, the insecurities of members may have equally caused their reaction to be less than it could have been.

In discussing such issues, recently sustained member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Quentin L. Cook, made the following comment during his conference address titled "Our Father’s Plan—Big Enough for All His Children":
It is equally important that we be loving and kind to members of our own faith, regardless of their level of commitment or activity. The Savior has made it clear that we are not to judge each other. This is especially true of members of our own families. Our obligation is to love and teach and never give up. The Lord has made salvation "free for all men" but has "commanded his people that they should persuade all men" to repentance.
Such an eloquent appeal to our better natures encourages us to endure in kindness with those in the church who struggle with their testimonies.

Is this not wise advice regardless of the reason someone approaches us with a concern?
When people approach us with concerns, with questions about objections they have encountered, with troubles over something that happened int he Church, it's likely that we won't have a good answer at our finger tips. But that's no excuse to dismiss the concern or chastise the questioner. Treat them with respect, honor the trust they show in you by approaching with the question, and try to help them find a resource or an answer. If you don't know, feel free to admit that. Be kind and loving, even if the questions seem unfair.

If you do have a good answer at your finger tips, if your fact gun is loaded and ready to shoot, be careful. If you've got a silver bullet, why not carefully hand it to your friend when they are ready to receive it rather than blast it their way at 30,000 feet per second? Ah, so easy to say.

The kind and loving part is especially hard in email. Sometimes sincere seekers of truth ask questions that seem hostile and belittling. Better to delete and move on that to respond in kind. For those that aren't really looking for an answer, I prefer to not waste my time, but I may have missed opportunities. There are times when I respond to really bitter questions, but it's difficult to be tactful when someone approaches me with something like, "You Mormon liar, if you don't refute my lengthy and rambling arguments within one month, I'll take it as admission that you know you are deliberately deceiving people and defying God." Yeah, just got some of those from a noted self-appointed defender of the Christian faith, whose tone in approaching his fellow Christians doesn't exactly inspire me. I'm actually going to respond, but I hope I can resist the temptation to descend into similar nastiness.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wedding Dresses: Modesty Can Work

My new daughter-in-law, Jennifer, demonstrates that a wedding dress can be beautiful and modest at the same time. Or rather, that a beautiful bride can still be beautiful and modest simultaneously. Welcome to the Lindsay family, Jenn! My son, Daniel, is a very lucky guy, and so am I! And I had a blast taking photos of the wedding at the Washington D.C. Temple and some more in Wilmington, North Carolina. More to come this weekend in Appleton, Wisconsin. (Click to enlarge slightly.)






The dress was purchased from a bridal shop in Provo at a surprisingly low price.

Update, July 18, 2009: As shown below, the young couple is already learning to communicate effectively. Here they try out their most recent wedding gift, a pair of shell phones. With the Verizon plan, they can talk on their shell phones with unlimited minutes at a surprisingly low cost. They can hear each other perfectly as long as they are both about 3 feet from the same tower. And there are no batteries to charge!



Finally, here's a few from Appleton, Wisconsin:



Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Majesty of the LDS Temple Concept

Yesterday I had the great joy of attending the wedding of my second son in the Washington, D.C. Temple. There is a distillation of truth and beauty that occurs within the walls of the Temple that can separate out all the confusion and bitterness of life and yield a potent hint of the majestic meaning of life and of the endless joy that the Gospel brings. The marriage ceremony itself is one of the simplest and most majestic ordinances of the Gospel. The joyous imprint of divinity can be so strong in the Temple, and the witness of the Spirit about the reality and sacred nature of eternal marriage was hard to ignore yesterday.

Whatever mistakes mortal men in the Church have made over the years, whatever human flaws have been combined with our worship and beliefs, however large the gap between human performance and the Lord's expectations, there is a divine core to the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ that is especially apparent within the Temple. It is a sacred place rich with revealed wisdom and means to bless and give meaning to human lives beyond anything else this planet offers. The power of the Temple experience is difficult to explain as a purely human work. The prevasive resonance with ancient religion and covenant making cannot be explained as the work of a 19th century con-man borrowing from Masonry or any other available source. The joy and spirit that can attend Temple worship speaks of more meaningful origins. It is a sacred place, and those who spend so much effort to mock it and the ordinances there - or the clothing that is associated with it - may have deep regrets one day when they learn Whose house it was and Whose work they mocked.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Hello to the Saints in or from Nigeria

In spite of the bad press that Nigeria gets in some communities because of the almost hilarious spam businesses with roots there, my experience with the people of Nigeria has been overwhelmingly positive (though I've never been there). In both Europe and the United States, I've met some of its people, mostly from the Yoruba tribe but also Hausa, Edo, and I think Igbo. It's a complex country with multiple tribes, languages, and religions. One of them I met this week, a kind security agent in downtown Washington, D.C. Seeing that my son, Daniel, had a "Brigham Young University" shirt on, he mentioned that his son went there also. We chatted with him and soon learned that he was a temple worker at the beautiful Washington Temple. He told us a little of his background and of his family. Looking into his warm and kindly eyes and feeling the strength of his spirit, it was a real treat to meet this brother in the Gospel. I love how the Church can make instant friends of strangers who share something so wonderful in common.

Just a minor little "Mormon moment," but a pleasant one. Glad my son had that BYU shirt on!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Liberty Is Not a Mistress, But a Grandmother

Liberty is not a young mistress:
Convenient, alluring, fragrant skin
Glistening even in the darkest shadows
Rich with softness that makes all else--
Memory, promises, and time to come--seem cheap,
Though she is cheaply replaced herself.
No, liberty is not a mistress, but a grandmother.

With gnarled hands and spotted, creviced skin,
She is frail and demanding of care,
Irreplaceable but easy to neglect,
Slow to consider our ease and quickly offended.
She pleads with us to listen again and learn,
Endlessly rehearsing strange myths
Of sacrifices we cannot imagine,
Faintly echoing the trumpet calls of distant battles won
And softly weeping for fallen heroes unknown.

Yet the past is not her passion. The prayer
That fills her soul is not for self, but for us
That we may keep what she has preserved
That we may inherit joy and substance
Beyond tawdry pleasures and passing thrills,
That when our dim candle consumes its last drops of wax,
That we may still have flame enough to teach
Impatient grandchildren the true things of life.

- J.L., for the 4th of July, 2009 (version 2)