It’s a true honor to respond to prominent LDS scholar Robert Millet, dean emeritus of religious education at Brigham Young University, the flagship of LDS higher education. Dr. Millett has spent decades explaining the faith to Latter-day Saints themselves, as well as patiently representing LDS beliefs and practices to those on the outside. I appreciate so much his teaching.
Let’s be honest: years ago, an LDS representative would not have been invited to the table for a respectful conversation like this. (I’m not sure a Pentecostal would have been invited, either.) Mormons lived under the ignominious charge that they weren’t really Christians, so who cared what they say about following Jesus? The inclusion of Millet’s voice is a welcome reminder that many American Christians are no longer invested in the suppression of Mormon ideas and practices. And that is a sea change!
Millet’s treatment of the question at hand – what does it mean for a Latter-day Saint to follow Jesus? – seems to me prescriptive rather than descriptive. I hear authoritative voices, including his own, telling Latter-day Saints how they ought to follow Jesus: Members of the Church are encouraged . . . We are counseled to . . . God and Christ are in the “business” of people, and so must we be . . . Without the Church and Church affiliation and involvement, one simply cannot . . .
I realize these statements perform the pedagogical functions of faith formation. After all, Christians teach each other how to follow Jesus. Yet what might change in our understanding if Dr. Millet had included other voices from the LDS – from the grassroots up, from the margins toward the middle, rather than exclusively from leadership down? I strongly feel the absence of the witness of “ordinary” Saints who, as in the rest of our traditions, follow Jesus . . . sometimes ambivalently, sometimes with fierce devotion, sometimes stumblingly and with confusion, at other times faithfully, and still at other times, in ways that challenge the teaching authority of the church’s hierarchy.
Along with several other folks in this conversation series, I’ve repeatedly called attention to the importance of context in our articulations of what it means to follow Jesus. And I do that here as well. How have the life circumstances of the Saints in different contexts shaped the way they follow Jesus? Have those ways shifted over time and across place? What does it mean to follow Jesus now amid the inevitable changes in a tradition that reveres progressive revelation?
Speaking of context: for much of U.S. history, from the founding of the Church of Christ in 1830 well into the late twentieth century, white Protestant “mainline” leadership led a damnable and sometimes violent smear campaign against Mormons. Protestant leaders anathematized Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and their followers, castigating Mormons as, at best, misguided believers following a charlatan and, at worst, a cabal of dangerous misfits, neither true Christians nor real Americans.
The LDS practice of plural marriage was particularly galling to white Protestant leaders who cast Mormons as a religious, racial, and sexualized “other” not unlike Middle Eastern “Mohamedans,” complete with harems of women. Attitudes like this did nothing to tamp down the violent rhetoric that ultimately paved the way for Joseph Smith’s lynching at the hands of a mob in 1844 and the departure of the Saints to lands outside the boundaries of U.S. polity.
I recount this history because it’s important not to forget the lengths to which some Christians have been willing to go – slander, anathema, banishment, even murder! – to punish challenges to so-called “orthodox” faith and practice. So much for following Jesus.
Yet I’m also interested in what it cost the LDS to “normalize” themselves in the eyes of their white Protestant detractors, to downplay theological differences and suppress practices that most American Christians found strange, even abhorrent. The LDS movement from outsiders to insiders is one of the most fascinating of all transformations in the landscape of American religious life. What was gained in that long and complex process? And what was lost?
A point related to context: Millet’s focus on LDS perspectives means that there are Mormon voices that he doesn’t attend to at all. What about other heirs to Joseph Smith’s teachings and prophecies, from Mormon “fundamentalist” groups to the old “reorganized” church, now called the Community of Christ? To include other Mormon perspectives risks challenging the LDS’s claim to be the authentic heir to the tradition, and I’m left wondering: Would widening the lens change anything Millet has taught us about following Jesus?
Finally, and I’ll say more about this in my own upcoming post about Pentecostals, I’m curious about what it would mean for the LDS to “fly the freak flag,” as the saying goes. To willingly embrace the “weird” aspects of one’s tradition, the ideas and practices that make you and your tradition less palatable to whatever constitutes the “mainstream”? (For Pentecostals that might mean owning our dreams and visions, speaking in tongues, and healings, all integral aspects of following Jesus for most Pentecostals.)
“Flying the freak flag” means to turn unabashedly toward rather than away from some of the more arcane, less “mainstream” aspects of doctrines, covenants, and practices. Mormon rejection of the Trinity? Jesus as Jehovah? A multi-tiered heaven of multiple gods who were once like us? Sealed marriages that last into eternity rather than “till death do us part”? Playing up rather than down such ideas would mean puncturing the bubble of respectability LDS leadership, in the face of fierce opposition, has so carefully (and understandably) constructed over the decades. To “fly the freak flag” does not mean rejecting commonalities, but it refuses the domestication of distinctiveness and difference and embraces the risk of being misunderstood, even rejected.
What might it mean for Mormons – for Latter-day Saints as well as other heirs of prophet Joseph’s teachings and revelations – to “fly the freak flag,” to step off the path to respectability and reclaim what is strangest, most haunting, and most insightful about their teachings and continuing revelations? Is it even safe to do so?