“Mocking Mormonism,” late-Catholic theologian Stephen Webb observed, “is one of the last frontiers of verbal lawlessness to be untouched by the vigilante powers of political correctness.” The Mormon missionary is the preeminent recipient of popular derision – The Book of Mormon, a popular musical written by the creators of “South Park,” mocks the archetypal LDS missionary with his black slacks and white button-down shirt.
Much evangelical and Catholic apologetic material ridicules the more eccentric LDS beliefs – God’s corporeality, eternal marriage, and its polytheist undertones, among other things. As a young evangelical, I was taught that Mormonism was a cult. Yet whatever the heresies of Mormon theology, our Catholic approach to them could use some re-tuning.
Christian apologetics on engaging Mormons usually takes one of two forms. One approach recommends attacking Latter Day Saints’ (LDS) beliefs through Biblical proof-texting. For Protestants, this tactic naturally follows the presumption of perspicuity or the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Of course, what seems clear to one person will probably be less clear to another, especially if they’ve been catechized to read the Bible a certain way. There is an added problem when debating Mormons – the LDS teach that the Bible is subservient to the Book of Mormon. Thus Mormons always have trump card in any proof-texting debate.
The other approach suggests we press LDS missionaries to acknowledge the most bizarre elements of their faith. One prominent Catholic writer discusses a time where he succeeded in forcing LDS missionaries to acknowledge some of their idiosyncratic beliefs. He then confidently asserted to them “that’s just crazy.” Why such a strategy would yield dividends escapes me. Rarely are people persuaded to abandon their religion simply because a stranger tells them that their beliefs are ridiculous.
I would think this would have the opposite effect. Moreover, plenty of non-Christians consider stories from the Bible to be “just crazy,” while non-Catholic Christians often sneer at Marian apparitions like Guadalupe, Lourdes, or Fatima.
Both of these strategies assume an inherently adversarial starting point for engaging Mormons. This is natural, perhaps, given the many heresies of LDS. Yet it also overlooks the fact that LDS missionaries, probably more than those of any other religious group in the United States, are trying to talk about Jesus Christ in the public square. I’ve never had evangelicals or Catholics knock on my door and ask to talk about Jesus. Mormons have frequently come knocking over the years. I doubt my experience is unique. LDS may be wrong about Jesus, but at least they are eager and persistent in their desire to talk about Him.
Moreover, Mormons have consistently been allies of evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox in battling America’s aggressive secular forces. They have worked diligently to preserve their communities, resist the temptations and influences of the post-Christian culture, and navigate attacks against them and their devotion to Christ. This zeal was especially manifested ten years ago when LDS members collaborated with other religious conservatives to pass Proposition 8, which for a time banned homosexual marriage in the state of California.
Nor is the LDS missionary life an easy one – few religious vocations can match its intensity or sacrifices. For men, the missions last for two years; female missions are one-and-a-half years. During this time, missionaries never leave their mission territory. They have few opportunities to speak with family and friends back home. They live on a tight budget – many missionaries eat things like cereal and ramen noodles, almost every day, for months. They spend about twelve hours per day on mission, encountering mostly indifference and sometimes hostility. One LDS friend of mine who spent his mission in Japan had *one* convert during his entire mission.
For LDS women, the suffering and risks are higher. A female LDS missionary told me that a man who seemed sincerely interested in her faith was actually interested in marriage! Other men tried to be physically affectionate with her. Once, a drunken, barely-clothed man ran out of his house screaming and cursing at her. Mormons, perhaps more acutely than most religious traditions, know about failure. I told some recent LDS missionary guests that their experience sounded a bit like going through hell – the more experienced one nodded in agreement.
For reasons such as these, I would argue that the right place to start with Mormon missionaries isn’t polemical hostility, but gracious hospitality. My wife and I recently hosted two female missionaries for dinner, and we had a great time.
Over dessert, they felt compelled to share the Mormon faith. We carefully listened and asked some questions. I told them I disagreed for theological and philosophical reasons that I briefly explained. My wife – quite shrewdly – shared her own experience of being betrayed by Fr. Marciel Maciel, the former head of the Legionaries of Christ who was living a double life. She explained that it was difficult, but essential, for her to keep faith in Christ, even when she learned that the man she admired was a scoundrel. The parallels with Joseph Smith were perfect, and I hope the missionaries got it.
I believe this approach is superior to that of confrontation. Yes, Mormonism’s theological errors are egregious. But they are also walking the streets talking about Jesus at a time when fewer and fewer people know Him. Surely that’s worth something. And if they want to come over for a meal, build a friendship, and exchange beliefs about God, our door is always open.
God willing, something about that shared life, and our testimonies regarding Christ and His faithfulness to his Church, will have a more powerful, longer-lasting impact than polemical proof-texting and combative hostility.