When the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake were being announced, I remember how in our priesthood meetings in Provo exciting plans were forged to turn the event into a massive missionary opportunity: we would fill the streets with members passing out copies of the Book of Mormon and taking referrals. Indeed the Lord blessed us with this matchless occasion! The prophecy was being fulfilled that kings and queens would come to Zion!
But soon another message came from Church headquarters, as a result of the mounting criticism that the Church was turning the Olympics into a Mormon showcase. We quickly abandoned original intentions and drastically scaled down the rhetoric. Indeed, religious correctness required that we would just be friendly hosts and that precisely our non-proselytizing would be the hallmark of our maturity into the mainstream.
I use the term “religious correctness” in the same sense as “political correctness”: you do not say or do things that would offend, exclude or marginalize individuals, whatever their differences or behavior. You do not impose your norms and values on others but respect their social and cultural realm. Religious correctness would therefore mean that it is simply unbecoming to try to convert others.
These past decades have seen various illustrations of this tendency.
I refer to Rosalynde’s post on the Indian Placement Program, and the many interesting comments it raised related to missionary work. Overall, it was felt, the IPP was well meant to help Indian children, to provide them with a better education and to give them opportunities, which they would never have had otherwise. The drawback was the cultural alienation. It was pointed out that an unavowed, but certainly not avoided purpose of the IPP, was to convert Lamanites to Mormonism. Comments to the post confirmed a shared feeling that any program meant to help Indians should not destroy their religious and cultural heritage.
This religious correctness has become a worldwide phenomenon. In former communist countries the Orthodox Church strongly resents missionary work by the “new religions” that could finally enter their territory in the 1990s. Their patriarchs point the finger at what they see as the unethical behavior of foreigners, backed by big money and modern media, to proselytize their flock, while they themselves are slowly recovering from decades of persecution. In several of these countries the governments have acted to limit missionary work by “outsiders” because, indeed, it is viewed as an assault on their historical and national idiosyncrasy.
In Islam, abhorrence of conversion to another religion is deeply rooted in the culture and even in the law of Islamic countries. It is ridda or apostasy. True, related traditions and penalties differ from period to period and from place to place, but the overall understanding is that abandoning Islam for another religion is treason. In their desire to be in good terms with Islam, Mormon leaders have given explicit directives to not try to convert Muslims. The same restriction applies to Israel. I understand that permission to build the BYU Jerusalem Center was dependent on the Church’s pledge not to proselytize Jews in Israel. We abide by the rule of religious correctness.
It even extends to the hereafter. From the Jewish side came pressure to halt proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims and other deceased Jews. The church complied and had to act repeatedly this past decade to meet the terms when complaints continued. We were reminded names for temple work are only accepted if a direct descendant submits them or if consent is given from the closest living relative. However, the next hurdle is obvious. A great-great-great-grandfather can have an offspring of hundreds of descendants, all equally related to this ancestor. If one of the descendants converts to Mormonism, he or she is entitled to send in the name for temple work. But other descendants may strongly object, as I have already witnessed in Belgium. When such pressure mounts on the public forum, will we be obliged to comply for the sake of good relations?
The past decades have seen an immense increase in the awareness of and respect for cultural identity. The concept of the multicultural society is based on mutual esteem for each other’s system of belief, world vision, customs… Such a society requires that we do not view our set of values, our God and our organized religion as more valuable than those of others, let alone impose them. Many now look back with contempt on the Christian missionaries who, for centuries, tried to destroy the so-called “pagan” cultures in Africa, the America’s, Asia, enforcing, sometimes with violent means, their own faith and their way of worshipping. Nowadays the restoration of aspects of those “pagan” cultures is considered both an expiation of Christian wrongdoings and a tribute to the native values.
Globalization and the relativization of “unique truth” have also reinforced the oddity of missionary work. Religions have come to be viewed as social and cultural phenomena, tied to regions and populations, and less as exclusive transcendent roads to God and eternal life. In that sense, it is believed, one should not disturb the social and cultural fabric of fellow men. Indeed, in many cultures, conversions create commotion. Often they will severely disturb social relations, break up shared traditions with family and friends, isolate members in their professional environment, and alienate them from worship in their ancestral religion. Over several decades I have seen this over and over again with our converts, and then it only concerns Belgium, a West-European nation with a Christian background. It is not hard to imagine the breach conversion causes in non-Christian cultures. Moreover, joining the Mormon Church is not simply adhering to “another Church”. It is often viewed as abandoning the mainstream for a bizarre cult in America’s Rocky Mountains.
But if we need to show respect for our fellowmen’s heritage, how does that affect our understanding of missionary work when we address ourselves to people who are clearly tied to a centuries old religious and cultural background?
The Church has been trying to find an answer to this problem of acculturation and new identity, the most notable being the message that we are not taking away anything of the good a person has, but only adding more good to it. It’s an understandable diplomatic move which can indeed apply to the personal social and moral values a person has. But conversion to Mormonism does deeply affect the original social, cultural and religious heritage. It is always perceived, with few exceptions, as a breach with that heritage, if not by the converts themselves, certainly by their environment.
So, how do we reconcile the rules of religious correctness with the obligation to preach the Gospel and convert the world?