Mormonism and Pluralism
In the U.S. today, many people are wary of religion because they feel it often supports a kind of intolerance. Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy provides an interesting case study on the relationship between faith and pluralism. On the one hand, we see clear examples of religious intolerance from people like Bill Keller. On the other hand, ironically, the Mormon faith to which Romney adheres is committed in its very scripture to a deep and wide pluralism.
Mormons do make strong faith claims. We believe that God has revealed saving truths through ancient and modern prophets, and preeminently through his Son, Jesus Christ. We believe that God requires obedience to certain standards of behavior, especially loving Him and loving our fellowmen. We believe that departure from God’s commandments leads to misery and spiritual death, whereas the ultimate happy ending for human life is possible only through Christ. We believe it is important to be right about these matters.
Some of our faith claims conflict with those of other faiths, or with some popular points of secular culture. When folks express sincere disagreements with us, even vehemently, I don’t exactly blame them, though I think there are better and worse ways to go about it.
And yet, Mormons embrace a quite striking kind of pluralism. Indeed, we believe that a kind of pluralism and freedom is key to God’s plan for the best kind of human life. I will briefly highlight three major aspects of this pluralism and commitment to freedom in matters of faith.
First, far from believing that only they are favored with true spiritual knowledge, Mormons believe that there is some truth in all the world religions, and some spiritual truth in every culture. The Book of Mormon teaches that “I, the Lord your God, have created all men . . . I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth” (2 Nephi 29:7). Something like this is what we should expect from a loving God: “Know ye not that . . . I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak . . . unto one nation like unto another” (2 Nephi 29:8). While the Book of Mormon teaches that there is also plenty of error in human ways and beliefs, it teaches not only tolerance but a positive appreciation of the truths that one may learn from other peoples and cultures, and the fellowship we attain by respecting the truths others hold and express in their lives. Mormons thus maintain a serious theological pluralism.
Second, whereas religious conviction (or secular conviction, for that matter) can tempt one to presume a kind of superiority and wish to impose one’s views on others, the Book of Mormon specifically cautions against a hasty and one-sided preaching, and calls for spiritual humility. In part this simply follows from the belief that others have truths as well, including truths we may learn from (2 Nephi 29:9-14). Alma, for example, expresses this temptation to preach as though blowing a trumpet, “with a voice to shake the earth” (Alma 29:1). In a way this temptation is natural for someone who has found joy through his faith. I am reminded of a zealot I saw once, preaching from a loud speaker on his car while driving down the street. Yet this is a presumptuous and unloving way to go about trying to share one’s faith. Alma corrects himself, calling himself to an appropriate humility: “I am a man, and do sin in my wish . . . For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:3,8). Religious faith, and the blessing of truth, should not lead us to glorify ourselves, but rather should call us to serve our fellow human beings in humility, as the carpenter’s son showed us. We are reminded that Jesus used a Samaritan, from a group the Jews regarded as heretical, to exemplify the pivotal commandmant to love one’s neighbor. He seems to imply that the theologically mistaken will go into heaven before the well-instructed but unloving.
My third point, then, is that we are taught to love those who do not share our faith, and to be sure that any spiritual influence we may have is exerted through love. Faith is to be an expression of freedom, not something imposed from without. Our Articles of Faith and the Book of Mormon both specifically endorse broad freedom of religion. This lesson is further impressed by our own history: while Mormons suffered severe religious persecution in the early days of the church, they still recognized that only in a nation committed at least in principle to the freedom of religion could their movement have survived as it did.
Even regarding the function of leadership within the church itself, Mormon scripture explicitly teaches that authority is to be based on loving persuasion. It warns that if anyone in authority seeks “to exercise control . . . or compulsion . . . in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:37). Ecclesiastical power is to extend no further than the power of love: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:39).
So, does Mormon faith fit well with American principles of democracy, self-determination, and pluralism? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” A Mormon does not have to slide his religion to the side to participate whole-heartedly in the American project. Mormon faith, in contrast to some other faiths, positively requires these principles.