Ecumenically Missing?

April 8, 2009 | 24 comments
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I came across a news item (here and here) this morning that gives background on the 25 members of the President’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and it made me wonder a little about LDS participation in this kind of group. Shouldn’t there be a Mormon on this council?

Perhaps not. Using our own numbers, LDS Church members make up just 2% of the US population (less if you exclude those inactive members who no longer consider themselves LDS), and a group of 25 might imply that you need say 4% of the population to justify inclusion. But somehow I don’t think our gross numbers is the issue. More likely, IMO, no one knows which Mormon to choose for such a council.

Mormons are, in general, quite uncomfortable with most ecumenical efforts. We do participate from time to time, but the sense that I have is that such efforts either aren’t a priority, or to the extent that they happen, aren’t something to publicize much among Church members. When was the last time you heard about an official LDS representative attending an ecumenical event of any kind?

Part of this may simply come from the nature and history of Mormonism. We started in conflict with other Churches, specifically preaching that they were unauthorized and illegitimate (if you have any doubt about this, read Parley P. Pratt’s A Voice of Warning as well as a host of other LDS missionary literature). Our mission has always been to win converts from error to the truth, and ecumenical efforts have been seen as conflicting with that mission. I do know that since the 1970s the Church has participated in various ecumenical efforts, but its not very often that I hear much about those efforts.

The LDS Church also has a tradition of putting most effort through official Church organizations, rather than forming a host of independent groups to handle aspects of our culture. It has only been since the 1960s that many independent groups have arisen, and to my knowledge, all of these groups are inwardly-focused. There is no Mormon equivalent of the Anti-defamation league, or the US Catholic Council of Bishops. So when outside groups take the unusual step of thinking about inviting an LDS participant, they approach the Church itself, which puts ecumenical efforts on an official level immediately, instead of on a less formal level.

Other Christian Churches are often much more oriented toward the congregation, instead of to the Church as a whole, and a congregation can, as a group, choose to switch alliances or even denominations, and those denominations are many times just a confederation of congregations. As a result, congregations are used to ecumenical organizing where LDS Church members are not. To accomplish a particular goal, the local priest or leader of a congregation in other Christian Churches thinks nothing of trying to put together a coalition of congregations, while an LDS Bishop’s first move is to ask his Stake President, and move up the hierarchy from there to accomplish a goal not spelled out in the handbook.

Part of the issue may also be that we are a busy people. Our religion demands a lot of our time, and as a result, the ecumenical often doesn’t make the list of necessary tasks.

And, I can’t fail to mention that a part of the issue lies with the discomfort many outside of the Church feel with inviting LDS participation. Groups that we as Church members assume would be pleased to have our support, reject us. For example, as I understand it, the American Bible Society doesn’t consider LDS participation because we accept additional scripture in addition to the Bible.

I don’t want to say that we as Mormons aren’t willing to join ecumenical efforts. I’m certain that we do a lot more than most Church members realize, and undoubtedly more than I know about. I have seen local efforts both here in New York City (where I live) and elsewhere. I know that ecumenical efforts in Harlem have been very successful.

But, it doesn’t feel like we are doing very much. We do have relief efforts and make charitable contributions around the world, and get a certain about of publicity for that. But beyond that, if ecumenical efforts are happening, we don’t hear about it.

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24 Responses to Ecumenically Missing?

  1. Dan on April 8, 2009 at 8:02 am

    We started off by setting ourselves apart from other Christian religions, who have kindly (and unkindly) reciprocated. Do we really consider ourselves one with other Christians?

  2. Kent Larsen on April 8, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Dan, no we don’t. BUT, that doesn’t mean we don’t have places where we can and should cooperate with them.

    To be blunt, its to our advantage. Cooperating yields influence, and opens the door to dialogue. Cooperation today, allows teaching tomorrow and conversion later.

    I’m NOT suggesting that we, Mormons, seek common ground doctrinally. Doctrine comes from the Lord, not from discussions with other religions.

    But if by participating we can improve the laws in our country, help others to a better life, influence government policy for the better and create better communities, we should. And, I don’t think it should be just an individual effort.

  3. Craig M. on April 8, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Regarding the council, not ecumenical efforts at large:
    Perhaps I don’t grasp the purpose of the council, but if I’m not mistaken, the reason that the church would not be included on the President’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is because we do not participate in their programs. The program involves FBO’s (faith-based organizations) administering federally-funded social programs. This is problematic for the church because (1) I don’t think we want to get tangled up in the politics of receiving federal money, (2) our system in place is at odds with the program, which must administer to anyone referred to it and requires sharp distinctions between secular and sectarian uses of the money, and (3) we don’t have a full-time, fully-staffed social program like other faiths, but rather our welfare system is administered part-time by laymen.

  4. Kent Larsen on April 8, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Craig M. (3), you may be right, but are you sure that would exclude us from participating? I also don’t know a lot about this council. It could be that you are right, and the council is about how to administer the money that is spent. OR, it could be a council meant to influence overall Faith-based and Community government policy, in which case our involvement could be quite valuable.

    In either case, this is merely an example of where we aren’t involved. I’m sure there are others.

  5. Dan on April 8, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Kent,

    You raised a lot of great points about why, structurally, the Mormon community does not communicate well with other faiths, ecumenically. We don’t have organizations within the church that act quasi-independently of the church. And the doctrinal differences will continue to make any attempts at some form of unity be of short durations, and unstable. Other Christian faiths just simply cannot accept other scripture outside the Bible, or they will have to question their own faith, and thus begin its destruction.

  6. Kent Larsen on April 8, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Dan, so what do we do about it?

  7. Dan on April 8, 2009 at 11:16 am

    I don’t think we can do anything about it, frankly. I think the differences in structure and organizational culture in our faith and in the other various Chrisitan faiths disallow us to really get more together than we can right now.

  8. Kent Larsen on April 8, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Dan, I hope that is not true. I think the upside is substantial.

  9. Dan on April 8, 2009 at 11:34 am

    What upside is there? Other Christian denominations would prefer we simply don’t exist. Don’t we inherently feel the same way about them? Theologically, we feel more threatened by other Christians (as they also do about us) than Muslims or Jews or Buddhists (though based on Elder Christofferson’s “militant atheism” talk, it seems some of us feel really threatened by atheism). This is hard stuff to overcome. What would be the purpose of trying ecumenical communications? What do we have in common? Similar political beliefs? Yeah, that’s not working out so well. Too divisive. Relief efforts for disasters and emergencies? What would be the point of increasing communication between our faith and other faiths when neither side really wants the other to exist (I’m speaking about the faiths, not the individual peoples).

  10. Peripheral Visionary on April 8, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I do not think we should be participating in the Council. Setting aside ecuminicism, this is a continuation of Bush era policies bordering on violation of the freedom of religion clause; if Obama wants to push the limits on church and state separation, that is his prerogative, but we should not be involved.

  11. Kent Larsen on April 8, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I’m an optimist. I think that participating means that over time you can earn respect.

    Don’t some Catholics prefer that Methodists or Baptists not exist? It may be a matter of degree, but I suspect that there are many divisions among the various denominations that participate in ecumenical activities. They find common ground on an issue, and cooperate for the benefit of all.

    Personally, I’d rather that we stayed away from the most polemical of political issues in the ecumenical area – abortion, same sex marriage, prayer in schools, etc., are political minefields.

    The upside comes in less polemical issues. Its easy to find locally, when religious and community groups get together to improve a park, put on a fair or other community event, or even work for changes in laws that improve the community.

    You might think it is more difficult to find these opportunities nationally, but I don’t. There are a huge number of issues and initiatives that can be taken on jointly.

    A large part of where I disagree with you on this point is simply that I think you are overstating the case that other denominations don’t want us to exist. Yes, many within those denominations, and even some institutions have negative attitudes. BUT, I’m not even sure that it is the majority of denominations, or the majority of those within the denominations.

  12. Hye Sung on April 8, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I was born into the Unification Church and they do a lot of peace initiatives with the aim of interreligious/international peace. They had a conference this past winter and I attended and worked on Staff. It was at the Manhattan Center, which the UC owns. Well there was ONE LDS rep, and he was the oldest man in the room. My dad told me that the LDS send Reps once in awhile and it’s not a common thing for the conferences to have LDS reps.

  13. Kent Larsen on April 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Very interesting, Hye Sung. I assume your Dad is still a member of the Unification Church?

    Do you know how the LDS reps are invited? Do they send invitations to local units? To LDS Church headquarters?

    I think we should probably see the Unification Church as a kind of ally in some respects — since both the Unification Church and Mormons are both described as cults by mainstream Christianity.

  14. Ugly Mahana on April 8, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    I dare say there is good reason not to be involved with federal regulation of faith-based funds.

    I also disagree with the claim that we wish other Christian denominations did not exist. While perhaps true in the sense that we wish all would adopt the fulness of truth that God has restored through His Church, this claim sounds perilously close to a political statement that we would ban adherence to other faiths, if only we could. That is false, and not at all consistent with our doctrine. We believe in freedom, including the freedom to reject the truth we find precious. For that reason alone, I celebrate the existence of other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, what-have-you congregations, and wish them to continue to exist.

  15. Dan on April 8, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Ugly Mahana,

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t in any way imply that I’m talking about politically removing other denominations. I’m saying that our theology leaves no room for other Christian denominations as a path to salvation. Let alone non-Christian religions.

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 8, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Mike Young, the current president of the University of Utah, who served a mission with me in Japan, served two terms as Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom when he was dean of the George Washington University Law School. A professor at BYU serves on international committees concerned with government laws supporting families. Various members of the BYU faculty have been involved with interfaith efforts at communication, such as Robert Millet. I don’t see any reluctance by the Church to have Mormons participating in projects with other churches and denominations that do not conflict with Church goals. While we are not going to participate in any kind of effort to realign LDS doctrines with those of other churches (which evangelicals would dearly love to see), we do support cooperation that supports human rights and provides aid to those in need, whether chronic poverty and disease or disaster relief.

    On the other hand, there are some other churches that don;t want to have any association with Mormons, because we have “cooties”: they think we are theologically unclean, and they don’t want to be seen as “legitimizing” us to the point that one of their church’s members might think it is OK to actually talk to Mormon missionaries. Of course, this policy of censorship, along with misrepresentation, is not very effective, since we still baptize (according to Baptist sources) some 40,000 Southern Baptists every year. I assume they keep up their hostility on the assumption that if they acted nicer to us they would lose 80,000 a year to the Mormons. I think the truth is that the publicity and prominence they give to us by constant criticism actually leads Baptists and others to investigate the Church, even as it persuades others that Baptists are kind of disagreeable folks (this was cited in the Atlanta Journal by an SBC leader to explain why the SBC membership had fallen by a net 40,000 in 2007).

    We should also note that, in our capacity as members of our professions and citizens of our communities, Mormons get lots of interfaith face time with others.

  17. Craig M. on April 8, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Perhaps the church defers interfaith activities to the discretion of local leaders. Just as you mentioned has occurred in NYC, the church where I grew up has also successfully been involved in interfaith efforts. My mother was assigned by the stake president years ago to attend my city’s interfaith council and has since; currently the different religions are having a seminar about their faith followed by an invitation for others to come visit their church the following weekend (I never would have thought my mother would attend Muslim services, but she did). She has also involved the ward in a “Caritas” program (http://www.caritasshelter.org) where local congregations take turns giving shelter and food to the homeless. Of course, our church doesn’t let people spend the night, so the people slept on cots in the Methodist church across the street, then showered and ate in ours. Our stake also helped coordinate a live nativity, inviting choirs from various local churches to sing, etc.

  18. Kent Larsen on April 9, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Raymond (16), Mike Young was our Stake President here in NYC before he went to DC and then on to the U of U. Truely a great man, and an example of someone who is open to ecumenical efforts.

  19. Kent Larsen on April 9, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Craig M. (17), I agree that local participation is very important. I’ve had similar experiences here in NYC, but perhaps not as concentrated at one time as what you see where ever you are. I have observed that such efforts, since they aren’t formally part of the Church’s overall program, require someone (or several people) in the stake willing to push for the program, and with a large enough reputation to get others to follow. A lot depends on who the local leaders are, and who the prominent members supporting and pushing for the program are.

    BUT, I don’t think we should look at this as simply a local issue. There are national programs and international ecumenical organizations and programs that deserve support and that do not conflict with our doctrine.

    Think of it from the point of view of the organizers of these programs. They put a lot of time and effort into organizing the program, they send invitations to everyone they can think of, and when it comes to the LDS Church, they either send the invitation letter to LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake, or to local Bishops and Stake Presidents. If the latter, I’ll bet they usually get no response whatsoever.

    If you went through something like that, what would your attitude be toward the religions that didn’t bother to even respond?

  20. queuno on April 10, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Part of the issue may also be that we are a busy people. Our religion demands a lot of our time, and as a result, the ecumenical often doesn’t make the list of necessary tasks.

    Absolutely. Although, I’d rephrase this as “our church demands a lot of our time”. Because, of course, our religion is helping the needy and afflicted, serving others, preaching the gospel, redeeming the dead.

    We are still very much a separatist church, bent on protecting our own interests and taking care of our membership. I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing — just where we are in our evolutionary ste

    Think of it from the point of view of the organizers of these programs. They put a lot of time and effort into organizing the program, they send invitations to everyone they can think of, and when it comes to the LDS Church, they either send the invitation letter to LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake, or to local Bishops and Stake Presidents. If the latter, I’ll bet they usually get no response whatsoever.

    That’s because the average bishop and stake president has a pretty well-defined set of priorities, and they need to focus on that. While an ecumenical effort is a valid thing, it ranks with “stake PR affairs” on that list of priorities.

    My guess is that the real target for this kind of thing should be the area authority seventies. Not every ward or stake is in a position to devote someone’s volunteer time to an ecumenical activity (unless you made it a calling, and you can’t just call *anyone*).

    Dan does have a point in that there are some natural conflicts between the aims of other faith-based organizations and ours, not the least of which is funding.

    Anyway, I think the Church is more effective when it gets involved in small-scale local community efforts, not national efforts, and I think the Church already does pretty well on an informal, community effort.

  21. sparsile on April 10, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    #3 is right on. Once the church accepts federal funds, it opens itself up to all kinds of mandates and regulations that can potentially infringe on religious rights. Remember the dust-up between the Feds and BYU over co-ed housing (http://tr.im/iByp). And after all, if Shirley Dobson can keep us from participating in the National Day of Prayer, certainly Obama can keep us from participating in a federal committee!!

  22. Kent Larsen on April 11, 2009 at 10:02 am

    sparsile (21), I wouldn’t suggest that the Church accept federal funds. That’s not what this post is about. It is about whether or not we are trying to participate where we should.

    I could care less about whether the Church is involved in this particular program. I do care about whether or not we are involved enough both nationally and locally.

    And queuno (20), I disagree. I’m not sure we’ve given national and international ecumenical efforts much of a shot, to be honest. As for local efforts, I’m not very impressed with what I’ve seen in most wards. The feeling I have is that many wards’ efforts are limited either to efforts that mainly benefit Church members, or don’t really involve any interaction with others (such as working in parks or preparing “kits” for disaster victims — useful projects, but not ecumenical in any real way).

    How many wards in your stake do more than this?

  23. queuno on April 11, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Kent (22) –

    As I said, I believe that we already do pretty well on an informal, community level. But you and I probably have different standards for this. And I know that you’re focused on strictly ecumenical efforts. Given that bar, we do poorly, sure. (But so do a lot of other churches in North Texas.). I’m more interested in local community service and welfare projects, which is where I think the church shines.

    I’ll say that 12 of the 13 wards in our stake are involved with community organizations at an informal level that actually require interaction with others (I don’t know about the singles ward). I know that every ward in our stake has regular service initiatives, both formal and informal. The stake itself has a couple of community-wide service efforts with shelters and whatnot (and I don’t count the Christmas season creche exhibit). Regionally throughout North Texas, the Church enjoys a stellar reputation for providing service when there are disasters. More important in today’s economy, the LDS Regional Employment Center is well-known and sponsors a popular interfaith networking group for job seekers. I know that when I was a stake employment specialist, LDSEC-sponsored employment training brought out nearly as many non-members and leaders from other churches as members.

    There are plenty of cases I know of of stake presidents and bishops serving on local community efforts. Elder Christofferson is well-known for his efforts prior to his call to be a Seventy. We’ve got plenty of scouters in the church who are well-known across BSA Councils (despite the Church’s best efforts, it seems, to disengage from Scouting at a local level). Locally in North Texas, I know dozens and dozens of bishops and stake leaders in our area who have been involved in community organizations (sitting on boards of shelters, scouting boards, community outreach groups). None of these required a formal SLC push. All were local initiatives. Some of our local bishops (across different stakes) have very good relationships with religious leaders from other faiths — in many cases, deep personal friendships.

    But, it doesn’t feel like we are doing very much. We do have relief efforts and make charitable contributions around the world, and get a certain about of publicity for that. But beyond that, if ecumenical efforts are happening, we don’t hear about it.

    It’s either a job of very bad PR work, or a case where if we honestly reported all of the good we do, it’d come off as bragging, because we’re doing so much.

    Anyway, I suspect that this is where the church does the most good — charity and relief and service. I honestly don’t know what good Mormon involvement in the US Council on Bishops (to cite one of your examples) would do. Coordinate on national projects? Coordinate on interfaith dialogue at a Church-wide level? Agree on doctrine? To do any of that, you *have* to go with a general authority at some point.

    And when it comes to relief efforts on a global scale, aren’t we already a model that other groups should aspire to emulate?

  24. Kent Larsen on April 11, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    queuno (23), your local efforts there in North Texas sound commendable — better that what I know of here in NYC. I hope your experience is more the norm than mine.

    I suspect we largely agree on a lot of this, except for some details, and I think both of us have made our case well enough.

    But I should correct one impression. I mentioned the US Council of Bishops simply as an example of an organization in a religion (its a Catholic group) that is somewhat independent of the hierarchy. As far as I know, you have to be a Catholic Bishop to join. I did NOT suggest that we could join it.

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