Misunderstanding or Malice?

March 11, 2011 | 22 comments
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00aa-MisunderstandingI came across an interesting reaction to LDS missionaries recently. A letter to the editor of an English-language Thai paper suggested that the presence of LDS missionaries there is an insult: “Why do Mormon missionaries in particular always travel thousands of miles on the ‘mission’ when Mormonism was entirely founded in the United States over a century ago, yet the US is 98 per cent non-Mormon?”

What is important here, I think, is not the misunderstanding of Mormon motives, but the worldview of this letter. Like many of you, I’m sure I could give a reasonable explanation of why we must “travel thousands of miles” to preach when there is so much preaching to do at home. But explanations fall on deaf ears if they conflict with how the recipient sees the world.

These odd (to us) perceptions of Mormonism don’t just happen in Thailand, of course. They happen here in the U.S. also. Among the reactions to BYU’s suspension of starting basketball player Brandon Davies are clearly different worldviews from those who criticize the move—from those who think almost anything is permissible, to those who think winning is most important, to those who value privacy over commitment. Other news and LDS activites—proposition 8, missionary work, genealogy, etc.—also have exposed the differences between Mormon views and those of the writer.

Too often our reactions are knee-jerk. We rise and defend the faith before understanding the worldview of the critic. Worse, we often defend the faith instead of acknowledging our error or how we may have unintentionally offended.

I see this kind of reaction all the time, from the Deseret News as well as the Mormon apologists. The latest overreaction is in response to a mundane article in the Economist on the potential presidential candidacies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Federal Way Conservative somehow saw defamation and inaccuracies important enough to criticize. But when I read his complaints, I couldn’t help feeling that he was making a mountain out of a mole hill. If nothing else, he doesn’t understand where the Economist is coming from.

As I search and look for news about Mormons and Mormonism, I frequently have the feelings that, I think, FWC must have—frustrations at how the media and others just don’t get Mormons. I’ve sometimes wondered if Mormonism doesn’t need a kind of Anti-Defamation League, an organization that responds and clarifies where the LDS Church’s public affairs won’t. Then I read an over-reaction and fear that a Mormon Anti-Defamation League would be dominated by over-reactions.

Occasionally I do respond to the items I find frustrating and try to clarify Mormon beliefs and situation, pointing out where there are misunderstandings and differences in perspective. Other times I’m just trying to defend my beliefs. Sometimes its obvious that there is malice against Mormons. Other times its just misunderstandings.

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22 Responses to Misunderstanding or Malice?

  1. Reagan Republican on March 11, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    What would be a good answer to the question from the Thai newspaper?

  2. M. Buxton on March 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Kent,

    Another thing that I think is important is giving positive feedback to non-Mormons in the media who accurately portray Mormon doctrine and points of view. I remember a few years back reading an article in the Boston Globe that clearly showed more than a surface understanding of Mormons. I can’t even remember what the article was about. It was not pro-Mormon, but it accurately explained Mormon beliefs. I wrote the author an email and said that I appreciated his reporting and that he took the time to understand and explain the Mormon perspective.

  3. Kent Larsen on March 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Reagan Republican, I think the answer might start with a question like “Why do you think proselyting is an insult?” Clearly the person who wrote the letter sees some kind of negative impact from conversions. It would be nice to know what that is before trying to respond.

  4. Kent Larsen on March 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    M. Buxton (2), you mean we should be saying nice things about articles like Forbes’ recent profile of Clayton Christensen?

    http://blogs.forbes.com/davidwhelan/2011/02/23/the-survivor-part-1-clayton-christensen-a-life-in-health/

  5. Jonathan Gardner on March 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for the mention, but I don’t think The Economist has an excuse when it comes to their “minor” inaccuracies and general tone. The Economist isn’t a sensational rag—they are comparable to the Wall Street Journal, which shouldn’t ever have a bone to pick with any group of people but should focus on accurate, non-sensational reporting. It’s clear that the author did pick up a phone and talk with the PR people at the church, but it’s also clear someone was feeding them carefully assembled bits and pieces that are designed to mislead and injure our image. Rather than portray the church neutrally, they tried to create controversy.

  6. aquinas on March 11, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks for the post. Just to provide some context on your first story, here is the original article, which is quite favorable. The story is about a English teacher in Thailand who started learning Thai as a missionary. The article quotes him as saying: “I don’t want to be like so many of the farang who come here and expects everybody to speak English. That’s not respecting Thai culture.” The response to the article, that you cite, latches on the question of what it means to respect culture and argues that seeking to convert Thai “Buddhists to Christianity” is not respecting Thai culture. Rather, respecting Thai Culture would be to “learn about Buddhism rather than trying to turn Thai people away from it.”

    In my view, this is a legitimate and enduring question that isn’t based on misunderstanding of Mormonism. Even if the most articulate Latter-day Saint explained the underlying reasons for Mormon missionary work, the Great Commission, and Mormon soteriology, the question would not go away. Is evangelism inherently offensive to local cultures? Does respecting culture mean moratoriums on evangelism? Thus, I do think it is important to think broadly about contested issues relating to religion and culture, and not view this as an attack on Mormonism, but simply a manifestation of these larger issues that aren’t based in misunderstandings of religious views, but based on fundamental disagreements with those views, even when correctly and accurately understood.

  7. Dane Laverty on March 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I think the case would be stronger if Buddhism were native to Thailand. But since Buddhism itself was “imported”, I think that opens the door to allow others as well.

  8. Sean on March 11, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    aquinas (#6) – That’s excellent context, thank you.

    Dane (#7) – I think that’s a valid point generally speaking. But Buddhism has been the state religion in Thailand for over 800 years, and the general historical consensus (from what I can tell) is that Buddhism has been in Thailand for over 1,500 years. So it’s well-established and entrenched there. I was a missionary in Thailand almost 20 years ago, and Buddhism dominates the culture there.

  9. Kaimi on March 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    There is a lot of overreaction in that post, isn’t there? For instance, the author seems to believe that the image of Joseph Smith using a hat for translation was invented by South Park. (In fact, it comes directly from David Whitmer’s account, and has been cited as accurate by current church leaders. See, e.g., this talk by Elder Russell M. Nelson.)

  10. Kaimi on March 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Similarly, the statement that Joseph Smith was “semi-literate” is viewed as an attack. In fact, that sort of description is usually used by Mormon apologists, who quote Emma Smith’s statement that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired because Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter” at the time, due to his lack of education.

  11. Brad Dennis on March 11, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    “We rise and defend the faith before understanding the worldview of the critic. Worse, we often defend the faith instead of acknowledging our error or how we may have unintentionally offended.”

    Well said. I actually just watched an interview by Jon Stewart of the creators of South Park on their Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” which they touted to be a “celebration of Mormonism” rather than a criticism of it. However, of course, a fair share of Mormons have indeed taken offense at “The Book of Mormon.” The point is that outsiders can give fair portrayals of Mormonism without having to present it in the same package that the LDS church does.

    On the flip side, there are portrayals of Mormonism-here I am thinking of those by evangelical movements angry at the LDS church for ‘stealing’ their members-which I don’t feel great sympathy towards. The makers of “The Godmakers” and friends are out to shock and offend, and not to give fair treatment. But I don’t take offense, I just roll my eyes.

  12. Kent Larsen on March 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    Jonathan Gardner (5) wrote:

    Thanks for the mention, but I don’t think The Economist has an excuse when it comes to their “minor” inaccuracies and general tone. The Economist isn’t a sensational rag—they are comparable to the Wall Street Journal, which shouldn’t ever have a bone to pick with any group of people but should focus on accurate, non-sensational reporting.

    Jonathan, do you read the Economist frequently? I’ve read it occasionally for something like 30 years (I subscribed at one point), and I’ve generally enjoyed it. The “general tone” of this article seems just like the tone of other articles it publishes, IMO.

    I don’t see the “bone to pick” that you believe the Economist has with Mormonism — it didn’t look like it was there in the article when I read it. And the “inaccuracies” you see, are what I would expect from an author who doesn’t really understand Mormonism well.

    It’s clear that the author did pick up a phone and talk with the PR people at the church, but it’s also clear someone was feeding them carefully assembled bits and pieces that are designed to mislead and injure our image. Rather than portray the church neutrally, they tried to create controversy.

    Oh, I don’t think that is clear at all.

    Nor do I see any attempt to create controversy in the article.

    If you read the post above, you might see where I’m coming from. Your criticism seems to ignore where the Economist is coming from, and you regularly “read into” what it says something other than seems reasonable.

    Regardless of your intentions, the problem here is how your criticism will be perceived. And unfortunately, your criticism comes across as petty (because the issues aren’t very important) and defensive.

    If we take the time to understand where authors like the author of the Economist article are coming from, I think we can better decide whether or not to respond and how to respond when we do.

  13. Kent Larsen on March 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    aquinas (#6) – I agree with you.

    I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think the letter to the editor is without merit. I do think that Mormons can explain why we proselyte those of other cultures. But that doesn’t mean that the effort doesn’t have an effect on other cultures.

    Culture is very important — something that influences how individuals act. Like many others I am persuaded that destruction of a culture often destroys individuals that belong to that culture (the situation of the American Indians comes to mind in this respect).

    On the other hand, cultures naturally change, and its hard to feel like Mormon proselyting is creating so much cultural change that Thai culture will be destroyed anytime soon. And even so, Mormon missionaries don’t enter a country without governmental permission — the same permission that missionaries of other faiths use to enter Thailand. If the culture is being destroyed by proselyting, its because the Thai government has invited missionaries to enter the country and proselyte.

    So, I don’t know that I can be as certain as the letter writer is that Mormon proselyting is bad for the culture, but I do recognize that this is something that deserves attention and thought.

    in any case, its really outside of the point of my post.

  14. Ardis E. Parshall on March 11, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    I smiled at the word “tizzy” when I read the Economist article the other day because I’m so not in tizzy mode; overall I thought it was the kind of article we ought to be glad to see. Real people are taking us seriously and writing about us without that sharp bite that we all recognize when somebody isn’t trying hard enough to conceal his contempt. I agree with the point I think you’re making with your title: When errors can be understood as misunderstandings, we’re wiser to treat them that way and not assume malice.

    On the Thai example, while I of course am thoroughly steeped in the Mormon point of view, I can understand the letter-writer’s response quite easily. It’s the same hostile gut reaction I have to non-Mormon participants in our bloggernacle discussions when they come here not to observe and learn and understand, but to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we could improve our theology and our social practices by adopting the beliefs and practices of the commenter’s church. From the point of view of the Thai letter-writer, our missionaries are not there to observe and learn and understand; no matter how much our missionaries say they love the Thai people and admire this or that aspect of Buddhist culture, we’re still there to tell Thai Buddhists to change their beliefs and practices to be more like ours.

    I don’t know what the answer for better relations is, but I do know that going overboard in the style of FWC is, um, not quite right.

  15. JimD on March 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    @1: The obvious answer is, God likes Thais better than He likes Americans.

  16. Stephen Hardy on March 12, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    This is an interesting post with interesting responses. I also served a mission in Thailand. There are a few bits of information that might help us understand the Thai point of view. First, Thais are enormously proud that their country was never a European colony. Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, and other regional countries were under British, French, (or other European) influence. However, Thailand remained free of such influence. When I was in Thailand, doing missionary work, Thais repeatedly explained to me that this history of freedom from European rule was due to the unity of the people under the rule of the King, and their unity in Buddhism. Indeed, we were told frequently that it was treasonous to leave Buddhism, because to be Thai is to be Buddhist. (Their culture and religion are so inter-twined that it is impossible to separate them. This problem raises occasional problems for Thai members who aren’t certain whether certain national celebrations are in fact religious observances.) So its true that we would occasionally meet someone who was profoundly upset that we were there, even in small numbers, because they believe that Christianity may result in a fracture of the Thai unity around Buddhism. (It’s true that a substantial minority of Thai’s are Muslim, especially in the south where Malaysia and Thailand share a border. This is an area of political unrest and occasional violence. This fact drives home the idea (for many Thais, I understand) that the country needs to stay unified. I must admit that I have thought about this many times, and have wondered whether I ought to hope that large numbers of Thais would become Mormon, or hope that their unity around their religion continues. This background may help one understand the Thai resentment around the presence of (mostly American) Mormon missionaries.

  17. Kent Larsen on March 12, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Stephen (16), that is fascinating. You describe one of the major hurdles that missionaries face in many places (not just Thailand). Clearly for anyone responding to critics like the author of the letter I referred to, this information is important.

    It doesn’t necessarily make a difference, but we should probably recognize that the letter is in an English-language publication in Thailand, and the author’s name appears to be Scottish or Irish, not Thai.

    Even with all the information about Thailand, I’m still reticent to respond personally. Someone like you Stephen, with a better understanding of Thai culture could respond better than I. A native Thai member of the Church might do even better.

    This is, of course, the point of the post. We need to understand where the criticism is coming from before we respond. Had I responded to the letter on the Thai news site, I easily could have done more harm than good.

  18. WJ on March 12, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Kent, I object to your ludicrous insinuations and your biased accusations against members who faithfully defend their religion! You clearly don’t understand the first thing about Mormonism. (how did I do on the overreaction front?)

    I think determining between misunderstanding and malice is important, though I do think there are circumstances when malice is intentionally cloaked as misunderstanding, so the perpetrator can then feign ignorance when the backlash comes (but thats probably the problem: that the backlash seems to inevitably come — perhaps we’re too easily manipulated).

  19. Kent Larsen on March 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    WJ (18), you mean like Mike Huckabee with Romney in 2008?

  20. Velikiye Kniaz on March 14, 2011 at 2:16 am

    Stephen Hardy makes an excellent point regarding religion being deeply intertwined with national identity. The same can be said about the Russians. I have a very close friend who is a native Russian who feels exactly the same way about Russian identity and Orthodoxy. Whether there was an apostasy or not is not relevant for him. To them, Moscow,(Mockba), is the ‘third Rome’ or seat of true Christianity. (Orthodoxy comes from the Greek meaning, “right thinking”.) The first Rome was, of course, the capitol of the Roman Empire which fell to the barbarians due to their religious errors; the second “Rome” was Constantinople which fell to the Muslims. The third and last is Moscow* since it is now the seat of the Patriarch of all the Russias, successor to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Before the rise of the soviet state, the unofficial imperial motto was, “God, Tsarism and Orthodoxy!”
    My Russian friend, although deeply respecting the LDS Church, told be that he could never join because it would be a betrayal of his Russian identity. I am fairly certain that similar sentiments are held in other Slavic, Orthodox countries. Conversion of the Russians may go slowly, but the Prophet Joseph prophesied that the Russian “Empire” would play an important part in bringing to pass events preceding the Second Coming.

    *Some Russians feel that the “third Rome” did in fact fall when the Soviets came to power and closed or destroyed the churches, looted their treasures, murdered their prients and nuns, and killed the last legally elected non-Communist Patriarch, Tikhon, a former Metropolitan of San Francisco.

  21. Alan lambson on March 14, 2011 at 11:58 am

    The question of proselytizing comes back again to a matter of world view, as Kent correctly states. In the Western (and especially American) view, religious pluralism is the norm, and so a given general culture is not necessarily tied to a specific religion. Much of the Arab world represents the opposite extreme, where it unthinkable that a person born Muslim could ever be anything else.

    From a Western point of view, it would be an insult to a culture to suppose that its members must be shielded from the open marketplace of religious ideas provided by unrestricted proselytizing.

  22. Kent Larsen on March 14, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Thx, Alan.

    In case its been misunderstood, let me make the point again. Its not an issue of which world view is correct.

    What is important is understanding what the world views of others are.