Ground Rules When Dialoguing with Mormons

I recently wrote an article offering a different approach to communicating with Mormons. Instead of the often confrontational stance of trying to prove their theology wrong on biblical grounds, or, even less effective, mocking their unusual beliefs, I suggested Catholics work within a paradigm of hospitality and empathy, inviting LDS members into their home, feeding them, graciously listening to them, and then, if appropriate, providing a few pointed critiques of their beliefs. One gentleman, a senior LDS leader in Australia with a sterling academic portfolio, didn’t like my article, and contacted me personally to make his criticisms known. The interaction reminded me of what most frustrates me in engaging in dialogue with Mormons. Below are two things I kindly, but strongly, request LDS members stop doing when trying to talk to Catholics about their faith.

Let me preface these two requests with a few remarks. First, as I stated in my original TCT piece, I love and respect members of the LDS faith for many reasons. I consider about a score of them to be close friends. While living in Thailand, I worked closely with the LDS to bring relief to Christian asylum seekers. None of these LDS folk have ever applied the tactics I will describe below—this has only been the case with LDS missionaries, acquaintances, or strangers. Secondly, none of the frustrations I recount below are based exclusively on my interaction with this one Mormon. Indeed, the tactics he employed have been a consistent theme in my interactions with many evangelizing LDS members. This of course doesn’t mean they are normative for all Mormons, but my half-dozen experiences of the same thing is enough to reasonably conclude this is common. Thirdly, I know these tactics are encouraged by some segments of the LDS—one close friend, an LDS bishop, a leader of a ward (equivalent to a Catholic parish), told me that he has witnessed (and disapproves of) the approaches I describe below.

Stop with the Gaslighting
The Australian Mormon I cited above—with whom I had never had any previous contact, messaged me after publication of my article. He told me that my piece mocked LDS missionaries. This was a bit confounding, given the effusive praise I offered for the LDS and their missionaries. It took several messages to unpack exactly how, in this man’s eyes, I had ridiculed Mormons. The man explained that by implicitly telling the missionaries (and, more explicitly, him) that I believed Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, to be a scoundrel and liar, I had mocked Mormon persons and “judged” them. This was also a head-scratcher.

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Many people, especially, one hopes, those with extensive academic credentials, are capable of recognizing the difference between judging a person’s belief and judging the person. The former is a critique of an idea, perhaps one that is strongly and deeply held. Such critiques are necessary for any debate where differences of opinion exist—indeed, it would be both bizarre and disingenuous to withhold such criticisms. The latter is a critique of one’s interlocutor, an ad hominem, and inexcusable in debate when the person’s character has nothing to do with the idea. If someone told me they believed Jesus was a false prophet and a liar, I’d want to know specifics on why the person thought so. If he told me that I was knowingly a liar, I’d be right to take offense. In the case of criticizing Joseph Smith, Mormons believe him to be a prophet and a conduit of the true Gospel. Yet there is significant historical evidence that paints a portrait of a man of questionable character. To raise these isn’t to judge the character of individual Mormons, but their beliefs regarding their founder.

I’ve also witnessed a good bit of gaslighting in reference to “Moroni’s Promise.” This is the Mormon belief that if a person reads the Book of Mormon prayerfully and with sincerity of heart, and asks the Holy Spirit to reveal to them if the text is indeed God’s word, the Holy Spirit will confirm this truth to that individual. My interlocutor asked me if I had made a good faith attempt to respond to Moroni’s Promise. I told him that I had. Moreover, I told him that when I had read the Book of Mormon and prayed to God, I got a strong feeling not only that it was not God’s Word, but that it was full of lies. Yet, multiple times, the man intimated that I had not done what I said. He asked if I had read it with “real intent,” trusting that Christ could reveal that the Book of Mormon is true. Again he pressed that one must read it with a “humble heart,” suggesting I hadn’t done this. With all due respect, how could someone, especially a total stranger, be able to evaluate my sincerity? It is hard not to classify this line of questioning as manipulative.

Admit the Dilemma With Your Message
It’s worth exploring Moroni’s Promise further, because it keeps coming up with Mormons who try to convert me. As stated above, I had made a good faith effort in responding to the proposal, and perceived a strong “negative” regarding its divine origin. But, of course, I readily acknowledge that this was my subjective experience. I had approached the text on my own, in prayer, as the promise proposes. I couldn’t possibly expect all persons to have the same experience. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong! Yet pious Mormons read the text and develop an opinion that is antithetical to mine—that it truly is of God. Then they go around telling people that their experience is absolutely trustworthy and legitimate. A number of times over the last ten years, I’ve noted this dilemma to Mormons—if two people prayerfully read a religious book and come to opposite conclusions regarding its message, who should arbitrate, and on what grounds? The answer, which any rational person can recognize, is that apart from applying objective criteria like logic or history, there is no way to arbitrate this problem.

When I explained this dilemma to my Australian interlocutor, this was his word-for-word response: “Subjective – objective? They are words, Casey. Search your heart.” Talk about obfuscation! Moreover, in a later comment he wrote that I had said “all religious experience is subjective,” when I had said no such thing—I had said the paradigm of Moroni’s Promise is subjective. In contrast to Mormonism, the Catholic paradigm encourages that objective criteria be applied to subjective religious experience. If a person thinks the Holy Spirit is telling him to lie, steal, or commit adultery, he should consult Holy Scripture and the magisterial teaching of the Church to see if his subjective experience might be leading him astray.

The problem with Moroni’s Promise isn’t just that it’s subjective. It also limits the ability to engage in productive ecumenical dialogue. By default, it presumes the superiority of one person’s subjective experience over another’s. The fervent LDS member presumes his or her religious experience trumps that of the non-LDS person. Yet there is absolutely no objective reason to believe this is the case. Some LDS folks, when pushed up against this problem, simply let it drop and move on. Others, including a number of Mormons I’ve encountered, push ahead with the manipulation and gaslighting, urging people to reconsider their own subjective experience. At this point, any chance of productive conversation is gone.

“I Don’t Wanna Be Right”
In one scene in “Coming to America,” starring Eddie Murphy, a charismatic pastor declares, “If loving the Lord is wrong then I don’t wanna be right.” When I’ve interacted with many Mormons seeking to convert me, this line of thinking—that something that might be objectively wrong is still worth believing—often seems to be the default. Yet when Mormons (again, not all of them) think this way, it compartmentalizes one’s very person, as if the spirit and the intellect are intrinsically in conflict with one another.

Holy Scripture tells us that the Spirit is one “of truth” (John 16:13), not just one that offers subjective, sentimental experiences. Moreover, 1 John 4 tells us to “test the spirits” and evaluate if they are truly from God. If we don’t apply objective criteria, how could we possibly do this testing? If more Mormons were to admit this, and pursue the suggestions I’ve offered above, we might have a chance at a more fruitful ecumenical exchange.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)


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