The Mormon Option

The Mormon Option
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When Damon Linker taught political philosophy at Brigham Young University, his contract required that he, one of few non-Mormons at a college run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "abide by the university's strict honor code, which mandated that I shave my beard, refrain from uttering curse words, and forswear alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea for the entire duration of my employment."

Yet strangely enough, he discovered that within a system of strict behavioral requirements, academic freedom flourished. "I was perfectly free to teach whatever I wanted in the classroom. And I did," including the radical writings of everyone from Machiavelli to Rousseau to Nietzche and his suggestion that "God is dead." When a singular complaint arose about a scandalous scene in Aristophanes' The Clouds, the department chair let Linker know "that I had his support. There was no reprimand" -- nor demand for trigger warnings or syllabus alterations.

Linker's conclusion, that faith-based schools not swept up in illiberal thought currents might become the last bastions of liberal thought, provides an interesting contrast to The Atlantic's epic critique of higher education, a contrast that begets broader questions about the role of religion in promoting true tolerance. While elite college students in The Atlantic's analysis fall prey to living in perpetual victimhood, labeling, and viewing anyone in disagreement as an enemy, religion encourages personal responsibility, outreach, and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Could one of the solutions to today's increasing balkanization of people lie in the examples of battered church-goers who have to accept and move beyond each other's differences and forgive each other because, well, God told them to? As the late, great atheist-turned-Catholic Malcolm Muggeridge put it, religion's vision of God as a father and the human race as a family creates an equality not "as political idealists like to pretend, not at all, but equal as brothers and sisters in a family are equal."

But when people think of the religiously devout -- whether Latter-day Saints, evangelicals, or Catholics -- "diverse" might not immediately come to mind. Outsiders associate behavioral guidelines with intellectual and emotional ones, but dismissing believers as incapable of empathizing with those outside their belief system usually comes from those who have never experienced the congregations they disparage. If they went inside, they'd discover a big and surprisingly diverse world of believers moving along the straight and narrow path.

A few years ago, an Assemblies of God pastor moved into our Salt Lake City neighborhood and she helped us discover that a building we drove past frequently housed worship services for people from Myanmar, Pacific Islands, Africa, and a couple countries I'd never heard of. She invited us to their yearly Passion play in which a Central American who worked at the Wal-Mart optical shop played Jesus, and Tongans, Hispanics, African-Americans, and whites played everyone else.

Robert P. George captures the spirit of this phenomenon in a First Things homage to the "glorious diversity" of his conventional Princeton Catholic parish, including "people I know who are Irish, Polish, Italian, Mexican, Filipino, Guatemalan...African, Indian (the kind from India), Korean, Vietnamese, Colombian...Lebanese, Japanese, Jamaican, Chilean, Ecuadorean -- all in the same local parish." George goes on to describe socio-economic differences among his fellow worshippers that include multi-millionaires and bakers, laborers, university professors, college students, and people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

A 2014 survey found that Mainline Protestant churches -- whose clarion call consists of diversity -- tend to be whiter, older, and more educated. It's American Catholics, Pentecostals, and evangelicals who are less white, younger, and more economically and educationally diverse. Religions of both conservative and liberal bents, according to a Christian Science Monitor analysis, are creating greater outreach after witnessing the example of Emanuel AME Church members' display of "the power of faith in promoting racial harmony under that most trying conditions" when they forgave the white supremist who shot their Bible Study group.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might engender a vision of uniformity and white suburbanality that belies its incredible international and racial diversity. My family recently returned from a trip to Asia where we talked with Mormons there about life and jobs with my son's former mission companions and friends in Taiwan. They gave us rides around Taipei on their scooters, took us to their neighborhood eateries, and played basketball with my kids. In Thailand, where another son served a mission, we attended church services in Chiang Mai in which a Danish woman taught the English-speaking Sunday school comprised of humanitarian workers in India, a British family living in China, and various American college interns for the summer. Just like in Taiwan, we joined everyone for pot luck and socializing afterward, followed by a baptismal service conducted by an expatriate Italian, followed by a Thai family (par for the course in our international church-going experience) driving us to their home for food, shared stories, and singing.

These paradigm-shifting encounters mirror our exposure to others in our worldwide LDS family: German friends from our oldest son's mission, Hungarians from my daughter's current one, and a steady stream of Brazilian amigos from my own South American service in the late-80s service which forced me to re-examine my worldview moreso than any undergraduate and graduate programs.

Non-religious excursions can offer this kind of exposure and altruism, as any Peace Corps, Teach for America, or community bridge-builder volunteer will attest. And plenty of folks in religious communities, mine included, find their faith tradition the ideal means with which to narrow their worldview and stick to the likeminded. Still, incentives to overcome differences remain powerful in spiritual communities. A lifelong friend and I reflect with some irony on how we met in the same publishing program at Harvard -- where she hung out with the other black students and I with the white. It was only through membership in the same church that we finally connected.

We of the narrow, big religious world live out a paradox of adhering to certain commandments while also viewing those different from us, who don't abide by the same prescriptions, as brothers and sisters. Those inclined to dismantle religious influence -- as we retreat further and further into our cultural silos -- may one day regret the waning of a force that motivated leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who tried to unite the world.

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

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