The Myth of Mormon “Secrecy”

The New York Times had an interesting article on Saturday profiling Richard Bushman, a former Columbia Professor and author who has become a sort of de facto spokesman for Mormons in this moment of heightened interest in the religion. The following paragraph (in this otherwise fair and accurate piece) caught my eye:

[Bushman] believes Mormons can overcome prejudice only through vigorous dialogue with outsiders. For the nation’s nearly six million Mormons, a largely insulated community that is barred from discussing rituals outside of temple, it is not a natural posture.

The emphasis on Mormon “insulation” as well as the hint of secrecy strike at a common theme in outsiders’ discussions of Mormonism. In the past few months, no less than three reporters have asked me questions about supposed “Mormon secrecy,” one of them focusing on the fact that Mitt Romney’s non-Mormon in-laws were not allowed to attend the Romneys’ temple marriage ceremony. Other commenters have predicted that Mormon “secrecy” would be used against Mitt Romney. And the recent news that the Oregon Supreme Court may require the LDS Church to disclose its closely guarded financial reports to the public in connection with pending litigation keep the issue at the forefront.

Which leads to the question: is the LDS Church secretive?

Short answer: Not very. The LDS Church is an enormous organization, with huge institutional resources devoted to philanthropy, administration, doctrinal correlation, building expansion, historical archiving, leadership training, proselytizing, welfare, and a host of other projects. Relative to the huge number of its concerns, the number of topics on which the Church would prefer not to comment publicly is minute. There are only two major topics that the Church prefers to keep out of the public eye, both mentioned above– a very limited range of worship rituals, known as “temple ordinances,” and its finances. The first is dealt with in Part I today. Part II to follow shortly. (See Here).

Long Answer:

First, the temple rituals, which seem to garner the most interest in press coverage. Before discussing the specifics of Mormon temple worship, it is important to note what role the Temple plays in Mormon life. One should not understate the significance of the Temple in Mormon worship. The ceremonies carried out there have far reaching effects and are seen as deeply influential in Mormon thought and individual lives. However, it is also useful to point out that despite their religious importance, temple ceremonies make up a rather small part of Mormon practice, measured both as a percentage of total Mormon rituals, and as a proportion of time spent in religious activities.

That is, where most faithful Mormons attend the Temple somewhat infrequently (ranging from a few times a month for the very committed, to the more common handful of visits per year) they attend three hours of Church services every Sunday, have other devotional services, participate in baptism ceremonies, hold weekly family home evenings, make monthly visits to each other and often attend intra-week activities and other planned events, including a twice-yearly worldwide broadcast “General Conference.” In the spectrum of LDS religious practice, the Temple is only one color among many. And every one of the above modes of worship is completely open to the public at all times (okay, if you show up unannounced at someone’s family home evening, that might be a little weird). There is nothing secret about any of these things.

Thus, it won’t do to impute the privacy surrounding the Temple to a larger tendency in the Church toward secrecy. Indeed, if anything, Mormons suffer from a tendency to over-publicize and over-share their beliefs, given the focus on sharing the faith with others around them. If you ask a practicing Mormon about Joseph Smith, the long-ago practice of polygamy, the Mormon pioneers, or any other non-Temple related issue, most will tell you everything they know, depending on your patience. Actual Mormons simply do not believe in keeping very quiet about the huge bulk of their beliefs and practices.

And yet there is still the Temple. First, what do Mormons do there that they do not want to discuss? While at the Temple, one may participate in several different ceremonies with different purposes and varying structures. Most involve making covenants of commitment to God. Many are explicitly based on Biblical stories and ceremonies. While the secrecy surrounding these activities prompts conspiracy-minded outsiders to imagine great oddities inside Temple walls, there is simply nothing that occurs in the Temple that could ever be deemed antisocial, immoral, or violative of basic behavioral norms accepted by modern people. In other words, while Temple practices might be odd to outsiders in their elaborate religiousness, there is nothing at all scandalous or offensive about them. The Temple is deemed by Mormons to be the House of the Lord. Many visit the Temple because they believe they can feel his Spirit there, a hope that is aided by the peacefulness and quiet that pervades its halls– and would not be in harmony with bizarre or macabre practices as some imagine occurring.

But why, then, won’t they talk about it? Mormons give several explanations for this. The most common is that it just won’t do to share things of the most sacred nature with a gossipy, secular public, thereby opening up the things of God to mockery. Others argue that the focus of Temple worship is a set of covenants each individual makes with God- promises made at the most personal level, and for which no one should have to answer to those who do not understand these spiritual commitments. Finally, there is the argument, based on the work of influential scholars of religion, that the Temple is meant to serve as a “sacred space,” which defines for believers a boundary between the world and the presence of God– a boundary that would be destroyed if the public were allowed to peek through the window and comment on the proceedings.

Many in today’s secular, democratic age find these rationales unconvincing. The overwhelming value our culture places on transparency predisposes us to suspect something corrupt where the sunshine is not allowed to enter. But Mormons believe these practices long pre-date modern democratic ideals, dating back the Temple of Jerusalem and the Tabernacle of the Israelites. Stated most simply, to Mormons, the Temple is God’s house, and God will decide who is invited to enter. This is a formulation that would not be unfamiliar to the ancient people of the Bible, despite its alien ring to present-day Americans. Regardless, the boundaries are not drawn to exclude any person. Rather, all that are willing to accept Mormon baptism and follow basic commandments, as well as the stricter rules regarding food and drink, tithing, chastity, etc., are welcome.

To conclude, it is true that Mormons are “secretive” about their Temple worship. Yet this fact should be accompanied by several caveats. First, Temple worship represents a very small portion of overall LDS religious practice, and should be portrayed as such by any critic pointing out the lack of dialogue on the topic (which is the major problem with the New York Times piece quoted above). Second, this is not because Mormons have something to hide, but because they seek a place to commune with God as they see fit, without accounting for what might look appealing to the world. And finally, regarding 99 percent of their beliefs, Mormons are more than forthcoming. Test this theory the next time a couple of Mormon missionaries come knocking at your door. Depending upon your actual interest in these questions, you may end up wishing they took this “secrecy” stereotype a little more seriously.

Part II is Here.

One Response to “The Myth of Mormon “Secrecy””

  1. RomneyExperience Says:

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