Gordon Monson: Can the LDS Church fix its unfavorable reputation? It can if it will.

Being “peculiar” isn’t always a good thing.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

Can we dump the proud narrative held among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, having had the notion crammed down their — our — throats for decades, that they — we — are a “peculiar” people?

“Peculiar,” in a good way.

A lot of Latter-day Saints read into “peculiar” another word — “special,” maybe even “chosen,” which is to say, “favored by God.”

A lot of Americans read something else into the word “peculiar,” or the reputation that goes along with it. They read “weird” or “odd” or “strange.” Whatever the exact interpretive term is, it’s not a compliment.

You may have read in The Salt Lake Tribune that a recent Pew Research Center poll of more than 10,000 Americans found that neither Mormons nor Latter-day Saints, call them whatever you want, even if they’re all the same people, is seen in a favorable light.

If God supposedly favors you, but Jill and Joe Sixpack think you’re kooky, how’s that help to build the Kingdom of God on earth? Just wondering here.

Sure, some Latter-day Saint doctrines are different. They center on Christ, but some Christian churches disapprove of the focus of that centering. Some don’t like the belief that God the Father is a separate being from Jesus Christ the Son. They don’t approve of the idea that prophets and apostles have been restored to the earth and that those folks get ongoing revelation directly from God in guiding their church. And they might not think it’s too cool that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims itself to be the only true religion.

That’s all problematic, as is the worldwide missionary effort by the church that seeks to snatch converts away from other faiths, Christian and otherwise, declaring that the Latter-day Saint way is the better way.

Throw in historical mistakes such as racism, sexism, polygamy and the whole Proposition 8 debacle along with a general rejection, either perceived or actual, of LGBTQ individuals and, well, such matters send a message to humans near and far of severe judgment and exclusivity.

It’s fair to assume that Americans don’t like being judged and don’t like being excluded. They find that not just “peculiar” but objectionable.

Real Latter-day Saints are nice

Here’s the thing, though. Faithful members of the scorned church are mostly good peeps. They aren’t freaks or jerks or maniacs or bullies or zealots, no matter what you see on TV shows and out of the Utah Legislature.

Like most groups, there is a percentage of them — us — who snugly fit one or all of those designations. But it has been my experience that most — many, at least — of the faithful are kindhearted people, good neighbors who are striving to follow Christ. They want to be decent to everyone.

These members are far from perfect, of course, and they — we — need to remember that, remember also that agency is a key component to the church’s doctrine. God’s children are free to choose for themselves what they believe, how they behave, what political party they belong to, what commandments they follow, how they live, how they worship.

The difficulty for the church comes in emphasizing that particular religious truth while attempting to share with the world its more comprehensive versions of truth. Share its beliefs, but also live and let live, live and let be.

Speaking of living, the church has lived with its heretofore-mostly-untempered core doctrines. If the prophet and apostles can open their minds — they already debate mightily among themselves before presenting a united front — enough to alter some of them, it might work to their advantage to do so, to modernize some of the more antiquated notions. If it can, it should. If it can’t, it will suffer the consequences in the eyes of the nation, in the eyes of the world.

But then, there’s the saying within the church of being “in the world, not of it.”

I obviously can’t speak for God here. What precisely does he want? I do not know. Does he really care about every extreme? I do not know. Was he the one who told Brigham Young to install racist policies? That I do know. The plain answer is no. Apostle Dieter Uchtdorf flatly stated that past leaders “simply made mistakes.” Surely this specific one was inexcusable.

How the church can boost its image

If the church wants to make itself more appealing (and it does, based on what insiders have said, based on its missionary emphasis) to the people who apparently hold it in relatively low esteem, those who make up a large portion of, according to church teachings, “God’s children on earth,” some changes are in order — from the cultural to the spiritual to the doctrinal. An apology mixed in here and there wouldn’t hurt, either.

If it wants to cling to the way things have been or are right now, preferring to make itself a righteous example of “peculiar,” then church membership is likely to lurch and perceptions will suffer.

Hardcore Latter-day Saints will say, “Who cares? God’s church is God’s church. It will not bend, and those who reject it will be the ones missing out, lurching and suffering.” But, again, those who would be missing out are God’s children, too. Is there a way to bridge the gap?

If God is to condemn to lesser reward the vast majority of the world, the vast majority of his children, then it could be said that he failed in this mortal endeavor, hoisting up only the truly righteous, the few, the proud, the obedient.

If that prospect is appealing to Latter-day Saints, there’s something inherently un-Christlike about that. It is judgmental, exclusive, exclusionary, objectionable.

It’s — here it comes — “peculiar.”

And if that’s what the church wants to be in a self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory kind of way, Americans, and most humans, won’t like that, won’t lean into it. They will turn away from it. They’ll figure God doesn’t fail.

Maybe a few changes in attitudes and latitudes would go a long way to solving the perception problem, God willing.

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