Let us preach here, brothers and sisters, angels and demons, regular Jills and Joes, whomever or whatever you may consider yourselves to be.
A million discussions — and debates — have been had inside and outside of churches regarding both the application of and expectation for obedience to God’s laws and demonstration of Christian love extended to fellow humans, and then, further, which among the two is most significant.
A current related conversation, and argument, specifically within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints centers on an idea that distinctly favors one over the other, but actually fulfills both — namely, the place and space for acceptance and inclusion among all.
That acceptance and inclusion include warmly inviting everyone into the tent and being happy for those who stick a foot in, those who stick a foot out, and those who choose to keep their body parts elsewhere, without judgment of any kind.
Of all the corrosive elements among some Latter-day Saints and the structure upon which they hang their lives, exclusivity ranks among the worst. It is prideful, destructive and unhelpful. If devout members believe they have a greater portion of God’s truth, swinging that truth like a tire iron, attempting to force that belief on those who don’t have it, don’t want it, don’t believe it, either at the same level or at any level, doesn’t further the cause, it doesn’t garner the Almighty’s favor. It does the opposite.
Religion, however veracious, when wrongly applied can be damaging, malignant, anything but loving, creating the self-righteous, self-congratulatory notion that if you think you follow the strictures, that you properly believe, you’re in, you’re good, you’re accepted, you’re saved; and the connected condemnation thrown at others, those who, according to your judgment, don’t follow the strictures, don’t properly believe, they’re out, they’re bad, they’re rejected, they’re doomed.
Drawing a line on a spiritual plane between those deemed righteous and those deemed unrighteous, respecting the former, disrespecting the latter, is a dangerous deal. Sifting the wheat from the tares — gathering the wheat, burning the tares — is equally dangerous.
The problem with that delineation is pretty basic: Humans are not crops. In most cases, they’re not all one thing or all the other. They are a mix of a whole lot of things, elements of good and bad, even if they are agnostic, even if they are baptized into a church at age 8.
Last time anybody checked, Latter-day Saints are, in fact, humans, most of them anyway, and so are their neighbors, regardless of where they put or don’t put their faith.
The praiseworthy-and-positive is sprinkled all around, and so is the nasty-and-negative. Neither is singularly contained inside or found outside chapel doors.
The BYU problem
The Utah story that’s been told, again and again, to the point where it seems apocryphal, is the one about the overzealous Latter-day Saint parents who prohibit their children from playing with non-Latter-day Saint children — even though top church leaders have derided such a practice.
That tale was new to me when I moved here from out of state a few decades ago and initially I didn’t believe it really happened because it seemed to fly directly in the face of everything I’d learned in my wards, or congregations, back East and out farther West. But then I heard it told by trusted friends of other faiths here who had experienced it, along with their kids, firsthand.
Even if that extreme attitude is rare, an outlier, elements of it can seep into other social behaviors — from the people folks associate with, to the folks they trust, to the business deals they make, to the politicians they support.
Such interactions, such biases for and against, happen among Latter-day Saints themselves, too, depending on perceived faithfulness and worthiness. If a member shows up for a worship service smelling like he just had a shot of Jim Beam, is that individual treated differently than those who have never knocked back anything stronger than a Diet Sprite?
This is one of the problems with Brigham Young University’s Honor Code standards. They directly and indirectly teach students and faculty to religiously judge others — based on both interpretations of obedience and outward appearances. Compliance, good. Beard, bad.
One of my favorite memories as a 15-year-old, riding in the car with my family to a sacrament meeting, was spotting Brother So-and-So, driving ahead of us in his Lincoln Continental en route to the same meeting, with the window down, blowing cigar smoke out of that open window, as though he were a human smokestack at a Pittsburgh steel plant. My father, a former bishop, who saw the same friend, the same smoke, looked at me, cracked a smile, and, with no hint of condescension, said: “Brother So-and-So is such a great guy.”
I got the message loud and clear, even as a young knucklehead: Don’t you dare judge the man. It’s not your place.
Judging women and men — their spirituality, their righteousness — in the church and out of it is part of the corrosion. Again, I’m singling out Latter-day Saints here because that religion has a chapel on every third block in Utah. And in those buildings, congregations are taught and exhorted to follow a long list of commandments to honor God, to “stay on the covenant path.” And when you hear those directives, week after week, month after month, year after year, it’s tricky to separate applying those teachings to yourself from applying them to others as well.
That pratfall ignores this sage bumper sticker counsel, which is as wise as anything anybody could hear at church: “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you do.”
Point is, everybody sins. Latter-day Saint, non-Latter-day Saint. Believer, nonbeliever. And everyone in between.
Those who check the boxes of, say, a Latter-day Saint temple recommend interview don’t necessarily have it made because, first, they may not have answered those questions as forthrightly as they could have, and, second, those questions have holes in them the size of those caused by the gun blasts of a battleship, and, third, there are a gazillion great people who live or have lived on this earth who wouldn’t qualify for entrance into a temple but who are, nonetheless, some of God’s finest souls.
One of the biggest challenges Utah’s predominant faith faces, according to people who study such stuff, in holding onto members, especially younger ones, and creating space for more of them is finding a way to be more inclusive, more welcoming, more loving, more understanding, more forgiving.
Researcher Jana Riess found that Latter-day Saint millennials cited being “judged or misunderstood” among the top reasons they left the fold. Imagine how some non-church-members feel under the Latter-day Saint purview.
It’s for leaders and the general membership to extend love and acceptance to those around them — whether they’re in the church or out of it, whether they’re interested in it or not interested. That’s the way God seems to want it with the whole love-thy-neighbor deal.
Put down the tire iron.
Nobody said you have to agree with your neighbor on everything, but showing respect and acceptance and decency is straight on a cool path, whether it’s the covenant one or not.
Bottom line: If you’re a believer in the Latter-day Saint faith, good for you. If you sort of believe, but aren’t sure, good for you. If you follow the strictures, good for you. If you adhere to some of the strictures, but not all of them, good for you. If you don’t believe and don’t want to believe, good for you.
In a religious sense, no attempt should be made to shoehorn people into believing something they do not believe or into following rules that have no meaning to them. Nor should people be treated differently because they believe or act differently.
I know, I know, grandiose, castle-in-the-air thinking.
But wouldn’t it be a bit of heaven if Utah Latter-day Saints, the ones with a chapel on every third block, properly respected and accepted people of a speck of faith or of some faith or of other faiths or of no faith at all, and people of a speck of faith or of some faith or of other faiths or of no faith at all respected and accepted Latter-day Saints?
Can we get an amen on that? Or, equally as valid, a hell, yeah?
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