The following is a written exchange between Mormon apologist Robert Starling and Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid.
I read your review, Patrick, of Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s The Changing World of Mormonism [October 1990]. I’m saddened to tell you that as a Latter-day Saint I am shocked and appalled. It’s one thing to objectively examine the differences in our faiths, seeking to find common ground and to dispassionately explore our points of theological divergence. Such is the basis of constructive dialogue.
However it’s quite another thing to sink to the level of the anti-Mormon critics whom you yourself classified as “vitriolic” and “sensational” and to use their same buzz words and worn-out (but still inflammatory) misrepresentations and distortions of our beliefs.
You recommend to your readers the Tanners’ book as a credible, “non-inflammatory” explanation of LDS beliefs. Although the Tanners are more moderate than some anti-Mormons, this is still tantamount to my telling LDS readers that they would get an accurate picture of Catholicism by reading the Chick publications or the writings of Tony Alamo or Alberto Rivera! (I’m sure these writers also “back up their conclusions with copious citations” from Catholic writings.)
However, you do acknowledge in your piece that the fruits of “Mormonism” are undeniably good (thank you at least for that). You yourself ask the question about this “excruciatingly wholesome” people: “How could the growth of such a patriotic, clean-cut, family-value-oriented religion be alarming?” But then you forget the Savior’s teaching that “by their fruits ye shall know them.”
I think I’m in pretty good company and on firm ground when I say to you, “can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit?” Can “Mormonism” be as corrupt as you infer, when it produces such good fruit? You seem to be taking a position in opposition to our Lord.
Next, you fall into a common trap when you say that “Mormonism” isn’t even Christian. Granted, we’re not Protestant Christians, or Roman Catholic Christians, or even Eastern Orthodox Christians. But every teaching found in “Mormonism” has a firm foundation in the beliefs and practices of biblical, first-century Christianity. The fact that we reject certain derived doctrines that were developed by theologians in later eras does not disqualify us from being rightfully termed “Christians.”
Indeed, if one’s “Christianity” is determined only by the litmus test of adherence to a Trinitarian doctrine that wasn’t formulated and ratified until A.D. 325 in Nicaea, then what do we call the followers of Jesus prior to that time, including those who were first known as “Christians” in Antioch?
These Christians believed in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. And they worshipped the “one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6, 2 Cor. 1:3). This was the simple belief in the Godhead subscribed to by the followers of Jesus before Tertullian first enunciated the concept of a “triune” deity around A.D. 200. And it is the same belief held by ourselves today–the “latter-day Christians,” if you will.
Next, let’s examine for a moment your statement that there is a “secret side of Mormonism,” that there is a “real Mormonism that lurks behind the facade,” and that Mormon missionaries “present only the most palatable segment of Mormonism, not the whole thing.”
Of course this is just a re-issue of another old cliche attack on Mormonism (and one of Ed Decker’s favorites, by the way). Somehow it is supposed to be “un-Christian” not to dump the entire theology of the church on the novice investigator! But you’d have to be totally ignorant of the Bible and church history to say that Christianity has never had any secret doctrines. Paul gave the Corinthians the “milk” but not the “meat” of the Gospel, because they weren’t ready (1 Cor. 3:2).
Your next allegation that “Mormons” are racists would be laughable if it weren’t so tragically inaccurate and if your unwitting readers wouldn’t swallow it hook, line, and sinker because you wrote it and they respect you. Consider the following: (1) In the 1800s, Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints supported the abolition of slavery, a very unpopular position in the states where they lived at the time. (2) In the LDS church today, blacks and other minorities hold positions of ecclesiastical leadership in integrated church units worldwide, at a rate that is probably higher than found in either Protestant or Catholic congregations. (3) The Indian Placement Program (where LDS families take Lamanite children into their homes to give them the benefit of Anglo schooling while respecting and preserving their native culture) has been wonderfully successful in helping Native Americans become productive members of modern society.
Patrick, “the proof is in the pudding,” not in obscure comments by nineteenth-century LDS church leaders or misinterpretations of some of our scriptures! Latter-day Saints are not racists! You seem to enjoy heaping ridicule on a favorite doctrine of the early Church that has been lost in Christendom due to apostasy, that of our pre-mortal existence. It does a disservice to our Lord to make light of his great personal sacrifice on our part, by saying that he “asked for the job” of being our Savior after Lucifer “tried out for the position but was rejected.” (Your statement is also factually incorrect. See Abraham 3:27-28. Jesus was the first to offer himself.)
The pre-mortal existence of Christ and his voluntary role in the Atonement is [sic] well attested in Scripture and tradition. Both you and I as “sons of God” were there in heaven “when the foundations of the earth were laid,” as written in the book of Job, and we “shouted for joy” when our Heavenly Father revealed his plan for our salvation. Lucifer’s rebellion against our Father and his drawing away of one-third of our spirit brothers and sisters is [sic] likewise recorded in Isaiah and in John’s Revelation. This is not just “Mormon theology,” but it was an important part of the beliefs of the early Saints.
As for other “skeletons in the Mormon closet” (another buzz word–is this any more “scrupulous” than Ed Decker?), such as alleged false prophesies and supposed contradictions and reversals in revelations, it appears you’ve been reading too many of the tired old stories in anti-Mormon books. I and other LDS apologists have successfully dealt with these issues many times in the past, and neither you nor any other critics of our faith have refuted our arguments. It would be too tiresome to repeat them here, but I can supply them if you’ve lost the copies I’ve sent you.
It alarms me that the “consternation in Catholic circles” over “the unsettling fact that many freshly-baptized Mormons are former Catholics” should cause you to feel constrained to give such a “call to arms” against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as you have done with your article.
It just seems to me that if you really believed what you wrote, that “Mormonism can unravel quite nicely under its own power,” you would not be so alarmed at the prospects of more Catholics joining our church. “Methinks thou dost protest too much,” my friend. Similar predictions about the demise of “Mormonism” have been made since Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844. Yet the reality has been exactly the opposite.
Experience over the last 160 years would seem to favor the LDS interpretation of Daniel’s prophecy, that the Kingdom of God (as we know it) is like the stone cut out of the mountain without hands, which will roll forth until it fills the whole Earth. Perhaps you should take a cue from Gamaliel, who told the leaders of the Jerusalem council not to persecute the upstart Christian apostles: “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”
If anyone is protesting too much, Robert, it’s you. You’re afflicted by that curious malady common to many Latter-day Saints: You cannot tolerate criticism of your Church, however objective, dispassionate, constructive, or valid. Your agitation over my recommending The Changing World of Mormonism is understandable. The book has been effective in convincing honest investigators that the Mormon religion is implausible, inconsistent, and incompatible with Christianity.
I know this from personal experience, having dealt with Catholics who considered joining the Mormon Church (including some who had finished all the missionary lessons and were on the verge of being baptized) and were stopped cold after reading the Tanners’ book.
When have you or your colleagues ever successfully refuted any of my criticisms of the Mormon Church? I’m unaware of any such instance, although I do remember clearly that in May of 1989 you agreed to engage me in a public debate on the subjects of the Trinity vs. polytheism (sorry for that buzz word, but polytheism is what your Church teaches) and apostolic succession vs. the Mormon theory of the Great Apostasy and Restoration.
Two days before the debate you backed out, saying you had been “counseled” to do so by your Church leaders. One of your brethren filled in for you and did a fine job of explaining Mormonism, but he hardly refuted the Catholic position. Had he done so, wouldn’t it seem strange to you that Catholic Answers would persist in making available to the public the video of that debate?
The Mormon theory that the Lord Jesus was a “spirit brother” of Lucifer is fiction and is found neither in the Bible nor in the writings of the early Church. Check it out for yourself.
If you study patristic literature you’ll see that the “favorite doctrines” of the early Church were such things as monotheism, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and other peculiarly Catholic doctrines. I’m afraid you’ll find no evidence of the Mormon gospel in the early Church, but you will find evidence of Catholicism at every turn. How do you account for that?
And what about your “good fruit” argument? Surely you don’t think that simply because many Mormons are wholesome, patriotic, and have strong family values that the truth of Mormonism is vindicated. What about the millions of Baptists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians who possess those qualities? Is each proof that his particular denomination’s theology is true?
By the way, is divorce a “good fruit”? According to the 1991 World Almanac, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that the yearly national average for divorce is 4.7 per thousand population. Utah, which is predominantly Mormon, ranks at 4.6 per thousand, while three largely Catholic states, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, come in at 3.8, 3.2, and 2.9, respectively. Mormon marriages seem to fail more often than Catholic marriages.
And unlike the Mormon Church’s welfare program, which is intended for Mormons, Catholic charities are available to anyone regardless of religion. In the Gospels Jesus commands his Church to feed the hungry, care for the sick and aged, shelter the homeless, and perform other corporal and spiritual works of mercy (Matt. 25:34-46; Luke 6:27-36). For nearly two thousand years the Catholic Church has carried out Jesus’ command. Look at the countless Catholic hospitals, orphanages, dispensaries, homes for unwed mothers, clinics, homeless shelters, hospices, and food banks. Where are their Mormon counterparts? Where is Mormonism’s Mother Teresa? If Mormonism produces the “good fruit” Jesus was talking about, where is it?
As for the question about racism in the doctrines and practices of the Mormon Church, your indignant comments fly in the face of the facts. For the last century and a half the Mormon Church has preached a message of racial inequality based on the theory that God has “cursed” certain people with dark skin. As you well know, this curse applies both to blacks and those of “Lamanite” descent, although for different reasons. To make my point I’ll focus just on the Lamanites.
The Book of Mormon says God “cursed” the Lamanites (whom Joseph Smith alleged were originally white-skinned Palestinian Jews from the family of Laman, son of Lehi, who settled in the New World around the year 600 B.C.) in retaliation for their sins by turning them into Indians with dark skin and hair (1 Nephi 12:23; 2 Nephi 5:21-24; Jacob 3:3-5; Alma 3:6; Mormon 5:15).
The Mormon Church teaches that the Lamanites were the forerunners of North American Indians as well as of Mexicans and other Latin Americans. These are described in the Book of Mormon in unflattering terms: “dark,” “filthy,” “abominable,” “loathsome,” “idle,” “wicked,” “sorely cursed with skins of darkness,” and “beyond the description of that which hath ever been amongst us.”
If this weren’t enough to demonstrate that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints teaches that certain races are inferior because of the color of their skin (isn’t that the definition of racism?), please recall that the Book of Mormon repeatedly emphasizes the notion that white skin is “pure and delightsome” and that brown skin is “filthy and loathsome.”
To be fair, I should mention that the Mormon Church does hold out hope to Indians, Mexicans, and all those who have been tainted by the Lamanite curse. The Book of Mormon explains that “Lamanitish” people who accept the Mormon gospel can hope to have their skins turned white.
In Jacob 3:8 the white-skinned Nephites are warned about the wages of sin: “O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their [the Lamanites’] skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God.” If you need more convincing about this issue see also 3 Nephi 2:15, 2 Nephi 30:6, and Alma 23:18.
Notice that I quote from the Book of Mormon–I’m not sneaking in “obscure comments,” although I could have quoted zillions of ’em, and you know it, from “obscure” Mormon leaders such as the prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, plus Bruce R. McConkie and Mark E. Peterson, both former members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Truth or consequences, Robert. Do you believe God “cursed” people by giving them dark skin, or don’t you? The ramifications of your answer seem agonizingly clear: If you don’t believe it, you deny an explicit teaching of the Book of Mormon and over 150 years of official Mormon doctrine promulgated by prophets, apostles, and general authorities. If you do believe God curses some people with dark skin, you’ll have a hard time convincing people Mormon theology isn’t racist.
I maintain that the The Changing World of Mormonism does a good job of documenting the theological errors, logical contradictions, and historical inconsistencies of Mormonism. If you disagree, it’s incumbent on you to show where and how the book fails in its critique of your religion and where I, in my writings, have “misrepresented” or “distorted” Mormon doctrines. So far, you haven’t done so; you’ve engaged in name calling. When you’re ready to get serious about vindicating Mormon doctrines such as polytheism and the curse of dark skin, let me know.
Recall that last year in This Rock I reviewed Peter and the Popes, a Mormon book offering a critical analysis of the papacy and apostolic succession. Although the book was wrong in its arguments, I recommended it to Catholic readers so they could assess the Mormon case against the Church and decide for themselves. Why are you unwilling to take the same position? Are you afraid of what the reader might encounter if he digs a little too deeply into Mormon history and theology? If you honestly believe that Gamaliel’s words in Acts 5 apply to the Mormon Church–if you’re certain the Mormon Church can withstand the harsh light of scrutiny–you have nothing to fear from a book such as the Tanners’.