New book debunks myths about Mormonism

Bart Marcois Public Affairs Consultant
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Mormons Believe … What?!
by Gary Lawrence
225 pages. The Parameter Foundation.

“Are you kidding? He’s a Mormon. Do you know what those guys believe? Why would you want to help him get an administration job?”

That’s what an acquaintance told a friend of mine after my friend asked him to put in a good word for me with the White House (at the time, I was up for an appointment as a senior official).

The acquaintance went on to say that we Mormons believe we get our own planets if we make it to heaven — a common misconception. I’d actually never heard that one before, but I’ve since heard it many times, along with other weird ideas that I never learned about in Sunday school.

It’s enough to make one wish there were a book answering a few simple questions about what Mormons do and do not believe. Gary Lawrence has given us that book. In “Mormons Believe … What?!: Fact and Fiction About a Rising Religion,” Lawrence uses humor and straight talk to answer questions about polygamy (“Yes we did and no we don’t”); traditional and non-traditional beliefs; temples and meetinghouses; why Mormons claim to be Christian but don’t use crosses; and the relationship between Mormons’ faith and Mormons’ political influence. This is the book for anyone who has ever felt simple curiosity about some aspect of the faith but didn’t want a visit from a couple of clean-cut young men in white shirts and ties.

A listing of some of the chapter headings gives us an idea of the general tone of the book. Most are presented as myths that Lawrence then debunks, such as the following: “Mormons Aren’t Christians”; “Mormons Worship a Different Jesus”; “Mormons Believe They Can Have Their Own Planet”; “Mormons Have Secret Temples and Magic Underwear” (you’ll have to read it for the answer to that one); “Mormons are Racist”; and perhaps the most relevant to some readers in the current political season: “Mormons Want to Take Over the Government.”

Lawrence takes great pains to deconstruct each myth by stating in simple terms what Mormons believe about each topic, and he gives his best guess about what aspect of the faith may have given rise to the accusation. He pulls no punches in his approach, charging that although some of these myths arose from misunderstandings, others are the result of deliberate disinformation created by those who bear a grudge against the faith. He lays out the most basic belief of the Church, the one that is overlooked by even some of the best-informed observers: Mormons claim to be the re-established original Christian Church.

The book grew out of Lawrence’s previous experience conducting polling and focus groups nationwide, gauging American attitudes toward The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Surprised by some of the responses he got to open-ended questions, he delved more deeply into what Americans believe about Mormons, and wound up amused, frustrated, and even a little irritated. His approach is simple: “People have a right to their own opinions about Mormonism, but they do not have a right to their own facts.”

Lawrence writes that learning about another religion is like attending someone else’s family reunion: the familiar story about Aunt Matilda or Uncle Fred means nothing to the uninitiated. “Some cousin mutters a phrase and the place erupts in laughter,” or everyone begins weeping. And to further complicate it, “there is another group nearby and those people want a food fight.” Lawrence’s goal is to explain to the observer on the sidelines “what the family reunion is all about and why those other people are lobbing pies at us.”

Why should anyone care what Mormons believe? An outsider may well wonder what beliefs could possibly be shared by Mitt Romney, Harry Reid, David Archuleta, the actor who played Hoss Cartwright on “Bonanza,” some former Miss Americas, the all-time Jeopardy champion, and Butch Cassidy. At a moment when two Mormons are competing for a major party nomination for president and a Broadway musical about Mormons is winning awards, it may be worth knowing. Lawrence does not try to convince or convert, but only to describe and explain.

The book is highly readable and contains nuggets of insights from polling data and focus groups that provide a rich empirical context for the assertions and findings. Lawrence’s sense of humor and occasional gentle near-irascibility show through: “The obvious intent of a few … preachers is … to discourage others from checking it out. Considering the finances involved, I can’t be too harsh on them. After all, we are taking 800 parishioners from their ranks every day …” But his overall tone is kindly, patient, and strictly factual. It is well organized, with short chapters and clear chapter titles that enable a reader to satisfy the most urgent curiosity in a matter of minutes. It is heavily footnoted, with references to both Mormon and secular sources to enable further objective research.

This is the best outsider’s guide to the inside baseball of someone else’s religion that I’ve ever seen. If you ever wanted to confirm or disprove something you have heard about Mormon beliefs, people, or practices, but want to avoid an awkward conversation about personal beliefs (that may end in asking, “Really? You do? How could you?”), then this book is for you.

Bart Marcois, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of energy, is senior vice president at Policy Impact Communications.