One of the very substantial differences in the way we are currently evolving is almost unnoticed. I’ve tried to capture the difference in what I’ve written by using the terms “movement” in contrast to “institution.” Those terms help to explain the notion, but it is really something more than that. I’m going to use a different way to explain it in this post, and see if I can get a little closer to the real underlying process which is now underway.
The original development under Joseph Smith was something quite distinct from all existing faiths. It was not just a new religion. It was a wholesale resurrection of an ancient concept of “Peoplehood.” It was radical. Its purpose was to change diverse assortments of people, from every culture and faith, with every kind of ethnic and racial composition, into a new kind of People. They were to be united under the banner of a New and Everlasting Covenant, resurrecting the ancient Hebraic notion of nationhood and Peoplehood. No matter what their former culture was, they were adopted inside a new family, a covenant family. Status was defined not be virtue of what you believed or confessed, but instead by what covenants you have assumed.
What returned through Joseph Smith was not a religion, nor an institution, nor merely a faith. It was instead the radical notion that an ancient covenant family was being regathered into a separate People. This return to ancient roots brought with it, as the hallmark of its source of power, the idea of renewed covenants that brought each individual into direct contract with God. It did not matter what they believed. It only mattered that they accepted and took upon them the covenant.
Once inside the new People, there was a new culture where ancient ties returned to bind the hearts together. There was a dietary regimen where the People were reminded at every meal that they were distinct and apart from the world. There was the gift of sacred clothing, in which they were reminded of their separateness by the things put upon their skin. There were financial sacrifice of tithes, gathered from the People to help the People. The fortunes of all were intertwined with each other by the gathering of tithes and offerings into the Bishop’s storehouse to help the poor and needy among the People. It was NOT a religion. It was a People. It was to become The People. And The People were required to extend to all others the same equal opportunity to become also part of the covenant.
This is different from a religion. It was cultural, personal, and as distinct as a Jew views himself to be from a Christian. To a Jew, religion is a part of the equation. They share blood with other Jews, and therefore even if a Jew is not attending weekly synagogue meetings, they retain their status as one of the Jews.
Religion on the other hand is merely a brand name for a sentiment. One can be a Presbyterian or a Lutheran and still belong to the same Elks Lodge. There is nothing really distinct between the two, other than where they meet for an hour or two on Sundays. Apart from that, they identify culturally as “Protestants” and brothers. There is no great distinction, and the theological differences which separate them are so trivial that a doctrinal disagreement between them is unlikely.
Mormonism has taken a direct course-change where the original elements of separate Peoplehood are now viewed as an impediment to wider acceptance. The distinctions are being minimized in order to undo the conflicts that marred the relationship between Mormonism and the larger American society. The lessons learned from those conflicts have led to the idea that we must become more actively engaged in public relations. Our commitment to the public relations process has informed us that we have to become less distinct to get along with others. We need to drop our misunderstood and offensive claims to distinctions that claim superiority, and urge instead the things that we share with the Presbyterians and Lutherans. The ultimate end of that process is to make it just as meaningless and controversial a thing for a Mormon to belong to and fellowship with the Elks Lodge as it is for the Presbyterian and Lutheran. This is one of the great goals of the Correlation process and the public relations effort of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The outreach at present is merely an attempt to get people to accept the church as another form of Historic Christianity, claiming equality among peers, without any desire to confront or cause conflict. The notion of Peoplehood is being suppressed. Any claims of superiority of the faith are suppressed.
Enthusiastic scholarship is working alongside the larger public relations effort. The work of Robinson at BYU, for example, in his reconciliatory book, (co-authored with a member of the Evangelical-based Denver Theological Seminary faculty) “How Wide the Divide,” made an attempt to discuss Evangelical Protestant notions alongside Mormon notions and to minimize any differences. The underlying presumption is that we are both merely religions. As fellow religions we share an attempt to come to God through teachings we believe in and scriptural texts we share.
Reconciliation between what Joseph Smith restored and other religions should never have been a goal. Joseph’s restoration was not a church. It was not a religion. It was not a bundle of beliefs. By trying to reach a common footing among other mainstream Christian faiths we have to first abandon the very different footing upon which Joseph established the Restoration.
The original Restoration could never be like any of “them.” They were churches. Joseph restored Peoplehood. To go from what Joseph restored to a common footing requires us to first abandon the concept that we are neither a new form of Christianity, nor a return to Jewish antecedents. We are something quite different from either. We are an Hebraic resurrection of God’s People, clothed with a covenant, and engaged in a direct relationship with God that makes us distinct from all other people.
When we view ourselves as a Christian faith, we deconstruct the very foundation upon which we began. We aren’t that. We can never be part of Historic Christianity. And yet that has been our front-and-center effort through the focus on public relations and the scientific study of what words we should use to advance our acceptance in the world.
Read the earliest of Mormon materials and you will be shocked by how differently they viewed themselves from how we now view ourselves. They were building a separate People. They invited all to come and partake of the covenant, renounce their prior errors, and return to living as one of God’s New and Everlasting Covenant holders.
To rid ourselves of that tradition, we need to assume the elements of a typical religion. Rather than defining ourselves as a separate People, we turn to defining a set of beliefs. Establishing an orthodoxy and then insisting upon uniformity of belief to belong to the orthodox religion is the way of the Catholics and Protestants. They are bound together NOT by their peoplehood but instead by their confessions of faith. So as you de-emphasize our Peoplehood, you must then begin to emphasize and control an orthodox statement or confession of faith.
These dynamics are worth very careful thought. There is an actual consensus among church leaders that this is the right way to proceed. A discussion about it among Latter-day Saints has not even begun at the rank and file level. The transition takes place over decades, and unless someone first creates a vocabulary for the problem, we don’t even have the capacity to discuss or notice what is happening and why.
This post has gone on too long. Not really a blog post subject. It’s a book-length subject. I make fleeting comments about something that would take pages to develop. But I doubt I’ll write the needed book. Instead I will try to bring the idea into the consciousness of you good people and let it percolate about. Surely some of you can do something about it.