Religion in the City: The Mormons (my biographical point of view)
Those who work with religions and, moreover, embrace the almost-mission to develop a dialogue between religions, and also tries to reach the maximum population with solid and exempt knowledge about the world of religions, have many hilarious episodes to tell. In regards to my relationship with the Mormons, will never I forget my inability to understand that a certain listener, after a brief exposure, was referring to the Mormons; in a very long question, while I was trying to understand what he was saying, I was asked about several things regarding the “Normons”… With some effort, I finally realized to whom he was referring – Mormons and not “Normons” – and so I answered to the extent of my knowledge.
But, my contact with the Mormons, the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, goes some years back, way before this conversation about “Normons”, and with another comic situation. I don’t know exactly what year it was, but very early in this millennium, I received an invitation to play a role which became very normal to me: I was to be the neutral and unbiased voice in a debate between religions. The invitation came from Antena 3 (a local radio) and it was for the late afternoon program with Fernando Alvim (local broadcaster). Two Christian denominations were invited, one of them missed the program and the other one was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who was not afraid to present themselves in an eminently comic radio show.
The atmosphere was relaxed, with some natural provocations coming from Fernando Alvim, but in a spirit of profound good taste and respect. There was much talk and even more laughter. It was an excellent moment in which we could understand that it is possible to have humor, good humor, when talking about religion. At the end of the interview, I had to sum up the difference between Mormon and Catholic doctrine in just over 60 seconds… It went very well, and the Mormon representative thanked me for doing such a fine summary when I was not even from the same confession. From that moment on, there was a close relationship founded on mutual respect.
Naturally, over the years, I have often crossed paths with the Mormons in debates and conferences, and many times I have been asked to intervene in various forums to present and explain some aspects of this confession, specially due to a certain urban mythology that often confuses them with the Jehovah Witnesses, and that views them negatively for the visibility of their proselytism – the “elders” that are always in pares, trying to convince us about the truth of the Book of Mormon.
Taking a look at the Compared History of Religions, there are several religious movements that were born in the USA in the XIX century, and that present some aspects in common with the Mormons. One of them refers to a new look at the Sacred Text, with new interpretations. Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses center that new look on the issue of End of Times, the Second Advent of Jesus Christ or the Armageddon. The Mormons, in that point, are very similar to the Baha’is, born in Persia, within Islam, or of the Ishmaelite’s, Shia Muslims.
To the Mormons, the Sacred Text is a much more open reality. If to the overwhelming number of Christians the age of prophecy has been over with the Primitive Christianism, to the Mormons, with the establishment of the right church, the prophecy becomes active, accessible to the Human Kind (this question of the right church is fundamental, not only in the narrative of the founders life, the Prophet Joseph Smith, but because this was the question that he asked Jesus when He appeared to him: “which of all sects was right”; and we find in fact the name of the church to be “The” Church of Jesus.. and not Church of Jesus…)
In fact, the Church President is, to its members, a Prophet. And he is prophet for he prophetically interprets the sacred texts. The contact between God and the human world is not cut off and at the mercy of varied Bible interpretations; no, there is an authorized voice. But more, Mormons radically expand the notion of sacred text by adding to their body of scripture the famous Book of Mormon, a book that according to its teachings, was passed to written with the experience of America Christianization, many centuries before Columbus’s arrival.
Changing more than the notion of the sacred text, Mormons altered the universe of revelation. In a vision of full equality between humans, they conceive that Jesus can transmit revelation, and even come to Earth, several times, as many as He thinks necessary – many of them without expression in terms of movement creation, without knowing that they occurred. Therefore, according to the narrative, they believe, Jesus was not only in Palestine and Israel, but also in America, having Christianity been developed there, which later came to disappear, being The Book of Mormon a memory of that time, transmitted to Joseph Smith through revelation.
Like almost all other religions, Mormons have food restrictions. For me, the coffee restriction, would be at this moment unbearable… But joking aside, the field of food restrictions is one more characteristic of some Christian groups that were born in the XIX century. Not only do they go to Judaism, to the Old Testament, to seek part of the Jewish food restrictions, but they add or justify restrictions in two ways. On one hand, the body is a temple of God, borrowed to the spirit for the material life, whereby it should be treated with the utter most respect, for it is God’s creation loaned to the individual, and not something he possess. On the other hand, they reject everything that can create altered states of consciousness, such as alcohol, and all doping related substances, altering, once more, what God made available to the individual through the body.
I make this text on the pretext that I am writing it during a Brigham Young University international conference, in Provo, near Salt Lake City, the Zion sought by Joseph Smith’s followers in the early XIX century. A city founded in the deepest USA territory due to a systematic persecution that the Mormons suffered – a persecution that was very much silenced by the country that likes to present itself as the most heralded of freedoms, starting with the freedom of religion.
Looking as an outsider, it is very interesting how this confession sublimated the climate of persecution in the most advantageous cooperation between one religion and society. The university, which name recalls the second church president, the one that drove the long walk during the escape and resistance against USA troops and led the community to settle in Salt Lake City, is a high quality training tool. It shows how the church wants to integrate the members into surrounding society, and not push them away as other sects that were born in the XIX century profess, as seen with Jehovah Witnesses.
Obviously, as with almost all religious groups, Mormons define part of their sacred universe by the oppositions between those inside and those outside. It is not possible for a non-Mormon to participate in the practices that take place in their holy Temples after being consecrated. But, such as Seventh-day Adventists, born practically in the same decade, Mormons developed contact platforms with other religions and reflection activities about Religious Freedom. This proves that it is not the reduction to the lowest common denominator that dialogue is achieved: for it to be fruitful, no religion can feel that it is losing part of its identity. The international event that I have the honor and the pleasure to be part of, the International Law and Religion Symposium, is the demonstration of that, with about 100 participants registered. Most of them are speakers, from the most varied religions and of almost 50 nationalities, gathering also academics, juridical agents and political actors, to debate this important issue of Religious Freedom in legal frameworks.
I remember that about two years ago I had the honor to be invited as speaker during the Santarém Meetinghouse consecration ceremony. The invitation came from the Area Seventy responsible for the Church in Portugal, Joaquim Moreira, who latter graced me with the invitation to attend the Groundbreaking of the future Lisbon Temple. But, in Santarém, where I talked as a non-Mormon before the religious building consecration, my speech was centered in only one aspect: citizenship.
The Lusófona University had the privilege to sign a protocol with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a few months ago to welcome members of the church as students. This is made under the Perpetual Education Fund, a financial fund created by the church to allow education for those members who don’t have the possibility to support their education on their own.
This tool is just an example of what led me to talk about citizenship at the Santarém religious building consecration. I can say today that some of my brightest students are Mormons. Hard work and accuracy was always what they demonstrated to me, reinforced with a great sense of justice and an envyable honesty. What I was able to see as dominant is what happens with the organization as a whole: an effective management that is, naturally, an exceptional reinforcement of faith through actions.
In the same way, and contrary to some movements born in the same century, and despite the fact that they were persecuted by a State, Mormons did not demonize the world, much less the State. For that, they always frame their actions in the strictest legality. For example, they only came to proselytize in Portugal when the democratic regime was established and full religious freedom granted.
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