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“14 million and growing”: the persistent Mormon Membership Meme

March 26, 2012
Tyrell Sigil

A Flower? Can you imaging growing up around Lions and (Dire)Wolves and Bears where you are...a Flower?

In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the major houses (and some of the not-as-major ones) each have official house words. Even if you have never read any of the books, if you’ve come anywhere near the HBO rendition of the first book Game of Thrones, then the chances are that you may inadvertently be well aware of at least one house — House Stark’s — words. Winter is coming.

Other families have pithy expressions in the same general vein…something that compacts a bit of history and provides a cross-section into the dynamics and personality of that family. So, without spoiling anything, it makes sense that the rather serious-minded Starks, who live up in the north and who ultimately serve as the first line of defense between civilization and Things That Go Bump In the (Cold) Night, would utter words that always remind their audience that there are grimmer times ahead. Similarly, when you hear the back story for House Martell, their words, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken make a lot of sense, and only go to solidify the badassery of the house.

But that’s the thing. All houses don’t win equally the badass lottery, and nowhere does is this more concisely encapsulated than in the house words.

Let’s take as an example House Tyrell of Highgarden. While there are some things going for this house (notably, they are nearly as rich as the golden-haired pretty boys and girls, the Lannisters), and they end up having a few things under their sleeves (again, not trying to spoil anything…) for the most part, they don’t really seem like an awesome house. I’m not saying they are like the Hufflepuff of A Song of Ice and Fire, but with house words like Growing Strong, I am not impressed.

Growing Strong? Come on! It seems like someone who needs to announce that is overcompensating for something…

That is why, Elder Holland’s final line in the BBC News article juxtaposing ex-Mormon Park Romney with quintessential Mormon cousin Mitt Romney is the one that most drew my attention.

The actual BBC article is bizarre. It seems like, in light of the fact that every day it’s becoming more and more certain that Mitt Romney will be the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, journalists feel as if they must jump into the fray on the “Mormon Moment” and comment about Mormons and Mitt. Maybe it’s because they want to jump on the SEO speed wagon or because it’s just a really slow news day…but whatever the case, you have BBC writer John Sweeney juxtaposing devout Mormon Mitt Romney with his cousin and ex-Mormon Park Romney:

Mitt Romney, the front runner in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination for the White House, is a devout Mormon, but his cousin, Park Romney, also in the past a committed member of the church, now denounces it as a cult.

“I became convinced that it’s a fraud,” Park Romney told the BBC, explaining his reason for leaving the Mormon fold.

The two visions of Mormonism the Romney cousins present could not be more starkly opposed.

Park Romney, 56, is a former Mormon high priest, who turned against the church.

On the stump Mitt Romney, 65, has avoided mentioning Mormonism, instead talking generally about his faith, but he has been an active lifelong member of the church.

Jeffrey R. HollandI think that part of the reason this article has spread around the disaffected Mormon circles (thank goodness it hasn’t reached critical viral mass, though…) is because of a section that discusses Mormon treatment of disaffected Mormons and whether “shunning” occurs. And whereas official church leadership is often reluctant to respond to these kinds of articles, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is quoted in this article:

One thing that particularly agitates them is “shunning” – allegations that former church members are denied access to family members who remain in the church.

Park claims this has happened to him.

“I am alienated from my family,” he told the BBC.

“Their doctrine, their protocol and their culture as enforced by bishops encourages the families to disassociate themselves from the apostate.”

Mormon Church elder Jeffrey Holland denies shunning occurs.

“We don’t use that word and we don’t know that practice.

“If I had a son or a daughter who left the Church or was alienated or had a problem, I can tell you I would not cut that child out of family life,” he states.

The Mormon Church maintains that it does a great deal of good. Its leaders say they have given more than $1bn in aid around the world since 1985.

Here, I don’t think Mormons can really win. On the one hand, if Mormons avoid their disaffected brethren, then that’s “shunning.” But if they don’t, then that’s “love bombing.” Can Mormons ever get a break and learn to strike a happy medium of associating with those who differ on theological points without turning those others into missionary projects?

The news will never tell of it.

However, I guess what’s more noteworthy (if that can even be said to apply here…) is that Elder Holland can’t (or simply doesn’t) think of any instances where something like shunning might occur in the church. I mean, there’s one thing to say, “Yeah, maybe it happens sometimes, but that’s not what the church is about…” But it’s another thing entirely not even to recognize that such behavior does happen (even if it is just exceptional.)

But then the BBC article discusses the c-word…because it seems every article about Mormonism has to do that:

The allegation that the Church is a cult, made by Park Romney and other ex-Mormons, is denied by Elder Holland.

“If that is what they believe, it’s probably a good thing they leave, because we’re not a cult.

Here Holland’s comment is somewhat interesting…if someone thinks that the church is a cult, then it’s a good thing for them to leave. Why is it a good thing for them to leave? Maybe because it’s healthy for people to realize when something isn’t for them and try something else?

…naw, it’s just a good thing for them to leave because clearly, the church isn’t a cult. If you disagree with them on that issue, it’s really the church’s way or the highway.

OK, OK, I understand that talking about “cults” is completely worthless. You don’t move anywhere productive with it. (So, overall, I still think this article isn’t that valuable at all, even though I’ve basically drawn blood from a stone here with this blog post.)

But I do think that if we tone the language down a bit, then that can provide us something about what Elder Holland is saying. Suppose we changed “the allegation that the Church is a cult” to “the allegation that the Church may be harmful.” With this one exchange, Elder Holland’s comments become more clearly read as saying: it’s best for people who think that the church may be harmful (and, perhaps could be changed to be less harmful to some) to leave, because the church definitely isn’t causing any harm.

But that’s not all. The last part really makes me wonder if we haven’t entered a surreal world.

“I have chosen this church because of the faith that I feel and the inspiration that comes, but if people want to call us a cult, you can call us a cult,” Elder Holland says from behind his desk.

“But we are 14 million and growing.”

If you think the church is harmful, you can think the church is harmful.

But the church is Growing Strong!

I don’t even want to go on this 14 million number. I mean, OK, it’s great to use that with the media and put on a happy face, but seriously, no one can honestly find this number to be of value. Am I just being a disgruntled ex-Mormon, or isn’t it true that even faithful members who crunch what data is solid and extrapolate parametrically when it’s not come to similar conclusions about the problems with the 14 million number? Especially when you’re using that number as a sort of rebuttal or refutation of a criticism.

Let’s not talk about cults. Let’s not even talk about harm. Let’s just talk about the faith that Holland feels and the inspiration that comes.

…How can Holland live with mentioning 14 million when a non-negligible percentage of that 14 million apparently doesn’t share the faith that he feels and is not inspired enough to even be active in the church?

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11 Comments
  1. Holland’s comment on the cult issue strikes me as rather juvenile.

    It starts out politic and diplomatic: “If that’s what they believe…”

    And then it takes a turn for the worse: “it’s probably a good thing they leave”

    And concludes with an assertion that “we’re not a cult.”

    That sounds to me like a middle-schooler who’s just learning that her exboyfriend is now dating a prettier girl: “If that’s what he wants, then he can go out with that slut, because I’m so over him!”

  2. Seth R. permalink

    I like a line Hinckley borrowed in a General Conference talk:

    Burned out by drought,
    Drowned out by flud waters,
    Et out by jackrabbits,
    Sold out by sheriff,
    Still here!

    There – how’s that for a tagline?

  3. Apparently this article was just something of a teaser to a documentary, “The Mormon Candidate.”

    And, just from reading BCC liveblogging it, apparently the documentary sucked.

  4. Interest article. I was actually surprised by the rhetoric Holland used. I really can’t believe, as you pointed out, that he didn’t acknowledge that some members might act cruelly to those who live the church–if fact, I think this but be the rule and not the exception. My own mother has reacted so negatively to me–and I only expressed the surface of my doubts and concerns. But I can’t be angry with her–I know her paradigm does not allow for my feelings or my experiences–in fact, these things threaten her paradigm. Her would have to question her entire worldview if she even considered I had valid thought and motivations.

    And the fact that Holland says people should leave if they have a problem with the church? Well, I’m getting that vibe more and more from many members. If you have a problem, either shut up or get the hell out. Which doesn’t exactly mess with the theology and exclusive truth claims that I was exposed to grow up.

    Sorry, a bit of a ramble. Very interesting commentary on this article, Andrew.

  5. Alex,

    Great analogy to the middle schooler, haha.

    But I think in some ways, Elder Holland can’t really say anything else. I mean, really, is he ever going to say, “Yep, we’re a cult.” It’s not going to happen.

    Seth,

    If I knew what that was or what it meant, then maybe I’d think it a cooler tagline?

    Taylor,

    What I wonder is, with Elder Holland making comments so soon to General Conference, is I wonder if there will be any talks about treating disaffected family members and friends with more respect? Or if the general authorities treat it as a non-issue and focus on porn.

    At some level, I think it is strangely refreshing for Holland to say people should leave if they have a problem with the church. I know that this COULD be twisted into saying, “There’s something wrong with you if you have a problem with the church,” but I also think it could be interpreted instead as saying, “Hey, the church isn’t for everyone. If it’s not for you, don’t feel pressure to stay in.”

  6. It was a little surprising that Holland seemed unaware of how common (at least anecdotally) shunning is among Mormons as an informal process. It would be nice if it were to get on the GAs’ radar and they would at least tell the members to knock it off after this.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    Kuri, I think a group of ex-Mormons who’ve experienced actual shunning might make an impact in dialogue with a General Authority.

    But they’d have more impact if they weren’t constantly being undermined in credibility by people on RfM boasting about bullying their poor still-believing spouses. I’ve done some work with FAIR in the past, and believe me – we get constant emails from utterly distraught women (usually women) who are being outright bullied, belittled, and held in contempt by their non-believing spouses, and attempts to get the teenage kids to write mom off. Really nasty stuff. I imagine the GAs see letters like that as well.

    Anyone who wants to get traction for dialogue is going to have to find a way to distance themselves from that kind of despicable behavior.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    Andrew, the quote was used by the late President Hinckley in a General Conference talk. It was describing an old wood sign he saw hanging on a farmer’s property once. He even likened the saying to the LDS Church.

  9. Seth,
    Yeah, I guess there’s no point in asking the church to try to get its members to behave decently as long as mean ex-Mormons also exist.

  10. Seth R. permalink

    Just adding perspective. This is how you deal with any human beings, not just the LDS Church leadership.

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  1. What does The Mormon Candidate really say about the church? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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