Mormons, atheists, & others
They have more in common than you might suspect
vol. 4. issue 10
It might look like the end of the Yellow Brick Road, where behind the green curtain, the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a know-nothing phony. Instead, this photo I took is of the Washington Temple of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, which looms over the Beltway/I-495 where it banks away from Silver Spring, Maryland, scaring the crap out of anyone who’s new to our traffic patterns and leaving them to wonder how they landed before the Wizard without ever having stopped in Kansas first.
Anyway, I have an enduring fascination with the Mormons.
So, when this past Friday, April 28, marked the first time in 50 years members of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, aka Mormons, opened their temple to the public, I was of course among the first in line to enter.
I probably could, and maybe should, fill a book explaining my Mormon obsession. I am neither friend nor foe, just fascinated by their ever-rising fortunes overseen by secretive men with pasty complexions who look so often like funeral directors rather than the vigorous bro seen painted here, on the wall above the temple’s baptismal font for deceased relatives who might want to join the church posthumously.
The dearly departed don’t need to be there for the ordinance, as it’s called; one of their descendants or spouses thereof, can stand proxy (or should I say dunk proxy?). If they didn’t really want the surprise bath, they can reject its symbolism from the other side. How does anyone know which way the gift is received? Mystery. You have to die to find out.
I realize it looks like our man here is in some kind of friendly tussle with Jesus, but I reckon it’s more like they’re chatting about on which celestial street this guy would like to live when he quits his earthly address. Read on for more about that…
As I was saying, about my fascination with the Church of LDS: I am intrigued by cults.
Despite my cheeky tone, that’s not a slam on Mormons. Nor is it a poke at Catholics, Republicans, MAGAs, or True Believers of any kind. It’s really just another confession of my preoccupation with the paradigm of hierarchy, where a select few are self-anointed as the ones who get to hold all the keys to the resources the rest of us need, an obsession you might have noticed I can’t seem to shake.
In particular, I am drawn to analyzing the structures, typically internal but often external as well, that allow cults to operate clandestinely and publicly at the same time, often prismatically, so that even the group’s own members — typically innocent people just looking to make sense of what otherwise can feel like a randomly chaotic world — have no idea the actual aims and activities at the heart of the organization.
But that was not my only Mormonic moment this weekend. Ironically, it’s also the weekend that Hulu began streaming — and I began watching — a series loosely based on Jon Krakauer’s bestselling true crime book from 2003, Under the Banner of Heaven, which documents a cold-blooded killing of a Mormon woman and her infant daughter by her fundamentalist Mormon brothers-in-law.
And, and! It is also the weekend that a used copy of the book American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church by Alex Beam came into my possession and naturally, I began reading it.
As for the series on Hulu, that seems more about mental illness than faith, although of course these things, especially in America, are related. But it’s still interesting, and I am a fan of both Andrew Garfield and Gil Birmingham who play the lead good guys, and I can recommend it at least as far as the first two episodes.
As for the book, given that I am only about a quarter of the way into it, what blares from the pages is something I had never before considered, despite my cult studies fetish: namely, the parallels between the lives of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith and MAGA man, you know who. The similarities are freakishly uncanny, numerous, and when put side by side, obvious.
But again, let’s keep this short and just boil it down to one word: narcissism.
Here’s a direct quote from one of Smith’s gathering of the faithful, a “rally” if you will: “I will come out on the top … I have more to boast of than any man ever had!”
Then, there is this from our own times, from our former president, from one of his own rallies: “I’ve always won, and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is.”
And so on. That’s not to fully knock narcissism, either. Sometimes, narcissism is effective at getting people to do things that you for one might believe need to get done, regardless of what others might think. Lots of “great” victories depended on narcissism, and as I type this, lots of college athletic coaches and the like are popping into my head…
But, to stay with the Mormons, I want to say that I appreciated being allowed into their temple this weekend and even more so, I appreciated all the patience, however feigned it might have been by the church elders I buttonholed, shown to me when I pretty much grilled them about the tenets of their faith.
And I especially want to thank the young woman who gave what seemed to me anyway, a sincerely felt laugh when I pointed out that even though those crystal chandeliers in the temple’s Celestial Room are the most spectacularly shiny and heavy chandeliers I have ever seen, for all the renovations, the room still pretty much looked just like the lobby of a swank Marriott hotel circa 1972 when Watergate was all the rage.
(The Marriotts are the wealthiest of Mormons the world over, in case you didn’t know.)
I also appreciated how this young woman decoded for me the Gospel of John when Jesus declared, “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you,” into “We believe everybody gets a place to live because God isn’t mean and doesn’t want you homeless in heaven. He understands that not everyone wants to hang out with him 24/7, because that’s a lot of pressure, so not everyone has to. He has houses for them where he doesn’t come around as much.”
Such provocative brilliance, illuminating such an innocently observed tenet of the faith, I had not expected, even in the room with five tons of crystal rainbows gleaming overhead.
It got me thinking about something else I came across this week, a statement of belief, or better said, “nonbelief” from popular business analyst and professor, Scott Galloway, whose weekly newsletter No Mercy, No Malice I regularly read:
People find strength and resilience in different places. For me, it’s atheism. I do not believe this is a dress rehearsal, and at some point, I’ll look into my sons’ eyes and know our relationship is coming to an end. And that’s OK — I’m less afraid than most to risk public failure (starting businesses, making predictions, approaching strangers, etc.) because I believe this will all be over soon. In addition, age has given me the courage to be more forthcoming with my emotions. To tell people I love them, that I admire them. Looking at important decisions through the lens of your deathbed usually yields the same answers: Go for it and tell people you love them.
I bless them both. They get it. No matter what the narcissists might say, and even if one’s truth is found by way of navigating the labyrinthine halls of cults where an awful lot of power is perceived to exist behind the curtain, if life is going to make any sense, if it’s going to hold any promise for us to find meaning in the matter, we have to consider how we treat others.
All the rest is just whatever we say it is.