David Brooks on Mormonism (and Conservative Religion in General)

I have always enjoyed David Brooks’ political commentary on the Friday PBS nightly news . . . even though I’m politically liberal.  He represents the “right” (but not necessarily the “Tea Party”) very admirally with his cogent comments.  In a recent NYTimes opinion piece (21 Apr 2011), he makes the following comments about “The Book of Mormon” musical (which he liked):

The warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion.  It also plays very well to an educated American audience.  Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true.  Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiousity doesn’t last.  The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods.  No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon” ridicules:  communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.

Brooks is correct here.  The churches that succeed are those with rigid belief structures.  That is why Mormonism and other conservative religions put believers in the seats and more liberal religions (like the Reorganized LDS Church, Unitarianism, etc.) struggle.  But this places a great responsibility on the leadership of the more structured religions to do the right thing . . . which in my opinion involves the creation of a more just world.

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6 Responses to David Brooks on Mormonism (and Conservative Religion in General)

  1. susan says:

    Unfortunately, even challenging structured religions “to do the right thing….creation of a more just world” is difficult. My “just world” may differ from yours, or from some organized religions and their definition of what exactly is a “just world”. As an example, look at the ways some structured religions treat members who have same sex attractions, or (heaven forbid) act on them. It seems like the responsibilities of leadership in Mormonism and other structured, organized, conservative religions has got to evolve. As time progresses, some organized religions walk a fine line between imposing high standards on their members, while at the same time trying to be less intolerant of differences. Times, they are a changin…..

  2. dor says:

    “As time progresses, some organized religions walk a fine line between imposing high standards on their members, while at the same time trying to be less intolerant of differences.”
    yes
    The evolution is the going deeper into the wisdom of the teaching. Why is the teaching as it is? What is the deepest level of truth we can arrive at? For Christianity, that inevitably leads to not only increased tolerance of difference, but acceptance and embracing of those differences.
    “No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.”
    It is the value of community combined with the value of love that helps with these issues. It is community, joined in service of God, that calls one other to be our best selves. I would argue that what leads to lower attendance is not the lack of dogma. Some more liberal denominations devalue the importance of community and being responsible to (rather than for) one another. There is a confusion between being non-judgmental and uninvolved. IMHO, it is precisely this balance that makes Christian such a difficult religion. Christ called us to be simultaneously non-judgmental and involved; it is the heart of compassion.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    I personnally struggle with most organizations, religious and secular. I think I have a reasonable moral compass and am reasonably intelligent, yet I don’t like others always making decisions for me. Organizations seem too bent on self-preservation. I don’t always need leadership to tell me what to do and what is right. Many individuals, however, appear to need and want that guidance. I’m not totally sure that I need a formal “community.” In this electronic age, I think community is being serious redefined.

    For example, my friends and I use email and the Internet to assemble around mutual interests. I like to travel with some friends, I like to play cards with other friends, I like to do volunteer work with a different group, and I enjoy philosophical discussions with another set. Each group has its own dynamic community and purpose.

    How important are formal institutions anymore? Conservative religions do seem to put more people in the seats, but one wonders whether they, in fact, can last? You sense within Mormonism and the blogosphere that communities outside of Wards are developing. These new electronic communities may turn out to be more important to many individuals than formal church meetings.

  4. dor says:

    I think presence is an essential aspect of God and an expression of that Divine love. I agree that electronic communities are important and expanding, but I don’t think they replace the people who bring food when a loved one is ill, those who dance with us in celebration or those who sit our our bedsides when we are dying.
    Organizations that seek deference are, indeed, difficult, especially if our values differ in essential ways. Church though does serve as a mirror for me and a support for living out of my higher self. Having been away from my church community for awhile, I feel the loss deeply. The church connection, with an embracing community, helps me see more of the multiplicity and abundance of faith. It is sad that churches offering an embracing community are hard to find.

  5. rogerdhansen says:

    Community is very important, but it can come in many forms. Where I live everyone goes to the same church. And I have made multiple efforts to participate. But my personal beliefs are frequently very divergent from those of my neighbors. After a while it gets difficult to participate.

    For example, a few weeks ago, I attended a church meeting with my family (my granddaughter was being blessed). A high local official gave a talk on how God gave him inspiration when he was fixing the water line to his house. This is not the God I believe in. At another time, a speaker suggested that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment from God.

    But even more important, too much of church time is spent discussing subjects that are of little interest to me (dogma, ritual, temple work, etc.) and not enough time is spent on subjects and issues that matter to me (ie. social justice). Too much money is spent on church building and temples, and not enough time and money is invested in helping the poor.

    I would look for another church, but I’m pretty sure I would get dissatisfied there also. So I survive with my various informally organized groups. My wife goes to church, so she keeps me informed on the needs of the neighbors.

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