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Mormonism: The last acceptable prejudice?

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Brigham City Utah Temple in Brigham City on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012.

Brigham City Utah Temple in Brigham City on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Is Mormonism the last acceptable prejudice?

That question was publicly considered this week in a prominently placed, widely read and commented-upon New York Times column, with LDS philosophers weighing in on the subject.

Simon Critchley, a professor of philosophy in New York and the moderator of the Stone philosophical forum for the Times, noted that while expressions of racism or xenophobia would normally be looked down upon in polite social circles, "anti-Mormonism is another matter."

"It's really fine to say totally uninformed things about Mormonism in public, at dinner parties or wherever," Critchley writes. "This is a casual prejudice that is not like the visceral hatred that plagued the early decades of Mormonism … but a symptom of a thoughtless incuriousness … based on sheer ignorance of the peculiar splendors of Mormon theology."

To illustrate those "peculiar splendors of Mormon theology," Critchley focuses most of his reasoning on a sermon delivered by Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, less than three months before he was martyred in 1844. Referred to as the King Follett sermon or King Follett discourse (named for a friend of Smith's, whose recent death seems to have motivated the prophet's consideration of the eternities), the two-hour sermon includes the LDS prophet's discussion of such provocative doctrines as the belief that God was once a mortal, the character and nature of God, the principles of matter and intelligence, the connection between the living and the dead, and the belief that men and women can progress and become gods in the next life.

As an atheist, Critchley sees the sermon as "strong poetry, a gloriously presumptive and delusional creation."

"To claim that it is simply Christian is to fail to grasp its theological, poetic and political audacity," he writes. "Why is no one really talking about this? In the context of you-know-who's presidential bid, people appear to be endlessly talking about Mormonism, but its true theological challenge is entirely absent from the discussion."

Dr. James E. Faulconer, a BYU philosophy professor and a friend and associate of Critchley's, says, "I think Simon intended it as a slap in the face of liberals who are sniping at Mormons."

"The most interesting thing about Latter-day Saints is that we see the world differently than most of the world sees it, and that stems directly from our doctrine," Faulconer said in a telephone interview. "It isn't our underwear or whether or not we drink caffeinated soft drinks. That's not the interesting thing about us, even though those kinds of things seem to be occupying an inordinate amount of time in the Mormon conversation. I think Simon is right to say, ‘You don't know the Mormons, you're not talking about the most interesting things about them.'"

Dr. John M. Armstrong, a professor of philosophy at Southern Virginia University, agrees that "Latter-day Saint ideas about God should feature more prominently in public discussions about Mormonism."

"They are powerful and inspiring ideas," Armstrong said in a phone interview. "They contrast starkly with the 4th century Nicene doctrine that the Father and the Son share the same essence — a notion borrowed from part of the Greek philosophical tradition, not from Hebrew scripture. Some might look down on the LDS doctrine of Gods embodiment, but that does not, in my view, make the doctrine any less true."

Armstrong and Faulconer also agreed that Critchley was generally accurate in his descriptions of LDS doctrine, but missed the mark completely with regards to the potential divinity of women.

"He said that women cannot be priests, and that is true," Faulconer wrote in an article posted Thursday on patheos.com. "Mormon women do not have the priesthood. But Simon added to that a denial that women cannot aspire to divinity, which isn't true. Neither women nor men who have not been ‘sealed' in an LDS temple (something available either in this life of by proxy in the life to come) can aspire to divinity. Divinity is granted only to male-female couples."

Added Armstrong: "The Mormon doctrine of divinity is not exclusively masculine." He cites “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” an official statement from the LDS Church's presiding First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued in 1995, which states that "all human beings — male and female — are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny."

He also referred to a statement by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the church's April 2007 General Conference, in which he urged husbands to "think of yourself and (your wife) as the god and goddess you both inherently are."

Armstrong also challenges Critchley's claim that "Mormonism is properly and powerfully post-Christian, as Islam is post-Christian."

"We Mormons do not think of ourselves as ‘post-Christian,' nor should we," he said. "Such a label would imply that Mormonism is somehow beyond Christianity and therefore not fully accepting of Jesus Christ as God's only-begotten son in the flesh and the Savior of the world.

"Mormonism," he added, "is Christianity restored."

Although acknowledging that Critchley's "love letter to Mormons" was "somewhat awkward," Faulconer says that LDS responses to public questions about their faith have been similarly awkward "and probably will continue to be."

"We're just getting used to this kind of relationship with non-Mormons," he said. But he hopes the bugs can be worked out of the relationship because, he said, "the most interesting public conversation about Mormonism hasn't occurred yet."