Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once noted that, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Faith puts things together to see what they mean.” Science has never seemed stronger in the world. Global faith seems to be flickering so low that it may be snuffed out. People everywhere are struggling to find meaning in the midst of a pandemic and an extended period of disruption and isolation. Hope for the future is most likely to be made manifest, not in the science of how things work, but in the personal faith of what they mean.
America and the rest of the world have proven that science actually can take apart the cells of the human body and the molecules of a virus, to see how they work, in order to create innovative vaccines, in record time, to combat COVID-19. Yet, the world in general, and America in particular, seems to be desperately flailing to put faltering and failing individuals, families, communities and countries back together in order to rediscover meaning.
McKay Coppins’ 9,000 word story on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for The Atlantic was based on the premise that the faith was the “Most American Religion.” Coppins’ writing is excellent; his courageous authenticity to tell his own faith journey as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ is commendable. He “took things apart” to show the faith’s history, complexity, dichotomies and anxieties to fit into American life. His efforts revealed how many things work for members of the faith and the church as a whole.
In the end, Coppins leaned into what other writers and scholars have posited — that the church spent 200 years trying to assimilate to a certain national ideal, only to discover that the America they were attempting to join no longer existed in 2020.
The meaning of the faith and the organizational church is actually found in the principles individual members practice and live, not only in America, but around the world.
In other words, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is called the most “American” religion now is ironic. It is true that the United States provided the seedbed for the church to sprout. Even with the fertile soil of American religious liberty, the Constitution and courts of the country struggled to restrain unprecedented persecution of church members for decades. Yet, the church endured and emerges today as anything but an American faith. It has become a world religion.
More than half of the nearly 17 million members reside outside of the United States. Global expansion with new converts, congregations and temples continues, and the church’s international humanitarian reach has become a world-renown model. This religion does not appear to be simply the workings of American communitarianism and Tocquevillian civil society. The meaning of the faith is much deeper than some of the tangible statistics.
The unlikely beginnings in upstate New York and eventual exile into the wilderness of the West hardly seem the proper pattern for building a national or international organization. Experts could analyze the growth, failure, successes and struggles over 200 years. They could take all of these components of the church apart and see how it works, particularly during a pandemic, but it would completely miss the mark and the meaning.
The answer to the meaning of the faith can be easily understood by observing the 96-year-old prophet and president, Russell M. Nelson. Prior to his call to the ministry and apostleship of the church, President Nelson was a world renowned pioneer in heart surgery. He took apart many hearts to see how they worked in order to innovate ways to repair, restore and preserve them. In his ministry, President Nelson has put together human hearts and helped countless individuals discover meaning.
Throughout the pandemic President Nelson has relied on both his science mind to take things apart and make difficult decisions related to weekly church services, temple worship and global missionary efforts. He has used his faith and religious mind to provide meaning for those who lost loved ones, those who had lost their way and those who were spiritually and physically weary. Science and faith, reason and religion, together provide the best lens for seeing the world and its people.
In the April 2020 general conference of the church, President Nelson called on members around the world to ”put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ into action,” saying, “We not only teach this doctrine, but we participate in it.”
The most powerful portion of Coppins’ piece came near the end when he described part of his interview with President Nelson. As Coppins described it, the 96-year-old “began to contemplate what he would have to answer for in his imminent ‘interview’ with God. ‘I doubt if I’ll be judged by the number of operations I did, or the number of scientific publications I had’ ...
“‘I doubt if I’ll even be judged by the growth of the church during my presidency. I don’t think it’ll be a quantitative experience. I think he’ll want to know: What about your faith? What about virtue? What about your knowledge? Were you temperate? Were you kind to people? Did you have charity, humility?’”
Albert Einstein once wrote: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” The meaning of life and a religion is likely to be found in things that can never be counted.
In the end, President Nelson shared with Coppins a principle that drives the members of the American-born, globally-lived, Christ-centered, eternally-focused faith: “We exist to make life better for people.”
Putting that principle together seems to be where the meaning of this world religion is found.