Freedom to Worship

In many of the LDS Church classes I’ve attended, the size of Church membership has been compared to the population of the planet. This comparison is often used in conjunction with the term “salt of the earth” to convey the idea that members need to be as pure as possible in order to accomplish the great work of spreading the gospel. Terms such as “Babylon”, “the world”, and “Gentiles” are used to describe those who are not LDS. In Mormon temples, work is done for the dead. This too is seen as part of the saving work of the Church. The impression one gets as a young LDS person is that it is the job of the few to save the many, but I wonder what the many think of that idea.

According to a 2012 study, there are in the world roughly 2.3 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims, 1.2 billion non-religious individuals, 1.1 billion Hindus, 500 million Buddhists, and approximately 1 billion who belong to a variety of other religions. Mormons, with 16 million members, represent only a tiny fraction of the population of the world. Expanding these numbers to include everyone who has ever lived makes the difference even larger. How can so few save so many? It’s a mission only the faithful, in true David and Goliath fashion, would even consider.

Growing up in Utah as an active LDS individual sheltered me from exposure to other religions and cultures. It wasn’t until my adult years that I began to understand the world was not necessarily the evil “spiritual crocodile”-infested place I’d been warned about. Yes, there is evil in the world and certainly people make some very bad choices. The news is full of these accounts, but it doesn’t often highlight the good. Sadly, there are evil people in the LDS Church and in other churches as well.

In the Book of Mormon, Zeniff saw good among the Lamanites and decided to negotiate with them instead of fighting (Mosiah 9:1). Ammon and his brethren saw good in the Lamanites as well (Alma 17-19). Similarly, as I began to open my mind to new experiences, I was exposed to new ideas that helped me see the good in the world. I learned about Christian beliefs through listening to gospel music and was deeply moved by the depth of faith I heard and felt from them. I discovered the beauty of Buddhism through the peaceful writings of the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron. I learned about Hinduism by practicing yoga and had many incredibly spiritual experiences as a result. I connected with Muslim individuals and was impressed by their kindness, devotion and willingness to serve. I made friends with LGBTQ+ individuals and found them to be some of the most amazing and good people I’ve known. I once corresponded with an individual from Africa, and as we discussed issues of wealth and poverty I received an unforgettable lesson from her about what truly matters in life: love and family. She seemed to understand these things even better than I did, which is saying something since I came from a family-oriented LDS background. Experiences like this forced me to reconsider my errant beliefs and over time I changed them.

Thinking back to my closed-minded years, I feel sad that I wasn’t able to see good in the many places where it can be found. Much of the this was due to cultural rather than doctrinal phenomena, and some of it was due to my own incorrect interpretations. I didn’t even realize I had a problem until I gained enough experience to open my mind. When I saw the truth for the first time, it was like seeing the sun after a lifetime of living in darkness.

Another Book of Mormon story tells about the Zoramites (Alma 31), whose religious practices had become corrupted. They thanked God for saving them and them alone, which in their minds was a matter of pride. Of course, the path to salvation and peace isn’t meant to be the domain of an exclusive few. There is no joy in being one of the “elect” if all others are destined to suffer. True spirituality is marked by a desire to lift others the way the Savior did.

Are there times when Mormons can be or come across as spiritually prideful like the Zoramites? Of course. As I write these words, I am engaging in a soul-searching process to look for and remove any of my own residual ideas about the LDS Church having a monopoly on goodness. When we are too caught up in Mormon “salt of the earth” ideas, we quickly forget that many people do not want what we can offer them. Many Christians may feel, like Mormons, that they are the salt of the earth whose job it is to teach truth to the world. Perhaps, instead of trying to save each other (or point people to the One who can save them), we can focus on loving each other. July is the month we in the United States celebrate freedom and independence, including the freedom to worship as we choose.  It is a great blessing to live in a pluralistic society. The LDS Church couldn’t have been restored otherwise.

There are many beautiful doctrines in the LDS Church that stress the importance of loving others. “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17) is one of my favorites. In recent years I have come to truly understand the meaning of these words, which before seemed inspiring but now form the foundation of my beliefs. Other doctrines are harder for non-members and disillusioned members to swallow. One of these is the idea that the LDS Church is the only true church. While instilling strong faith and commitment in adherents, this claim can also be seen as a source of pride and even a weapon used against those who dissent from the organization the way the Nephites once dissented to the Lamanites.

The prevailing sentiment, if you ask someone who has left the Church about their experience, seems to be that once you have been exposed to the truth and accepted it through baptism, leaving the LDS Church is a one-way ticket to hell. Only those who know the light can be sent to outer darkness. The more you knew, therefore, the worse off you will be. Since spirituality is often wrongly thought to be based on publicly visible callings, someone who once served in a bishopric or stake presidency may be condemned even more harshly than an ordinary member. While those who never knew about the LDS Church in this life are still seen as having a shot at a decent afterlife if they do their best with the light they’ve been given and accept the gospel in the next world, those who leave the LDS Church are seen as forever damned unless they get their heads on straight and come back before it’s too late. The Book of Mormon is very clear about the difficulty of getting on the right path in the next life if repentance doesn’t occur in mortality (Alma 34:34). However, it is not left to us to judge in cases of inactivity or what we perceive to be apostasy. We are commanded both to love and to forgive. The eleventh article of faith allows individuals to choose how to worship, even if they choose not to worship at all. This truth applies to members and former members, in addition to those who know nothing of the LDS Church. Neal A. Maxwell spoke of those who “leave the Church who cannot then leave the Church alone”. Some who leave the Church may feel that the Church won’t leave them alone as they continually face the judgments of family, friends and religious leaders.

Nephi wrote that there are only two churches: the church of the Lamb and the church of the devil (1 Nephi 14:10). Some may see membership and activity in the LDS Church as the dividing line between these churches, but there are those who belong to no church and devote their lives to Christlike service. There are also those in every church, sometimes in leadership positions, who appear to be following Christ’s commandments outwardly, but inwardly are “full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27). The “churches” Nephi talked about are not official organizations, but divisions based on what is in people’s hearts. The line between good and evil does not run parallel with the line separating LDS Church members from non-members; it bisects it.

Brigham Young said, “If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 2). Members of the LDS Church may be overly focused on a one-way movement of truth: from members to non-members. There is too frequently very little interest among LDS individuals in finding out what the rest of the world has to teach, because in LDS theology the world is seen as corrupt. But a little exposure can go a long way towards helping members see the beauty in other cultures, religions and lifestyles. Instead of asking, “How can I share the truths I know?” members could instead ask, “What truths can I learn from others?” Doing so will increase positive perceptions about the LDS Church and its members.

Gerry Baird is a software project manager with an MBA from Utah State University.  He is the author of several religious/inspirational books including his latest title, “Soulness: Six spiritual practices that will set you free”, and is currently pursuing a degree in  mental health counseling from Grand Canyon University.  His passions include piano, kayaking, yoga, meditation, religious studies, and offering a nonjudgmental listening ear to the beautiful people he meets in real life and through social media.

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