Moving the Elephant: Having the Believer-Disaffected Conversation

So you’ve miraculously managed to get the believing Relief Society President and disaffected Mormon liberal (or, rarely, conservative–yes, I do know one) to sit down over salad.

It might turn out like this:

Or more likely:


Original image here

But it doesn’t need to turn out like this. So here’s how to actually make the conversation happen:

When someone questions or even criticizes your core principles, they’re not attacking your mother, stealing your water, or sleeping with your spouse.  They’re not the source of religious oppression nor are they causing the downfall of Western society.  If perchance they do any of things, it is only as personal as you want to make it.  Everyone is uncertain of what the other guy’s thinking;

“How does she feel about my new lifestyle?  I bet she hates me and thinks I’m a heathen” “Now that she’s left, does he still want to get married? Does he still value his sexuality? YOU’RE POLYAMOROUS NOW, AREN’T YOU?”

There’s good news though.  Remember Sheldon Cooper’s friends algorithim?  This is no algorithim, but I hope it can facilitate a conversation between otherwise silent (but emotionally violent) parties.

1. Ask for their story.

If you’ve seen House M.D., you know that Gregory House always gets his patient’s history.  He discovers a clue that ultimately leads to the diagnosis of a weird disease they contracted from slivers, bra straps, or copper imbalances.   One’s personal history is the foundation of who they are and where they got to where they are.  And unless you have some ridiculously impressive inner insight to their past/soul (and it does happen on rare occasion), their personal history is sacred.  Look and listen.  Don’t touch.

Will they give you a line? Probably. Most of us do.  We have a world to uphold, a suburban castle to protect, and a personal story we’re trying to write.  And we’re not exactly excited to let people see the inner workings of the composition process.  We don’t want them to see us writing the screenplay.  We want them to watch the film–no, the objective documentary based on truth–and nod their heads in agreement.

But the cultivation of interpersonal relationships requires authenticity.  And it’s not going to develop immediately.  It will take a few conversations and demonstrations of good faith before the believers will reveal their doubts or the skeptic will reveal their vulnerabilities.  Sharing stories is a modest form of bilateral disarmament.  Without it, just go watch some O’Reilly Factor.  You’ll get all the debate without any of the damage.

2. Do acknowledge the good in Mormon/disaffected position.

In 1974, Elder Sterling W. Sill once called Robert Ingersoll “the greatest atheist…that ever lived in the world.”  Sill committed himself to reading all of Ingersoll’s works: 19,900 pages’ worth.  He “didn’t read his works to try to out-argue him or to find fault with them.” He “read them actually to try to help him persuade me that there was something better than those things that I believed.”  Likewise, Thomas L. Kane–a committed Deist–loved the Mormon collectivist impulse and devoted his life to the welfare of the Saints, even though he thought polygamy to be a repulsive practice.  Its introduction caused him “great pain,” and he gently rebuked Young for embracing “a custom which belongs essentially…to communities in other respects behind your own”–TLK, Letter to BY, October 1852).  In 1858,  he singlehandedly brought peace to the Intermountain Region when it appeared that there would a bloody mountain war between Mormon settlers and the American military. Kane lobbied Congress on the Mormons’ behalf, provided Young legal counsel in the face of federal prosecution, and oversaw the drafting of Brigham Young’s will.   There is room for cooperation on shared beliefs, even as we disagree on core principles.

Believing Mormons, the heavens won’t collapse on you if you give secular humanists a compliment for their commitment to worthy causes.  I have completed two fundraisers for a school in northern Thailand whose first words to me was how much she disliked missionaries.   It won’t kill you to share in their genuine sorrow or anxiety over the Mountain Meadows Massacre or polygamy.   When official Church Historian Andrew Jensen was gathering the firsthand accounts of the massacre, he “suffer[ed] mentally and deprived me of my sleep at night.”  One researcher I know attends therapy from her work on the topic.  It’s OK to mourn for the Mormon community’s problems.  You’re in good company; virtually every Old Testament prophet and indeed, Christ himself.

Disaffected, you might think  that Joseph Smith was a philandering conman, that Brigham Young was a tyrant, that they’re all a bunch of bloody (and irredeemable) racists, and that Mormons are altogether too compliant in American warmongering.  But I assure you that you can find something you genuinely (not begrudgingly) admire about the Mormon tradition.  Perhaps it’s family, welfare, or self-reliance.  Maybe you like the chutzpah of Ruth May Fox or the lifetime (and impressively monogamist!) dedication of Henry Bigler.   Whatever it is, help your friend know that you’ve considered Mormon history with care.

These gestures of good faith will show that both parties know how to appreciate other intellectual traditions, even if it’s an intellectual tradition you’ve left behind.  This does not mean you’ve compromised your principles; it means that you’re looking to build unity with your old friends.  Conservative Mormons could call it Zion-building.  Others might call it robust friendship.  Both have a comfortable home in the Mormon tradition.


Original image here

3. That person you’re looking at across the table? There’s a place for them in your belief system.

Jonathan Haidt has blown the field of political psychology wide open through his work arguing that political (and, by extension, religious) beliefs are often borne of humans’ tribalist impulse and conflict over material resources.   The brain is not naturally wired towards understanding empirical truth; it’s wired to distinguish friend from foe.  If we give ourselves over to this impulse, then it’s a pretty cold (at best, cliquish) world we are making for ourselves.

Believing Mormon, tell your friend that your faith sees–indeed, celebrates–the good in all belief systems.  You know that Mormonism has long celebrated a universalist impulse.  Think you’re betraying Mormonism’s truth claims? You’re not.  In fact, one could say that you believe in Mormonism so much that you want people to live as close to it as they possibly can–whether it be by living one, two, or ten of its principles.

And to the skeptic, it’s ok tell your friend that you value what good Mormonism has done for them.  And you know that it has, even if you’ve had a bitter experience.  You don’t have to love Mormonism, the Mormon hierarchy, the Book of Mormon, or anything else to value the goodness that you see before your eyes.  The same person who reads the Book of Mormon daily and bears cringe-inducing testimonies might bring food to the sick, comfort the broken-hearted, and reach out to the poor.

To both, lower your armor.  You’re not doing battle with the devil.  You’re not putting down backwardness.  You’re talking to a fellow human being/a “child of God” deserving of respect.  It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn how to love someone a little more.

And charity has a pretty good track record.

For a copy of Black Mormon, either go to the Buy Now button on the homepage or click here for the Kindle version.  Apps are available for all electronic devices/tablets.


One comment on “Moving the Elephant: Having the Believer-Disaffected Conversation

  1. garrettgibbons says:

    Excellent approach, Russell!

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