Growing Towards a Cosmopolitan Mormonism

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in Northern Ireland

I was raised with a strong dose of Mormon Exceptionalism. Rather than seeing other Christians as siblings in the Church of Christ, I was taught the narrative of the One True Church. I internalized the idea that people of other religious traditions had some truth, but that we had the full truth. That other people did good in the world, but that we did God’s work.

I exasperate myself even typing that, but it was a frequent message I received as a child.

Over time I came to see that as an unhealthy mindset. While growing out of that mindset is part of a natural maturation process for many, it is an idea that I still see taught and reinforced by members and in Church materials.

Both because of my interests in Mormon history and my discomfort with the One True Church narrative, I took great interest in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s interview with Richard Lyman Bushman for the Salt Lake Tribune, as well as the interview she and David Noyce had with him for the Mormon Land podcast. Richard is the husband of Claudia Lauper Bushman, a founding mother of modern Mormon feminism and a co-founder of The Exponent II. He is an accomplished scholar in his own right as an emeritus history professor of Columbia University and is best known in Mormon circles for his landmark biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

Bushman’s interviews covered many topics, but I took interest in his discussion of the tensions inherent in Mormons becoming a more cosmopolitan people. He said, “By cosmopolitanism, I mean that we’re suddenly able to see ourselves as others see us and we can picture ourselves as one religion among a number of religions and a number of viewpoints. We can see how Mormonism looks from a global view.” As members increasingly engage with the broader world from a position of influence and power (both in terms of positions held by members and the financial strength of the Church), we are required to see ourselves from new perspectives.

Becoming a cosmopolitan faith, as I understand Bushman’s argument, pushes members to evaluate their core beliefs, discover how to express those beliefs on a world stage, and reconcile how some of our practices are problematic (he mentions the way we treat women and LGBTQ people as two examples). The challenge is to hold to core unique doctrines and beliefs while recognizing we are one people and belief system among many peoples and belief systems.

I was encouraged by his final thought in the article: “The ultimate good end of cosmopolitanism is to recognize that the work of God is going to be handled by the 99.9% of the population that’s not Mormon. It can’t just be this tiny speck of a church.”

The work of God is not limited to Mormons. The work of God, as I see it most simply and most powerfully, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. The work of God is primarily done by people who are not Mormon.

What a relief.

It is so nice to be able to see and embrace and learn from the goodness of other people. While Joseph Smith certainly taught an expansive vision of truth and intelligence, my Mormon upbringing taught me to fear veering outside of Church approved sources and ideas. While the One True Church narrative may be useful in creating a cohesive group and culture, it is rocky soil from which to grow.

I find it incredibly liberating to read and listen and engage far and wide without feeling the need to fit what I find into my tiny, correlated, Mormon box. My roots can deepen and my branches expand when my history, traditions, and beliefs aren’t hostilely defended against other people, but can be part of a larger, symbiotic ecosystem.

Reaching for a cosmopolitan perspective that values tradition but is not limited by it reminds me of Jon Ogden’s arguments in his book When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life. He writes that balancing truth, goodness, and beauty brings richer relationships and a more quality life. As my faith has matured, finding the balance of these things has been a struggle and at times immensely painful, but has nurtured me to a place of healthier growth.  

The opposite approach, or needing everything I encounter to fit within my existing beliefs or be rejected, feels small and potentially violent. Groupthink, conspiracy theories, and culture battles thrive when only one group can be right. I’ve seen much of this mindset on social media lately and it worries me, not so much because I think it is crazy, but because it feels so familiar. I know that for individuals this way of thinking damages relationships, but on a large scale, it rips countries apart and crushes marginalized people in the process.

The most exhilarating part for me of a more cosmopolitan mindset is the freedom to be wrong—to reevaluate, question, doubt, and get cozy with uncertainty. When I find myself in error, I can change my beliefs and actions without fearing that my foundation will crumble or my entire belief system will fall apart. A living, breathing Mormonism does not insist that oxygen is the exclusive right of Mormons.

In elementary school, I deeply offended “Tina,” a Catholic friend of mine, when on a playdate I assured her that her church probably had some truth, but that the gospel had been restored to my church, and we had the full truth. On Sunday, I shared my “missionary” experience in Primary and received accolades. On Monday, I learned through mutual friends that Tina didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I was baffled. How could my sharing truth with her hurt her feelings? Wasn’t this exactly what I was taught to do?

Sadly, I did not learn my lesson with Tina. It took me years, and many more experiences of perceiving my beliefs as the True and Right beliefs before broadening my understanding that there were other ways of thinking and being that were just as good and true and worthwhile. While there are teachings of the Church I still hold sacred, I do not believe them to be inherently better than other people’s beliefs that lead them towards love.

I am a Mormon woman, but I no longer believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the One True Church. And yet, Mormons are my people, and their history is my history. It gives me hope to be able to see myself as a Mormon woman in the world and also as just a small, singular person in a big, wide, beautiful world.

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14 Responses

  1. Jessica says:

    The way you introduced us to Richard Bushman was absolutely sublime. You made my whole day.

  2. Mormonish says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you.

  3. Beth Talmage says:

    I thought this was really beautiful. Reading it, I felt like I was taking a deep breath, after a week in which I have been feeling very restricted. Thank you.

  4. I love the reminder that most of God’s work is being done by other people not of our faith. There are so few of us; we can’t do it alone.

    I was also taught that narrative about other churches having some truth but we have all truth as a child. It naturally leads to assumptions that the “some truth” of other churches are the areas where they overlap with our church on a venn diagram, but that falls apart when you look outside our own community and see the actual beauty of other faiths, unique to themselves.

  5. Elisa says:

    Love this and I think many of us had the same experience of feeling superior to / sorry for people of different faith backgrounds. It’s embarrassing for me to recall the way I thought and at times treated people, but I came by it honestly! I love your point about how it’s actually unproductive in a faith crisis to try to fit everything into your existing paradigm or else have to reject it. How wonderful it is to embrace truth and beauty no matter where it comes from and whether it fits your existing box.

    I just read Patrick Mason’s new book Restoration and he addresses this idea really well too – he puts forth a “particularism” framework where each tradition has its own work to do in the world but none is better than the other. The Body of Christ framework (where the body is the whole works not just, like, a ward).

  6. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    From the time I went to my first grade teacher’s wedding and reception at her Lutheran church I discovered that I wanted very much to understand how other people who weren’t Mormons worshipped. Across the street from the end of my block was a Catholic parochial school and church. Our new neighbors who lived right behind our house were Catholic and I learned so much about their faith just by being at their house a lot. In 3rd grade I discovered a book “The World’s Great Religions” that I read over and over and checked out so many times that my mother finally sent a note telling the school librarian to not let me check the book out for a long time and urge me to read something else. Living in Utah most of my friends were Mormon but the ones that weren’t would invite me to their church and I was excited to attend. My mother was terribly afraid that I would leave our church and join one of the other churches I attended with my friends. She never understood that I was interested to see and understand what was meaningful to my friends. As a professional musician I’ve played in worship services for other faiths too numerous to count, and through travel I been to many more. What I realized was just how much we all have in common. When I hear church members start to trash talk another faith I’m able to share my knowledge of that faith’s beliefs. Most of these ignorant church members are truly shocked because they have never bothered to learn for themselves how other people worship. To me that is not only ignorance but it’s also pride. We’re so true and wonderful that we don’t have to bother with learning about how our brothers and sisters of different faiths believe and worship. This problem is churchwide but most egregious in strongly Mormon areas. If the church truly wants to reach out and be a force for good it needs to back off on the “only true” claims and urge members to learn about the beliefs of their neighbors and communities so that they can be ambassadors of peace and cooperation.

  7. Em says:

    I loved your reminder that we are not the tiny little source of God’s love. Because it’s insane, depressing, and overwhelming to imagine that, if I fail to be a good enough member missionary, millions will never know joy. Whew! My circle of influence is enough.

  8. A. Springs says:

    In high school, my best friends were Protestant Christian. I would envy how their church made their youth programs fit the high school students rather than the way we did things which seemed to be much more sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake. For example, they held their weekly youth activities on a Friday night when the whole family would attend but separate into different groups. They had Bible study during school lunch every day. They had a shuttle to pick up members and bring them to church. They had two hour church,(which I know we have now but was a pipe dream then) and had a lot more congregational singing with a 15 min sermon rather than two 15-20 minutes talks. It seemed like my friends really enjoyed going to church because it was a community, but also because it wasn’t a huge sacrifice that cut into sleep, homework, sports, etc. Despite their lack of “sacrifice,” they are still practicing Christians. I know some of this was made possible by a professional clergy because we couldn’t ask members to give up every Friday to run a youth program. But I think it’s good to see how other churches run their programs.

  9. Tara says:

    There is something so liberating and refreshing about your post, one that reminds me of the Joseph Smith I grew up believing in , the one who claimed to believe in truth no matter “whence it came.” Our faith tradition has since lost sight of that and church for my entire upbringing functioned more like 1% protecting itself and resisting the other 99%, rather than acknowledging our small percentage and being humbled by and appreciative of the contributions of the 99%.

    Some of my fav quotes: “The opposite approach, or needing everything I encounter to fit within my existing beliefs or be rejected, feels small and potentially violent. Groupthink, conspiracy theories, and culture battles thrive when only one group can be right. I’ve seen much of this mindset on social media lately and it worries me, not so much because I think it is crazy, but because it feels so familiar. I know that for individuals this way of thinking damages relationships, but on a large scale, it rips countries apart and crushes marginalized people in the process.

    The most exhilarating part for me of a more cosmopolitan mindset is the freedom to be wrong—to reevaluate, question, doubt, and get cozy with uncertainty. When I find myself in error, I can change my beliefs and actions without fearing that my foundation will crumble or my entire belief system will fall apart.”

    I’m excited to read more of your posts. Thank you for your open mindset, your humility, and clarity. 👏

  10. storygurl says:

    I think what has sometimes been explained poorly and developed into the “One True Church” idea is in regards to ordinances, covenants, and priesthood keys and authority. These are what makes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unique, and they are what this church alone has access to. Faith, hope, charity, goodness, personal revelation, and spiritual promptings? These are accessible to all. I think sometimes we confuse these good things with the power and authority of the priesthood, which is unique to the Lord’s church.

    That said, the priesthood and its authority must not be minimized. The restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ began with Joseph Smith praying to God and learning that he should join none of the churches on earth at the time because they didn’t have the fulness of the gospel. Priesthood keys, ordinances, and covenants are what were—and still are—missing from other churches.

    I was raised to appreciate other churches; we attended our Lutheran friends’ church camps at times, as well as attending their congregations for events like baptisms. My mom was careful to teach us that truth is found everywhere. Do I love learning about other churches? YES! Have I felt the Spirit at other churches? YES! Do they do good? YES! Can they have a personal relationship with Christ? YES! Can we learn from their programs? YES! Do they have access to the priesthood power of God? No.

    Priesthood keys are the entire reason we need a church at all instead of simply cultivating our relationships with Him in our homes and personal lives: all things related to the priesthood are administered by Jesus Christ’s Church as He directs. This is the truth that has sometimes been misunderstood or misrepresented. And I’m not talking about men ordained the priesthood; all endowed members are given priesthood power, authority, keys, covenants, and ordinances. And all baptized members have partial access to these things before their endowment in the Holy Temple. This access grows as we move along the covenant path. And that is why joining any church really matters in the first place.

    We can feel the spirit in any place where followers of Christ are gathered in His name, whether that’s a home, a church, or outdoors. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). But we can only receive priesthood keys, ordinances, and covenants in His church. The church has never been about history, traditions, and beliefs. It is about the administration of the power of God.

    • Elisa says:

      This is still the same exclusivist problem – we have something super special and necessary for exhaltation that none of the other churches have. Personally I do not believe in a God who sets up hoops to jump through (like temple ordinances) that only a select few have access to.

      The priesthood is the power of God. I believe it is available to everyone who does Godly things. I believe it is simply love. Personally I don’t believe in the way our Church has set up hierarchies and authority – seems more about control than love, and I honestly don’t see how our doctrine of keys / authority brings me closer to God and other people. On the contrary, I think it alienates and excludes.

  1. January 14, 2021

    […] work of God is not limited to Mormons,” writes Exponent II blogger Katie Rich. “…The work of God is primarily done by people who are not Mormon.” Rich […]

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