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Guest Post: Dialogue and Mormonism

by Margaret

I’m a graduate student studying international conflict resolution in Washington, DC. For one of my classes this semester I am learning how to lead a Dialogue group. Dialogue is a tool in which members of a community in conflict come together and discuss a difficult issue. As they build relationships with people from opposing viewpoints, they hopefully break down stereotypes, gain personal insight, and work together to think of creative solutions. Dialogue is now commonly used in conflicts ranging from the Israel-Palestinian struggle to racial tensions in a high school. For the last 45 minutes of every class, we are asked to set aside our theoretical knowledge and become Dialogue participants with the professor as a facilitator. These sessions are often more intense than a typical Dialogue since everyone in the room knows the questions to ask and has the academic interest to dig deeper into the conflict.

Yesterday we talked about religion and spirituality. The class had been sniffing around for a conflict—we’re a fairly homogenous group of liberal academic peaceniks and I think people wanted to move away from group adoration of Barack Obama and toward something really controversial. The discussion started with a couple of atheists and agnostics talking about how they felt excluded from American society and that they often went into a defensive mode as soon as religion was mentioned. A woman who identified herself as Christian spoke up, saying she also felt labeled and excluded when she told other students of her religious affiliation. The group spent some time exploring Christianity. A small handful of students spoke of their Christian faith as a prescription to live just, merciful, charitable lives that followed the life of Jesus. No one spoke of Christianity as a conviction of the need for an Atonement in order to be redeemed. Although people had, up to this point, been open about their beliefs, everyone had carefully situated their faith in terms of inclusion and vague universal values.

The professor asked the group if anyone in the room believed, as prescribed by their faith, that they had found absolute truth. No one spoke up. I fought a fierce and short battle in my mind, weighing the benefits and potential pitfalls of speaking up. I would immediately become the focus of attention and be asked to defend beliefs that I often question myself. Although I speak loudly of patriarchy and homophobia in the church with my husband and quietly ask questions and try to make changes in my ward, I did not want to criticize the church to a group of non-Mormons. Also, I’m a bad missionary. I speak only reluctantly of my faith to my close friends and did not relish the idea of opening myself up to students I barely know. On the other hand, Dialogue is all about honesty and facing controversy. I did not want to feel ashamed of my faith or to deny to myself that I believe that the gospel is true. I raised my hand.

I explained that I was a devout, practicing Mormon and that I understood others who felt labeled in their society for their beliefs. I said that I believed absolutely in the basic teachings of the church and I had found universal truth there. I added that I was raised by an anthropologist who studies witchcraft and healing in West Africa and that I had been raised to have strong convictions about the truth of the church while simultaneously believing in cultural relativism and suspension of judgment.

The professor asked me if there was anything I believed that would directly conflict with how someone else in the room lived. He was obviously pushing; he wanted to get to places of conflict from group identity. I rapidly searched my mind for something I could honestly defend but which would spark controversy. I settled on the Word of Wisdom, giving a summary of the policy and explaining the doctrine behind it. I mentioned the temple, a prominent landmark in the DC landscape, and spoke of how we believe our bodies our temples and do not allow unclean things inside.

“Do you believe it is a sin to drink alcohol?” someone asked.

“If I drank alcohol, then yes, it would be a sin,” I replied.

“What about when I drink alcohol?”

I thought carefully. I did not want to say that she was blameless because she was ignorant, nor that she was sinful. In fact, I didn’t want to cast judgment on whether she was sinning or not at all. This was the response that I gave, saying that I thought it was unhealthy and against Christ’s teachings to go through life making verdicts on others’ righteousness.

“Your church doesn’t allow non-Mormons into the temple, right?” someone else asked. I accepted the simple explanation because I didn’t want to get into the complexities of temple recommends. “So do you believe that I’m unclean?”

“That’s not the word I would use. I would say that you’re unprepared, because even Mormons go through certain preparations before entering the temple for the first time. We do not take it lightly.”

I went through a few other questions before the professor asked if anyone else belonged to a religion that excluded others in some way. He did not mean it in an accusing way, he was simply accepting that my religion divided between those who could enter the temple and those who could not and was looking for a common link between me and someone else in the room. Part of Dialogue is about acknowledging that some of the things you may condemn, such as exclusion, are actually things you practice in some way. But no one else raised their hand. One student raised her hand and said that as an ex-Catholic she could say that Catholicism was one of the most exclusive religions in the world. Another said that as an atheist who embraced homosexuals she may offend some religious fundamentalists. I was alone in the room, soloed out to be the one religious fanatic who judged others because they lacked The Truth.

Later that evening, I felt bad that I had felt so embarrassed about my religion. I felt that a better Mormon would have stated their beliefs proudly. Perhaps I had given the group a bad impression of a church that, while I struggle with it, I love deeply and sincerely. I wished I had questioned some of their assumptions instead of quietly and carefully defending my church. I also wished that I didn’t have to be fervently hoping that no one would bring up women, blacks, or homosexuals. Even though I had said in class that I had reached a point of absolutely believing the church and simultaneously believing in cultural relativism, that’s not strictly true. There’s a lot with which I continue to struggle but it’s so deep and personal and difficult that I couldn’t allow the class in. I can barely let myself in sometimes to examine those questions.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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9 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Great post, Margaret. That would be a very difficult situation to handle. Don’t feel bad about being cautious with what you said. By being thoughtful and affirming the paradoxical situation you are in, as a believer and as a relativist, you probably did more to challenge stereotypes than if you had boldly proclaimed the truth of Mormonism’s exclusivity claims. That’s what they would have expected from a Mormon, and I’m pretty sure it would have been a huge turn off to the huge majority of them.

    As a tangent… regarding Word of Wisdom stuff, I take a sociological view of it. I see it as purely a boundary marker. As a way to separate one group from another. I highly doubt there’s anything inherently sinful about alcohol – I’m sure Joseph and Brigham drank a good share of it, and I doubt God would ever hold it against them. I think you’re right in locating the issue in whether or not YOU drink it. The prohibition, IMO, would have nothing to do with a non-member.

  2. Julie says:

    Wow, no need to beat yourself up over things unsaid. I’m amazed at your courage. It would be pretty tough to raise your hand in a situation like that. I think that such moments are really, really important. It gives people a chance to see Mormonism in a bit more of its complexity.

  3. Azucar says:

    An excellent post, Margaret. I think that when you’re involved in a dialogue it helps to understand that the church itself hasn’t always been perfect, but that the gospel is truth.

    I am proud to have someone who is aware of some of difficult history of the church be a representative. Can you imagine if someone who wasn’t aware of the history attended the dialogue and was challenged?

    So despite your reservations, thanks.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    Meg, I’m so glad you wrote this! After meeting you at the Exponent retreat, I wondered what a conflict resolution class might look like.

    I’m impressed by your careful and thoughtful responses to defend the Church and explain our beliefs. I wish I had been so eloquent. When I’ve been in religion classes in the past, I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of talking about the Church like those crazy family members of mine. I love them, but sometimes, they’re a little silly.

  5. Heidi says:

    You are a braver woman than I. But in the end, I imagine the other people in the class knew more about exclusion than they were willing to admit–even in a world of moral relativity.
    I think you handled a delicate situation very well!

  6. Lashley says:

    I also have an MA in ConRes and I live in the Middle East. It sounds like you succeeded in several aspects. Mormonism in the academic arena is often a trigger for unproductive dialogue, you said the right things and you will certainly have more opportunities to talk about your/our views.
    I can assure you that in reality a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians wouldn’t have gone as well! Even an interfaith dialogue between Arab groups wouldn’t have gone as well.

  7. Deborah says:

    Thanks for joining us, Margaret. So been there — most recently in my course on group psychology and in a diversity training session for employees. It’s a tug between seeing oneself as a representative of the church and presenting oneself as a complex individual who happens to be Mormon. In the last few years, I found myself choosing the latter — “here’s how I was raised, here is what I find beautiful and meaningful, here is where I sometimes struggle and disagree.” I figure if I’m I offer what I am, with as much honesty and decency as I can muster, I don’t have to second-guess myself.

  8. Margaret says:

    Thanks for all of the reassurance. It was very upsetting at the time and I was sure I would be outcast from the group but I haven’t found that to be the case.

    Caroline- interesting thought about the WoW. I generally feel uncomfortable with the idea of any ‘Mormon’ sins being sins for other people. I wonder what the line is for what constitutes a universal sin and what is really only applicable to believers. Do you see any other commandments as falling in the “boundary marker” category? For me, it feels like a ‘do no harm to others’ type of line. If you drink alcohol, no big deal. If drinking alcohol causes you to hurt your family, then you’ve sinned no matter what your faith or level of understanding. I’ll have to think about that some more.

    Lashley- The dialogue class is a little funny because we all pretend that it is very realistic when it’s all quite theoretical and polite. I’ve been in real dialogue groups that have been more heated, including an Israeli-American and Arab-American Dialogue. People were certainly not asking quiet questions. I’d love to hear more about what you do sometime.

    Deborah- my thoughts exactly! I completely understand feeling torn between being a representative of the church and being me. I think that’s part of why I’m such a bad missionary. Particularly when I know I share political/world-views with someone, I don’t want them to think that I fully endorse every bit of the church. But that’s hard to present simultaneously with how much I love and need the church. If one has the time, I think your approach is the best.

  9. Caroline says:

    Margaret, I agree. The ‘do no harm to others’ is a basic ethical tenant that I think should be pretty universal. And that would definitely apply to alcohol consumption, like you mentioned. Other Mormon sins that I don’t think apply to others? Our modesty standards, tattoos, some sexual standards.

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