Are Mormons free to believe what they want? Are we taught to lay aside common sense? Are Mormons brainwashed?
This is a sticky subject. It’s a truism that each of us is a captive of our culture in which we grew up, whether US, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, German, Egyptian, etc. And we must be careful when saying other people are brainwashed. Maybe it’s the brainwashed people that accuse others of being brainwashed? Am I brainwashed? Are you?
First, when it comes to understanding other people it helps to start with the belief that people are significantly more similar than different and cultural differences result in small fundamental variances. I’m not talking about differences such as food, language, clothing, or religious beliefs. I’m talking about our primal, human behaviors: friendships, anger, generosity, hate, compassion, fear, envy, the desire love and be loved. Culture can influence how these are expressed, but the fundamental, human dynamics probably vary only a little.
So when we look at other groups—Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so forth—understand that they are quite similar to you. And you are quite similar to them. And expect that the basic differences you will find between peoples are likely to be small.
But being brainwashed implies that we are somehow unable to formulate our own beliefs. So, how free are Mormons to formulate their own beliefs?
I would say very free.
Basic Required Beliefs
There are only four beliefs a Mormon must have to in order to be a member in good standing. And these beliefs are found in the questions all converts must answer before they are baptized into the faith. These questions are always asked verbatim. The individual conducting the interview may not add, remove, or alter the questions. The belief-related questions are:
1) Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father?
2) Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world?
3) Do you believe the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith?
4) Do you believe that [current Church President] is a prophet of God?
If a Mormon believes these four things and is living a faithful life then he or she is a member in good standing. Naturally there are many other beliefs in Mormonism, but only those four are required for good standing.
When I was in college I had an active LDS roommate who was a self-described socialist. I know of faithful LDS members who support gay marriage—I’m opposed to it. You have the ultra liberal politics of LDS Senator Harry Reed and ultra conservative politics of LDS talk show host Glen Beck. And you have Grant Wilson (co-founder of The Atlantic Paranormal Society) and you have people like me who don’t take paranormal research seriously.
But what about the temple recommend questions? Temple attendance is the highest form of LDS practice and worship. A Mormon must have a temple recommend to enter the temple, and getting one requires answering some interview questions. Naturally, the questions for temple attendance are stricter. Notice they focus more on testimony. In other words, inner conviction and not merely belief. But keep in mind, the meaning of testimony remains with the individual. Your idea of testimony might be different from mine.
Here are the testimony related questions for temple attendance. The person conducting the interview is not permitted to add, remove, or in any way alter the questions. They are always asked verbatim. Further inquiry is not normally pursued unless the interviewee responds “yes” to (iv) or “no” to any of the other questions.
i) Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?
ii) Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?
iii) Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?
iv) Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
v) Do you consider yourself worthy in every way to enter the temple and participate in temple ordinances?
[Naturally, other questions imply beliefs: “Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator…” But I’m focusing on belief-specific questions.]
The question about “support, affiliate with, or agree with” does not specify or define teachings or practices. It does not name individuals or groups. And it does not state the extent of support, affiliate, or agree. The interviewee is free to respond according to what they believe these things mean. If a Mormon is pro-choice, or supports gay marriage, or is a socialist, while honestly believing she does not “support, affiliate with, or agree with groups or individuals whose teachings are contrary to those accepted by the Church,” then she will likely not be challenged and almost certainly will be issued a temple recommend.
Naturally There are Limits
But of course there are limits. If a pro-choice Mormon pushes for the church to change its position then he has crossed a line and might be denied a temple recommend. Though a Mormon can support gay marriage and receive a temple recommend, if she drags the church into her political activities she might be denied one. A faithful Mormon can be a socialist, but if he claims that the Church promotes socialism he could be denied a recommend. Also, if a Mormon supports, affiliates with, or agrees with individuals who are pressuring the Church to change they could be denied a temple recommend.
In practice Mormons are free to believe and support just about any issues they like. But if their activities involve criticizing the Church or its leaders, or pressuring the Church to change then they could be denied access to the temple. In extreme cases they could be subject to excommunication.
Belief and Theology
Mormons are also free to formulate their own beliefs in matters of theology. For example, Blake Ostler has written many books and essays about his interpretations of Mormon scripture and beliefs. Some support non-traditional doctrinal positions which I don’t agree with. But I see no reason why his beliefs would prevent him from having a temple recommend. And I suspect he probably does.
For example, suppose a Mormon believes in the Trinity, and I mean the Trinity that Roman Catholics believe in. If he believes that God is our Eternal Father, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world; has a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, then he is in compliance with the questions relating to the Godhead and the role of Jesus Christ.
Now, I don’t believe Mormon scripture and belief supports the Trinity. But the point is this: The belief questions are topic specific and do not include definitions, leaving a great deal of latitude for personal interpretation. While the scriptures and teachings of the prophets are the most common guides to interpretation, how scripture is interpreted is not defined absolutely. Mormonism is not driven by systematic theology. And this lack of systematics creates room for personal differences in belief—it can also create frustration when a precise answer is wanted.
Mormon beliefs are not so much a moving target as they are a diffuse target. That is, the explanations of belief will likely vary somewhat from one Mormon to another. I would compare the beliefs of Mormons to an impressionist painting. If you are looking for clean lines and photorealistic landscapes you won’t find them here. The scriptures and the teachings of the prophets provide a doctrinal center and stability. They provide the overall shape and form. But you might be surprised by the level of person to person variation that exists.
Mormons tend to hold that incorrect beliefs slow our progress and lead to incorrect practices. The further a belief is from the truth the more potential it has for leading us to into sin. But ultimately, how we behave is emphasized. And this makes sense. In many ways and on many levels we all hold false beliefs. And this is something, I believe, that God is very tolerant of.
For reference the baptismal interview and temple recommend questions are given below.
Baptismal Interview Questions
1. Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world?
2. Do you believe the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith? Do you believe that [current Church President] is a prophet of God? What does this mean to you?
3. What does it mean to you to repent? Do you feel that you have repented of your past transgressions?
4. Have you ever committed a serious crime? If so, are you now on probation or parole? Have you ever participated in an abortion? a homosexual relationship?
5. You have been taught that membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes living gospel standards. What do you understand of the following standards? Are you willing to obey them?
a. The law of chastity, which prohibits any sexual relationship outside the bonds of a legal marriage between a man and a woman.
b. The law of tithing.
c. The Word of Wisdom.
d. The Sabbath day, including partaking of the sacrament weekly and rendering service to fellow members.
6. When you are baptized, you covenant with God that you are willing to take upon yourself the name of Christ and keep His commandments throughout your life. Are you ready to make this covenant and strive to be faithful to it?
(“How Do IPrepare People for Baptism and Confirmation?”, Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service, (2004), 203–12)
Temple Recommend Interview Questions
1. Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?
2. Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?
3. Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?
4. Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?
5. Do you live the law of chastity?
6. Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?
7. Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
8. Do you strive to keep the covenants you have made, to attend your sacrament and other meetings, and to keep your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?
9. Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?
10. Are you a full-tithe payer?
11. Do your keep the Word of Wisdom?
12. Do you have financial or other obligations to a former spouse or children? If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?
13. If you have previously received your temple endowment: 1) Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple? 2) Do you wear the garment both night and day as instructed in the endowment and in accordance with the covenant you made in the temple?
14. Have there been any sins or misdeeds in your life that should have been resolved with priesthood authorities but have not been?
15. Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in temple ordinances?
(“Mormonismand temples/Worthiness to enter”, http://en.fairmormon.org, accessed 20141115)