Mormons walk an interesting line between the orthodox and the unorthodox. On one hand, some critics accuse us of being hierarchical and rigid in our thinking. On the other hand, some regard us as defying ancient tradition because of our rejection of ancient, man-made and traditions. Our acceptance of new scripture and modern revelation marks us as heretical in their eyes. So which is it? Are Mormons rebels and heretics against an established orthodoxy or are we an inflexible, dogmatic organization that resists innovation and new thinking? Funny how it works that way.
We get that all the time, probably because we seem to walk down the middle of the path, not in the extremities, regarding many issues and practices. Take abortion for an example. The teachings of the Church strongly discourage abortion, with reasonable exceptions for the rare cases of rape or incest. Even in those cases, it's not automatic. The guideline is that the individuals involved must prayerfully obtain guidance from God. That doesn't happen casually or without the most extreme soul-searching. We don't say all abortion is murder, thus evangelicals and Catholics consider our position to be liberal. However, “pro-choice” advocates would consider our position to be conservative, because elective abortion as a means of birth control or for flippant reasons of worldly or material considerations would be considered a great sin.
Mormons are advocates for peace. However, very few of us are pacifists. Many latter-day saints serve with distinction in the armed forces. American saints believe that God requires us to support and defend the Constitution. Like Ecclesiastes says, there is a season for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1). In the Book of Mormon, we have examples of hardened warriors who buried their weapons in the ground and made a covenant of eternal nonviolence because of their past sins. Yet a generation later, the sons of those warriors, who had not made this covenant, were called upon to defend their pacifist mothers and fathers against a vicious aggressor that would have exterminated them. Although American Mormons tend to vote conservatively, the late Church President Spencer W. Kimball shocked Reagan-era conservatives when he urged the saints in Utah to lobby against the stationing of the MX nuclear missile system in the state.
In the 19th century, in our infancy as a Church, Mormons were generally opposed slavery. Yet they were products of the age, where discrimination and racism were institutionalized in society. When Joseph Smith ran for the United States presidency in 1844, he advocated selling public lands in the West and purchasing the slaves' freedom. He advised slave-owning converts to release their slaves in a free state. He advocated equality for blacks, not just freedom. Yet the Church took decades to lift a ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood. Since that time, we have worked hard to build an anti-racist culture in our ranks.
Mormon women were among the first in America to have the right to vote. They were organized into the Relief Society after the pattern of the priesthood and given authority over important parts of the Church's mission. The women perform temple ordinances and hold important leadership and teaching positions within the Church. However, Mormon women have been advocates for the full spectrum of choice, which includes choosing to be mothers, wives, nurturers, and homemakers. Many Mormon women homeschool their children and their children enter top universities. They strive to develop their talents in fine arts as well as the domestic arts. There are many talented LDS female writers, educators, poets, artists, alongside the successful managers, financiers, and professionals. LDS women like Ann Romney and Shari Dew are powerful spokespersons for virtue and devotion within the greater American culture.
As the Church spreads into countries where women have not traditionally been viewed as men's equals, it goes the extra mile to train male leaders to value the counsel and advice in the decision-making process. Yet there are boundaries. We do not ordain female priests and elders because we have a revealed understanding of the priesthood. We are clear on what God intends for it. We understand how it interfaces with womanhood and motherhood in a holistic and complementary way. As Paul said, neither is the woman without the man or the man without the woman before the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:11).
In issues of social justice, Mormons seek a just and equitable society. Nevertheless, we understand clearly through the scriptures and the teachings of living apostles of Christ, that homosexual acts are a serious, soul-destroying sin. We have taken a softer position that people who suffer from same-sex-attraction are children of God who deserve love, kindness, and compassion as they struggle to control difficult impulses. We don't make a difference between heterosexual sin between unmarried persons and homosexual behaviors. Sin is sin and God is no respecter of persons. The law of chastity that God expects unmarried, divorced, and widowed saints to obey is the same law of chastity by which homosexuals must abide. We have the more sure “word of prophecy” on marriage and we have been commanded to affirm traditional marriage as ordained of God (2 Peter 1:19).
We encourage all people to obey the laws of the land, but we respond gently on issues of illegal immigration because the hard line on it would harm many families unnecessarily. We encourage thrift, industry, and laboring for one's support. We discourage individuals from living on the welfare dole, but we assist tens of thousands of families in the United States every month with substantial charitable support to help them get back on their feet. We know that, on one hand, the Bible encourages us to feed the hungry, but it also condemns sloth saying, if a person will not work, neither should he eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Environmentally, Mormons believe in being good stewards of the earth. Nevertheless, we don't go to extremes. We are careful to seek truth without the taint of political correctness. The proper use of natural resources with equity is an ideal we call stewardship. We believe the environment can be protected if we use resources wisely, yet we don't follow zero-population ideologies that would limit the opportunity for pre-mortal, unborn spirits to enter mortality and begin the personal progression toward eternal life and exaltation.
The result of this middle-middle-of-the-road approach creates an environment where a Mitt Romney or a Harry Reid can serve God and develop diverse approaches to help others. It has led to innovations like online/social media missionaries. Mormon bloggers use technology to spread the gospel faster than ever before. Taking the middle road as far as governments are concerned has given us the privilege of having congregations of saints in countries like Cuba, Vietnam, China, and Yemen. President Hinckley innovated the small temple concept and spread them throughout the world so that, today, only a small percentage of Church members live farther than two hours away from a temple. At one point, rumor has it, that the general authorities were considering purchasing a ship or an airplane to create a floating or flying temple to provide access to saints living in those places where no temples have yet been built. That's innovative and revolutionary!
The leaders of the Church are guided by inspiration and are willing to look “outside the box” for solutions that will spread the gospel farther and wider than ever before. The Church's web sites, its efforts to digitize genealogical records, its video channels on YouTube, and its inroads into social media are small examples of the forward thinking it has displayed in recent years. This is not unusual. Long ago the Church embraced the notion that advances in technology were given by inspiration to mankind to further the spread of God's truth to the entire world. Steamships, radio, aviation, recording technology, television, satellite communications, and the Internet have been leveraged by the Church to teach, train, and administer the kingdom of God as it has come forth from obscurity to fill the whole earth.
Our critics rarely consider these things. The far-right and far-left, the religious and secular critics all focus on different, yet contradictory things, and either paint Mormons as extremists in one way or the other. When our leaders issue corrections or define boundaries, as in the case of Kate Kelly and the Ordain Women group or John Dehlin's advocacy for LGBTQ issues, the media never explores the real nuances that are there. The media has an agenda and a scapegoat serves their purposes. In treating complex, nuanced issues, it paints an unflattering and untrue picture of our religion. Instead it tends to find harsh rhetoric that comes from hostile former members, evangelical anti-Mormons, and secularists who oppose anything religious in nature to define who we are, what we believe, and what the world should think of us.
The reality is much more nuanced and complex. It explains the powerful engine that drives the Church forward; namely, the power of continuing, modern revelation to living oracles of God. God speaks today and has given authority to living people, as he did in biblical times. The message that has been restored is the same one in the Bible, but it is one that has been applied and adapted to modern times and conditions. We are a living Church whose Head still guides it personally by revelation. That power merges inspiration, creativity, innovation, tradition, and eternal truths. It's a new form of orthodoxy that necessarily adapts to the changing world as God directs the building of his kingdom in preparation for Christ's return.