“Bad Religion” and Mormon Orthodoxy: A Letter to Ross Douthat

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The following is a letter I recently sent to Ross Douthat.


Mr. Douthat,

I’m a young Mormon who spent much of his Sunday reading Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

I loved the book, and if I’m being honest, I might have loved it because it felt like a vindication of my own views on modern religious practice. But your book also gave me a clearer vision of how to move forward as a Christian and a Mormon in the contemporary world. I wanted to express to you how your thesis applies to my religion.

I won’t argue with you that Mormons are heretics to orthodox Christianity, in beliefs and practice. Our temple rites, modern prophets and additional scripture are unique and place us outside any conception of the mainstream. While we believe the church to be a restoration of the original Christian church, it is also true that our religion emerged abruptly in history, in a peculiarly American way.

However, as you mentioned toward the end of your book, Mormons are an unusual example of “vigor and cohesion”. You’ve probably read books like American Grace and are aware that Mormons show an almost unparalleled unity of doctrinal belief among religions in America. Moreover, we really live according to our faith, generally speaking, by paying tithes, involving ourselves in civic life, rejecting alcohol and drugs, remaining chaste, engaging in proselytizing, and studying scripture daily.

I have always felt that the strength of my religion comes from its members’ devotion to (Mormon) orthodoxy, even though our orthodoxy does not fit the Christian religion as it has been inherited from the past. I’m a student of economics and math, and not particularly well read in theology, but I have always felt stirred by words like Chesterton’s, including those you quoted in your book, which characterize orthodoxy as the precarious equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, along a course interrupted by the obstacles of heresy.

This kind of orthodoxy is Mormonism to me, full of balances and syntheses: we are committed to being in the world, as we send out missionaries and devote ourselves to secular education, but we are also of a different world, rejecting contemporary philosophies when they contradict the teachings of Jesus. We are both enterprising and domestic, both outspoken and modest, both charitably disposed and inclined to call others to repentance. We keep a universal, or “eternal perspective”, but we do this by embracing very particular codes of conduct. We seek guidance in both tradition and revelation, in both the Jesus of the New Testament and in the living Christ who still speaks to his people.

We are a little like Catholics, never sacrificing our unity with, and fidelity to, the Church. But like Protestants, we are insistent about the necessity of an individual witness of the truth. We cherish the American ideals that allowed our religion to flourish but we love to watch the religion spread across the world. We worship with a democratic spirit wherein ordinary members, not preachers, speak in our services, and our leaders are unpaid laity—but we also defer to hierarchical authority, which we believe is the authority of God. We have a bit of a persecution complex, but also a conviction that we are in fact God’s chosen people, part of the Church of Jesus Christ, the kingdom to which the Lord will return.

Like the rest of Christianity, the Mormon struggle is as much against our own heretics as it is against secularism. While we have never faced the kind of existential collapse that has afflicted the Mainline churches, there is, in this internet age, a disproportionately loud chorus of well-meaning Mormon voices (along with disingenuous and cynical ones) telling Christ’s apostles that the church should catch up with the times (whatever that happens to mean in the current decade). My personal belief is a little bit Benedictine: I do not expect that the church will move away from orthodoxy, and I suspect that the tent of believers will shrink a little over the next decade or so before expanding again.

On the last page of Bad Religion you invited Americans to return to the Christian religion that is their heritage, and I welcome that call. I’m sure that, as a Catholic, you would rather move about in a country full of practising Presbyterians than lapsed Catholics, and I have similar sentiments. My invitation to you, one of the most important public religious voices in the United States, is not necessarily to expand your view of what orthodoxy is, but at least to take a longer look at the Latter-day Saints. I would be gratified to see you paint a truer portrait than the Glenn Beck-heavy one you painted in Bad Religion. This is, I think, a reasonable request in a world where a Mormon not only won a major party nomination for president, but lived perhaps the most “orthodox” religious lifestyle of any presidential candidate of the last half-century.

If you have gotten this far in this letter, I’m very grateful for your time. I’ll leave you with two links, which you can visit if you have the time and interest. The first is a recent sermon of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland to the worldwide church, which rings, as far as I can tell, in harmony with every teaching of the New Testament. The second is to my website, a collection of essays called Virtuous Society.

Thanks for your eloquent and essential voice.

Tom Stringham

2 thoughts on ““Bad Religion” and Mormon Orthodoxy: A Letter to Ross Douthat

  1. Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed rereading Elder Holland’s talk. I’m interested to know how little bit more about this book called bad religion. What is it about and what is your view on it?

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! The book gives a well-researched history of American Christianity since the end of World War II, and goes on to argue that our cultural decay has not only been the result of rising secularism, but of unorthodox Christian beliefs and practices. The author suggests that we need to be better Christians, and he identifies four popular and destructive heresies in contemporary American society.

      I loved the book, despite the fact that Mr. Douthat sees Mormons as heretics. I think his call for Americans to return to their churches is a vital one. Highly recommended!

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