Those Secretive Mormons (Who Never Shut Up about Their Church)

With NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams and the ABC Nightly News running extensive (by network news standards) reports on Mormonism -- officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- many conservatives are concerned that Mitt Romney's religion will be used by the media to pry voters from the presumptive Republican nominee.

The two reports were mostly positive, with a few exceptions.  One of the odd tendencies of reports on Mormonism (as well other topics) is how outlets heavily feature those who are very atypical of church members or who are no longer members at all.  Think of a Tea Party documentary headlined by David Brooks, Colin Powell, and David Frum.  Do they have comments on the Tea Party?  Yes.  Do they have several connections to the conservative movement?  Sure.  Do they understand or appreciate the essence of the Tea Party?  Certainly not.

One such interview was NBC's sit-down with the lovely, polite, and relatively uninformed Abby Huntsman, daughter of former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.  Asked why the general public doesn't know much about Mormonism, Abby Huntsman (no longer a practicing Mormon) responded, "I don't think [Mormons have] done a good enough job opening up.  They've been very secretive."

The secrecy mantra was prominent in both the ABC and NBC reports.  Those familiar with the LDS Church and its member might take occasion to ask, "Have these people ever met a Mormon?"  Anyone who wishes (and some who aren't careful) can, at a moment's notice, have a gaggle of Mormons willing to discuss their religion for days on end.

Mormons have tens of thousands of missionaries who go door to door all day, every day, all over the world, pleading for opportunities to tell the public about their faith.  Those who have ever had a pair of LDS missionaries knock on their door at an inconvenient time probably wish Mormons were much more "secretive."

The most common criticism regarding secrecy would no doubt refer to LDS temples.  Once dedicated, only faithful members are allowed to go inside and participate in the various rites administered therein.

The careful use of temples has ancient origins.  As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible explains that the use of temples (or the Tabernacle during Moses' time) has been cautiously proscribed -- so much so that in the times when the Israelite nations had a operating temple, only one man, once per year (on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement) was allowed into the temple's Holy of Holies.

It's not that Mormon temples' rites are meant to be hidden.  Think of it like trying to teach an elementary school student calculus.  Without a sufficiently broad foundation in algebra, division, exponents, etc., it would be impractical to teach someone how to integrate the function r drdθ, with r ranging from zero to x and θ ranging from zero to y.  Yet someone who has the proper background would find that a perfectly common and understandable problem.

Furthermore, the issue is more than just the need for contextual understanding.  Let's say for a moment that our young student is trying to decide whether mathematics is truly a scientific discipline or simply nonsense, invented by Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Fourier, and bunch of other guys who may be total frauds.  True, a teacher could begin by trying to explain upper-level calculus.  But that teacher would have more success building on the student's knowledge and understanding conceptual brick by conceptual brick rather than dropping the entire top floor on the student at once. 

(Analogies that didn't make the cut include "Walk before you run," "It's like kissing on the first date," and "It would be similar to entering a 15-year-old first-time driver in a NASCAR race.  First go over what each pedal does, then we can talk about slingshot passing techniques.")

All explanations aside, the infamous secrecy of Mormon temples is more stereotype than reality.  Immediately following construction, all temples are open to the public for tours.  The tours include viewing and explanations of the ordinance rooms, including opportunities for questions and answers.  Every prospective member is taught about the purpose and activities of temples before joining the church.

The secrecy meme plays into the Obama criticism that Romney is some dark figure, trying to hide his past.  If swing voters are influenced by the Obama campaign's baseless charges of impropriety in SEC filings or tax filings, the media-driven idea that the entire Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is some opaque organization could prove electorally harmful. 

But just as Romney isn't actually a felon, just has he really does pay his taxes, anything more than a skin-deep analysis shows that the Mormon Church isn't particularly secretive.  Outside a few explainable exceptions, Mormons are eager to engage their fellow man about religion as anyone, and perhaps more so.

Joseph Ashby is a talk show host in Wichita, Kansas; a frequent AT contributor; and a practicing Mormon who does not speak in an official capacity for the church.