So there he was at a political confab, telling all who would listen that we Mormons are a cult and not Christians.
How to answer the good reverend from Dallas?
We hover between three responses – State Department, Pentagon, and Monastery.
The State Department approach would have us say, “Oh, we’re not a cult; we’re just like you. We’re Christians, too. We believe the Bible, too. We follow the Savior, too.” Cookie-pushing diplomats cool tempers, but what is gained?
The Pentagon would respond by saying, “Oh, yeah? Step outside and say that.” One statement leads to another and then another (ever read the comment threads when Mormonism pops up on a blog?) until the set-to dribbles off into nonsense. Again, what is gained?
The Monastery approach says nothing and does nothing, and we go back to inscribing elaborate capital letters in our book of life.
The first turns the other cheek but leaves the charge unanswered. The second may feel good for a short time, but leaves feelings raw and mental doors closed. And the third only encourages further attacks.
I opt for a different approach – judo.
Reframing and Differentiation
Practitioners of judo (not to be confused with jiu-jitsu) do not throw fists, but are taught to protect against such blows and use an attacker’s energy to their own advantage. We can do the same with an attacker’s verbal hits.
We call it reframing and it is to verbal judo what redirecting an attacker’s momentum is to physical judo.
When a critic attacks the Church, I look first for a logical weakness, an exaggeration, or an overstepping of the bounds of propriety. I ask at what link in a logic chain can I change the way the audience views what’s going on – what the issue is really all about?
The attack on us by Pastor Robert Jeffress couldn’t serve as a better example:
- First, he used a word that in religious circles is equivalent to an ethnic slur, and America pounced on him. (I thought I’d never see the time when a liberal such as Anderson Cooper of CNN would be defending the Church, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.)
- Then he lamely suggested he meant “theological cult.” Googling that phrase turns up a paltry 695 hits, almost all of them referring to the Jeffress story itself, whereas the word cult harvests over 13 million. Not very good evidence that people carried this unique category of cultism in their heads before the reverend spoke, let alone concluded that that’s what he intended.
- Next, his attack put us in the spotlight. Companies spend billions to attract eyeballs and ears, and our antagonist provided them for us for free. In a world where apathy is a greater hindrance than antagonism, what a gift.
- Finally, he dealt to our strength by saying we are different from his brand of Christianity, and in fact aren’t Christians at all, a point on which only 14% are definitely sure is the truth.
The last one is especially important because he’s already done part of our work for us.
I have told clients for decades that there is no persuasion without contrast. Similarity messages may be informational, but are rarely powerful. Differentiating messages, on the other hand, carry power and stimulate thinking.
We have tried to persuade people for years that we are Christians, that we believe the Bible, and that we follow Jesus Christ. But baptisms remain flat because every Christian church can say the same things. Even if the whole world knew that we follow the Savior, why should they be motivated to change religions?
As a parallel, no political challenger ever won by saying, “I’m as good as the incumbent.” Similarly, margarine sales didn’t take off six decades ago until its makers quit saying “It tastes like butter” and began saying “It tastes better than butter.”
Maybe we Mormons are in the same situation. We gain little if we try to curry favor with those of other faiths by emphasizing similarities. It is futile, unproductive, and wastes money. Our pastor friend has stirred people up about differences and they deserve to hear our differentiating responses.
The essence of the Jeffress attack is that we are so different as to be undeserving of serious study. We agree that we are different, but his portrayal is extremist twaddle. More to the point, however, his exaggeration allows us a judo moment. The word cult is a label, not an explanation, so if I’m asked whether Mormons are a cult, I would suggest judo-style that the question instead should be, “Why are Mormons different?” Or another version: “Let me explain how we are different and you can decide for yourself.”
This reframing positions us to counter both of the pastor’s strikes: that we are a cult and non-Christians to boot. This is not a difficult maneuver. People will accept our replacement question because we were not the initiator of the battle; those who are attacked are always given more latitude than the attacker. We are expected – perhaps even required – to defend our beliefs because self-defense is the American way. The event justifies us and enlarges our comfort zone.
With that new framing in place, I would then take our unproductive “we’re the same as you” similarity messages and turn them into strong differentiating messages. With a touch of both Foggy Bottom diplomacy and Pentagon firmness, I would provide additional information through a because clause, such as in these examples:
- We follow Jesus Christ for the same reasons as other Christians, but also because He has re-established His original Church through a prophet in our day.
- We believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the same as other Christians, but also because revelation from God has provided us more information about the true nature of the Godhead. That is why we are not historical Christians but rather New Testament Christians. We believe in the Godhead but not the man-made Trinity creeds that came along 300 years after Christ’s ministry.
- We believe the Bible for the same reasons as other Christians, but also because we believe all Old Testament prophets were followers of Jesus Christ and were inspired by Him to write what they did.
- Most Christians believe Christianity started when Christ began His ministry. We believe that God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son would not have taught two different religions. Christianity is the original religion of mankind, which is why we are such devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
When Americans hear criticisms about us, as they more frequently will as we proceed into the 2012 political primaries, we have a judo opportunity to differentiate for the world the truths of the Restoration compared to the falsehoods that arose from the Apostasy.
(Note to Dr. Jeffress and his fellow paycheck-protecting ministers: Keep up the good work. If you ever quit lobbing verbal grenades at us, we’d have to find other ways to get people to ask questions. Your actions make things a lot more fun … and help us grow. Thanks.)
* * *
Gary Lawrence’s book “Mormons Believe … What?! Fact and Fiction About a Rising Religion” answers 24 misconceptions and rumors about the Church. Please visit MormonsBelieveWhat.com
Comments are welcome: <a href="mailto:[email protected]
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ ></a><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ ></a><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ ></a>com”> [email protected]