“‘Religion’ has long meant not only theology,” writes one scholar, “but also rituals, communities, and moral code.”
There are many terms for people who attend meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but say they do not believe in some or all of its teachings. “Cultural Mormon” is one. “Hypocrite” is another. Either way, however, the assumption is that participation without belief requires qualification. Or, to put it slightly differently, the assumption is that believing is the very core of what it is to be religious.
In a way, church members learned this lesson from the United States Supreme Court. In 1879, the court rendered a decision in the George Reynolds case. He was Brigham Young’s secretary and the man church leaders had decided would be the test case to see if the court would accept the First Amendment protecting the practice of polygamy.
The Supreme Court said no. “The legislative powers of government affect only actions, not opinions,” the judges ruled. Reynolds was free to believe in polygamy, but the government could make laws restricting his ability to practice it.
Reynolds was deeply disappointed, but he might have seen the decision coming. The United States was dominated by Protestantism, and early Protestants split from the Roman Catholic Church because they believed that Catholicism paid too much attention to religious ritual and not enough attention to belief.
Protestants thought the true religion was what you believed. What you did should stem from a belief, not the other way around. If you did religious things, like get baptized, it should be because you already believed in them. To be baptized as a means of gaining the faith seemed absurd to them.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that the Supreme Court used the case to push the Utah-based church to be more Protestant, to distance its outrageous practices from lived reality in the safety of mind. men like George Reynolds.
What is more interesting is the success of this campaign inside the church.
Today, Latter-day Saints place great emphasis on belief. This is partly due to events like the Reynolds affair, which taught members how they could earn the respect of American Protestants. But it was partly easy, because the first generation of members were Protestants themselves, who talked about joining the church in a Protestant way. They talked about being persuaded or converted or finding reasonable faith.
It is a strange quirk of history that many devout believers and former churchgoers hold a firm belief that sincere belief is the foundation of all church attendance. Gordon Monson said so in a recent Salt Lake Tribune column. The members are piling intensifiers upon intensifiers as they declare how deeply, completely, and firmly they know that their religion is true. Those who doubt wonder whether or not they should practice the faith, and some who have left the church tell them they shouldn’t. As the cliché goes, “If you don’t believe it, why don’t you leave?”
The answer to that is simple: these people don’t leave the church because religion isn’t just what you believe.
There are many religions in the world that place little or no weight on what one believes. Polls consistently show that very few Japanese say they “believe” in any given religious tradition. Only 6% of Japanese people say that God or a divine being is important in their life. And yet, large majorities of Japanese say they practice Shintoism or Buddhism, and participation in religious rites is quite common. In short, in Japan, being religious is about behavior, what you do, more than what you believe.
Europeans originally used the word “religion” to describe not only the stories they told about the universe, but also the things they did in response to those stories. “Religion” has long meant not only theology, but also rituals, communities, and the moral code. And as anyone who has tried to teach knows, humans don’t just learn by information, but also by doing, art, and activity.
We throw graduation ceremonies and birthday parties because we’re not bottled brains. We are bodies that want to stretch and move under the sun. Getting a degree in the mail means little more than walking across a stage in a gown among hundreds of people to celebrate you. We learn as much through movement and community as through words. We grow not only by repeating slogans, but also by standing up, walking towards another person, shaking hands, hugging each other, looking each other in the eye.
We humans are fleshy, embodied creatures, made of emotions and hungers as much as we are minds that know or believe. Religions succeed because people find that they nurture them in a way that goes beyond mere intellectual fact. And religions flourish when they recognize that they meet community, emotional and physical needs – and mark them all as legitimate.
Thus, we might call people who do not yet believe in attending church meetings cultural Mormons or hypocrites. But I would say these people are simply Mormons – or, if you prefer, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of “The Mormon People: The Creation of an American Faith” and “Christian: the politics of a word in America.”