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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Are You Interested in Mormonism?

Even if you aren’t (interested in Mormonism), ReligionWriter still wants you to read Dick and Joan Ostling’s newly updated Mormon America because its multifaceted look at the LDS church will force you to reflect deeply on some of the most enduring puzzles of religion, such as:How can intelligent people adhere to a faith that so defies reason? Yes, all religions require, at some point, a leap of faith: that Jesus was immaculately conceived and raised from the dead, or that the Buddha lived and achieved Enlightenment under his bodhi tree.But to believe in the teachings of the LDS church (or its many splinter factions) presents even more immediate and vexing problems. To detail just two explored in the book:Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet, dabbled in the occult, was charged with various crimes, and, when pressuring a young woman to become his polygamous wife, told her she risked damnation if she refused. Not such an appealing figure when studied closely.Then come damning critical looks at Mormon scripture. In 1835, Smith bought an Egyptian mummy and some papyri from a traveling exhibitor. Smith claimed to “translate” the hieroglyphics, some six years before the Rosetta Stone was cracked; he said the papyrus was actually the Book of Abraham, penned by the Prophet Abraham himself. Modern scholars of hieroglyphics have read reproductions of the papyri and, those that have deigned to comment on it, said it was simply a common burial papyri and not Abrahamic scripture of any sort.If it’s almost too easy to punch holes in Mormon truth claims — and the Ostlings comprehensively lay out these challenges, and how the church has dealt with them over the years — it is not easy to explain why the faith has grown and thrived since its founding more than a century and a half ago.Although the Ostlings don’t attempt to resolve this paradox of faith and reason, they do point out again and again how individual Mormons confront — and are encouraged by the church to confront — intellectual or factual challenges to their religion: by reading the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures for themselves, praying for guidance and receiving direct confirmation from God that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and that the LDS church is the true church. That circular reasoning known as “having a testimony” is impossible to crack: “I know it’s true because I know it’s true.”Serious Reporting on a Fascinating FaithIn case you don’t know, Dick Ostling is the godfather of religion reporting in the United States, on the beat for 40 years with the Associated Press, Time Magazine, the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour and CBS Radio. His co-author and wife Joan has also had a long and accomplished career in journalism. Point being, the book reflects the seasoned insights of professionals who have covered these issues for years and is a welcome change from many non-fiction investigative books by journalists who rely too much on “telling anecdotes” and portraits of individual characters to make their main points.Indeed, pull up your theological socks, because the Ostlings don’t shy away from the heavy religion questions, devoting two entire chapters to the theology of Mormonism and how it compares to Christian creeds. If you are clueless about Mormonism — and wonder why in 2006 35% of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon — then it might help to understand that Mormon creed holds that God has a physical body, is married and was once as human as we are now. That’s just one example of where Mormon theology differs radically from that of other Abrahamic faiths, all of which hold that God is infinite and uncreated.The Ostlings dive deeply into this and other theological questions, and they are not just quoting experts: It seems they’ve read every article appearing over the last 30 years in the independent Mormon publications Sunstone and Dialogue, not to mention major scholarly and popular books on the church and its history.The book also does an excellent job of describing the entire Mormon universe, covering not only the well-known LDS church, but also the many religious organizations that have splintered off from it, including the fundamentalist polygamy-practicing sects and groups that split off earlier in Mormon history, such as the now-renamed Community of Christ. And why do these other groups matter?For one thing, they are an example of how schism tends to give birth to schism — that as Joseph Smith boldly struck out on his own religious path, so others followed in his footsteps, albeit on their own paths. For another, they show how the LDS church has been extremely successful over the years in consolidating power — a feat that is more impressive when you realize they have many competitors from their own religious universe, not just from long-hostile non-Mormon groups.

Is the LDS Church worrisome?

The tone of Mormon America is, like most works of journalism, objective, and the Ostlings strive to present multiple points of view on each issue. They do not turn away, however, from calling it like they see it. At the conclusion of their chapter on “Dissenters and Exiles,” for example, which is largely about intellectuals excommunicated from the LDS church in the 1990s, the Ostlings write pointedly:

For those in charge of any human institution, open debate can be irksome. In a religious institution, especially, uncertainty about belief can bring serious spiritual consequences. But there is always a high price to be paid when certain questions are not to be asked, when certain questioners are not welcome, and when certain leaders are not to be questioned.

The Ostlings describe the LDS church, on a detailed factual basis, as “authoritarian and secretive,” recounting how church-sponsored BYU severely restricts academic freedom, and how the church administration does not release facts and figures that are public knowledge in most other religious groups. “The Mormon administrative style is inspired by corporate America with its top-down authority and information controls, not democratic America,” write the Ostlings.But wait, doesn’t this sound familiar? A homogeneous group of old men running a secretive and authoritarian religious organization that commands the loyalty of many millions of devoted followers? If you’re thinking the Vatican, you guessed right, and that comparison demonstrates that a religious group can indeed be secretive and authoritarian without necessarily being dangerous to themselves or others. (And compare that to the relatively democratic order of global Sunni Islam, where scholars must compete in an open marketplace to win adherents, and there is no central administrative structure — this very freedom has allowed nefarious guy #1, OBL, to hold himself up as a self-appointed leader.)Is secretiveness in itself bad? Does it matter if no one will ever know what Mitt Romney’s tithing payments subsidize? (In chapter seven of the book, the Ostlings attempt to lay out the basics of the LDS financial structure, based on the shards of information collected around the barriers of secrecy — in spite of excellent work on their part, the picture remains murky. And speaking of that, Mitt Romney’s 10% tithing payments to the church must be enormous — will that amount come out in campaign financial disclosures?)

Mormons Abroad: What is the “Next Mormondom?”

The only thing ReligionWriter found lacking in the book was coverage of the Saint’s expansion overseas. The Ostlings apparently did not do any reporting in countries like Brazil that have relatively large Mormon populations. According to the concluding chapter of their book, “the 2007 LDS Church Almanac lists 12.56 million Saints worldwide, of whom 5.69 million (45 percent) live in the United States.” (This figure includes children not yet baptized into the church.) The Ostlings note that while conversion rates might seem high overseas, the attrition rates are high as well, and that LDS evangelism is “particularly sluggish” in Africa and Eastern Europe, where other religious movements are now thriving.But the bigger questions are how the LDS church may adapt to its internationalization. After all, as scholar Philip Jenkins has written about extensively, the Protestant and Catholic churches are struggling to come to terms with the new Christian reality, in which a majority of believers are non-Western and residents of the poor “global South.” The Ostlings ask:

Why must missionaries wear the required uniform of white shirts and dark suits that mark them as outsiders? Cannot those thinly prepared young missionaries be supplemented by more missionaries of Catholic and Protestant style who spend careers deeply immersed in their foreign cultures? Why impose generic architectural plans from Salt Lake on meetinghouses in far-off places? … Why celebrate Pioneer Day in Bolivia? … Will the Americans atop the LDS power pyramid ever decide that foreigners, now a majority of membership, should be the majority among the apostles?

To ReligionWriter, who recently reported on the question of how national corporations can effectively go global, these questions seem eminently answerable for the LDS church. Given the noted similarities between the church and corporate culture, and given that so many Mormon leaders are business leaders and vice versa, it seems obvious that the church may eventually borrow insights from the corporate world on this question of how to globalize effectively.Every international corporation must wrestle with the key question of how to balance centralization with local adaptation — Wal-Mart, ReligionWriter learned, pushed a highly centralized approach when moving into countries like Korea and Germany, and, apparently as a result, failed. It seems natural that insights like this from the business world would bubble up through the hierarchy.But then, as the Ostlings write, insight is much more likely to trickle down than bubble up in the LDS church. It is fitting, then, that they end their book with a quick look at the roster of elderly men who are set to succeed the current LDS president, 97-year-old Gordon Hinckley. All you pope- and presidential-candidate-watchers, get ready for a horse race that will be every bit as interesting and important as those contests. If we are lucky, Dick and Joan Ostling will be there to help us make sense of it.

There Are 20 Responses So Far. »

  1. About Mormonism:
    If you are interested in really being “objective” about describing LDS beliefs, I would be happy to respond to some of the inaccuracies in the above article. But the comments about “intelligent people” and “defies reason” are not objective comments, so what I would have to say might not serve the purposes of whoever is trying to spread their own views on something they know nothing about.

  2. You say:

    “If itÃ??Ã?¢??s almost too easy to punch holes in Mormon truth claims Ã??Ã?¢?? and the Ostlings comprehensively lay out these challenges, and how the church has dealt with them over the years Ã??Ã?¢?? it is not easy to explain why the faith has grown and thrived since its founding more than a century and a half ago.”

    That’s a big if. It is difficult to explain why the church has thrived, while at the same time maintaining caricatures of the faith in one’s mind as “so easy to poke holes in.” I would say books like “By the Hand of Mormon”, published by Oxford do a better job at explaining why the faith is successful than anything written by a reporter.

    If you’re still asking the question of “How can rational people believe this?” when you have read a book attempting to give a comprehensive look a religion, that book is severely lacking. All of the points you have covered are laid out in an oversimplified form and have been dealt with for years by Latter Day Saints with expertise in relevant fields. For example, John Gee is a Yale trained Egyptologist who participates frequently in academic venues and is an expert of the Joseph Smith papyri. He has written quite a bit about it, which might give one some real insight into how intelligent people can believe in these things. John Welch edited a book published by the German academic press Gerstenberg Verlag on Hebrew literary structures. In he wrote a fascinating chapter on Hebrew literary structures in the Book of Mormon, which make little sense it the young uneducated Joseph wrote the book. Treatments have been made of LDS theology and its strengths in comparison with that of traditional Christianity in such venues as the Harvard Theological Review, The Journal of Philosophical Theology etc. Scholars of religion who have looked seriously at the faith recognize its strengths. One scholar of religion in London disclosed to me that she thinks Mormonism has the most effective and consistent theodicity among all western faiths. In contrast, after reading your article, I have the impression that you have very little understanding of why I believe what I believe. I would expect more of a “religion writer.” The Ostlings treat us better than many other evangelicals do, but they do very little to help their audience understand what it is like to be a Latter Day Saint and what our strengths are. To them, it is all about the corporate savvy of our leaders, nothing to do with our scriptures or our theology. I think they have missed the mark.

    I do appreciate, however, you implying that my faith is not dangerous. Thank you for that.



  3. Richard Mouw an Evangelical himself has said of Dick and Joan Ostling “they have impecable evangelical credentials.”

    Will someone please explain why religionwriter is passing off this book as an objective look at Mormonism?

    Good Grief…

  4. Great article. I know being just a short article on the beliefs of the mormon faith they could not get into specific details, but it covers enough to show how unreasonable and illogical it is to be a mormon. I think they forgot to add that God (the Father) has a wife who He had sexual relations with that made Jesus and Lucifer. Yes folks, they are brothers in the mormon faith. How ridiculous. Oh yeah and Father God lives on a star called Kalob or something like that.

    All one must do to know truth is read the Word of God, the Bible. From that alone can you know the falsehood and heretical teachings of the mormon faith.

  5. Those “seriously interested in Mormonism” will be well-served to have a very good personal knowledge and understanding of the Bible-Old and New Testaments-gained by personal study and by asking themselves questions such as “what does created in God’s image mean?” or “what does God want me to do with my life?” or “what does it mean to become a co-inheritor with Jesus Christ?”

    They might also ask introspective questions such as “if Joseph Smith had been a true prophet called by the God of the Bible, would it follow the pattern of the Bible that a great number of people would ridicule his teachings, ridicule him, and seek ways to discredit him (even by resorting to speculation and half-truths)?”

    They might also ask “could it be true that we all lived before this present life as pre-mortal spirits, in the presence of God and Jesus Christ, and that we agreed that it was a good plan for us to come to this earth to gain experiences of how to grow in faith, grow in love for God and love for each other, live imperfectly but be given the priceless gift of our Savior and Redeemer to satisfy the eternal debt of justice so that we could all gain mercy and divine grace through following Christ?”

    I have a testimony that’s “impossible to crack” but it’s not based on circular reasoning. It’s based on a power and source of eternal truth that many, many people currently recognize and have recognized over the centuries of time of this mortal world. It was talked about time and time again in the Bible. It requires humility, meekness, love of God and humankind, willingness to change for the better to find greater happiness and peace-the peace that God truly wants us to enjoy if we will only seek for it with pure hearts and real intent. Peace to you, my friends, in your personal search.

    By the way, the immediately preceding comment at 6:53 pm was by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about, so please do your own independent research through responsible sources-but do study the Bible.

  6. If you are interested in Mormonism, visit and get your answers straight from the Church itself. This book is NOT an ‘objective’ point of view.

  7. I’ve lived and studied among Mormons, and their beliefs are truly wonderous. A man can become a God, for instance. As a Protestant Christian, I find I can not get my hands or mind around such beliefs.
    I think the reason people “flock” to the LDS is that they want to BELIEVE, to BELONG to something useful, helpful and worthwhile. Although I take issue with some of the church’s teachings, I must say that by and large the PEOPLE in the LDS church are some of the finest, most kind, considerate and loving people I’ve ever met. (Karl Rove notwithstanding…) I would trust my family with my Mormon acquaintances.
    The Bible speaks of such things; apostacy, false leaders, bad doctrine and so forth. These things will be with us as long as man is man. The real important thing is only found when you look someone in the eyes and find out what sort of person he is. The rest (judgment, salvation, condemnation, etc.) is not up to people. It is up to God alone.

  8. As an Ex-mormon, I do agree that it is difficult to see how intelligent people can believe many things Mormons do.

    But as the article indicates, it is difficult to see how intelligent people can believe what Catholics, Muslims, and 7th Day Adventists do.

    Many smart books have dealt with this question, and I won’t attempt to summarize their findings.

    Bottom line: Mormon beliefs are not qualitatively more outlandish than those of most other religions who believe in a Supernatural God.

  9. Addendum

    This Book Looks Like a Reasonable Work

    Go to Amazon: there are 69 comments, almost all give it at least 4 stars, almost all say it is reasonable. so do the editorial reviews.

    Joseph Smith’s history inarguably is very spotty. Many reasonable people conclude that he was indeed a con-man. He undoubtedly was a treasure hunter and parapsychologist, was involved in controversial “marital” and sexual entanglements, and made fantastical claims that his “translation” of an ordinary egyptian funeral document was “actually” the writing of the prophet Abraham.

    We know of no such problematic history about Jesus, for instance.

  10. I have appreciated reading Porzitsku and Henry James comments, and the reviews Henry pointed out. Thanks.

    As to the question of whether Christ intended or taught implicitly that “a man can become a god” I agree that such a thing sounds pretty absurd on the surface, and doesn’t make sense to our finite minds, but I haven’t encountered “logical” explanations from evangelicals of what they think they are going to be doing (in some level of detail) throughout eternity after the resurrection. The explanations I’ve heard have sounded pretty boring to me, though they may not sound boring to some people.

    I think Christ made it clear that we should desire to continue growing as we search for truth and light, and improve how we treat others to the point of “be ye therefore perfect” as He taught in the Sermon on the mount. Such a goal seems impossible, and without the opportunity offered by the Savior, it would be-but His gift to all of us changes everything, changes the dynamics, and changes where we can be headed as we understand where He would like us to be headed.

    C.S. Lewis had the right idea about it. He saw divine potential in everyone he met. Best to all.

    As a postscript, I agree that Joseph Smith’s life story sounds pretty unbelievable as to whether he experienced what he said that he experienced. But having read his life story, read the Book of Mormon many times, and experienced what I have personally experienced with inspiration in my life, I observe that those who recognize a realm of knowledge beyond their own finite minds and who feel “tuned in” to that source of knowledge and have aligned their lives with truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ as best they can, can assuredly feel guided in their lives and blessed by an outpouring of help from our Creator. That same source of truth has confirmed for me personally that Joseph Smith told the truth of what he experienced in his life, and has confirmed that the Book of Mormon is a true book, just as the Bible is.

  11. Douglas
    I appreciate your *spirit*. You are clearly a lovely human being.

    You and I are free to *believe* whatever works for us. My mother and brother believe as you do.

    When you use “know” and “truth” however, you are definitely using them in a different sense than any that they have in a strict way.

    You can *know* that you believe in God (I think), but you can not *know* that the Mormon God exists in *truth*.

    But don’t feel bad: that is what Faith is for.
    and Muslims and Catholics can’t *know* either.

  12. I read this book with great interest (being a Mormon) and found it to be surprisingly fair for a book about Mormons not written by one. However, it is a far cry from the objective tone religion writer claims the journalists who wrote this book are.

    They have a hard time hiding their disgust with some parts of the Church (mainly, polygamy & Joseph Smith) and give nothing but compliments to other parts. (Mainly the Church Welfare system).

    But all nonpartisianship is thrown off around chapter 18, when the authors take great pains to tell (not report) exactly why C. S. Lewis and the Orthodox Church Patriarchs would have hated Mormonism. From this point forward (particulalry dealing with people excommunicated from the Church) the authors don’t even try to hide where thier sympathies lie.

    Yes, this book contains many interesting and detailed accounts of Mormonism. However, it is far from being the objective book as praised here. If you are truly interested, read it. Yet, if you are not Mormon and want to know more about us, this is about the worse place to start.

    P.S. I like the suggestion as well.

  13. Re: the “” suggestion.

    it is an official Mormon web site. hardly the place to go for “objective” information.

    like going to for the objective information on their regime change.

  14. I suggest that in the particular case of the above article, ReligionWriter ought to change their self-designated heading as “in Sensationalism Form” rather than “in Whole-Grain Journalism Form”. A journalist tries to get the reader’s attention early and then keep their attention, but if sensationalistic words, phrases, or accusations are drawn upon to build that interest, then the journalist has resorted to sensationalism and that is never “objective”.

    People trying to discredit Mormonism often do exactly what this particular piece (not Ostling’s book, but this ReligionWriter piece itself) does-scoff at Joseph Smith, scoff at polygamy, make minor attempts to scoff at the doctrines of Mormonism, then use what others have said negatively to build their case against it.

    If one who believes in God (unlike HJ, who doesn’t) probes deeply into the doctrines of Mormonism, they realize that it is a deeply plausible set of beliefs that can answer profound questions which other religions struggle to adequately answer. But such research takes more than five minutes-takes days, weeks, months maybe. For those who want only the five minute version, the above piece was not the place to have gotten your five minutes’ worth. Keep looking, elsewhere. You will be better served.

    P.S. For example, I’ve read many of the Wikipedia articles that probe Mormonism, and they offer at least some sense of balance and objectivity, and probe some of the doctrines in more detail than this piece, which is wrong on some counts and shallow on others.

  15. [...] heated digital discussion following last week’s review of Dick and Joan Ostling’s Mormon America on this site brought up a set of pointed questions [...]

  16. I find it amazing the amount of half truth attacks I find on the web against Mormonism. I don’t see nearly as many attacks against Catholicism, which I find fascinating due to the fact they have a much more concerning history than that of the “perceived” history of Mormonism. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also very interesting. The literally thousands of churches that try to convince people from their “expert study” of the bible they are right. But no, everyone must bash the people that quote the bible and ask you to ask god for wisdom about what is right. It must be incredibly difficult to tell a 19 yr old kid that you are not interested in a cordial manner. It’s just funny to me that so many people fear the message of 19 and 20 year old kids. Are you all afraid to take the challenge. Ask god in humble prayer if that Joe Smith guy was a prophet, or if the “strange” book of mormon is actually the word of god. Why wouldn’t you?

  17. For more insights, see - published accounts from former mormons who have fully experienced the mormon doctrines.

  18. I don’t trust this site’s claim of objectivity. As a member of the LDS church, I have always found that when dealing with persons not of our faith we are able to develop a mutual respect. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time with Mormons seems to have the same respect for us as we strive to have for others (whatever faith or lack thereof they may represent). I am sure that many of you could find exceptions to this, because no one’s perfect, but my guess is that most of you with experience among members of our church could back this claim. I am not trying to put our church aloof from the others; I’m sure the same could be said of nearly every other church or faith.

    I would encourage the author of this article to actually meet the people of the LDS church. You might just find that while our doctrines are different in some ways, our faith is centered in the Savior Jesus Christ. Essentially, I have found every person of faith to be the same as me and my fellow LDS members: they love the Lord and want to do what’s right.

  19. I have had lds missionaries in my home many times. Although I’ve tried to show the utmost respect to them, being a born-again Christian, I found their blasphemy and false doctrines more than I could bear. Taking a stand for Jesus is vitally important. Contending for the faith is absolutely necessary. If expressing righteous anger is considered disrespectful, then I’m sorry but I cannot sit by silently and listen to the heretical teachings of the lds.

  20. mormonism is good

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