UPDATE 3/28/2009: “The short bus rides again” — More abuse and rampant stupidity from the inhabitants of CARM’s Mormonism forum.
In the Beginning…
September, 1998. I was a 16-year-old girl starting my junior year at a new high school and had finally talked my parents into purchasing a computer that could access the Internet, something that would change my life forever. One of the first people I ran into at the Yahoo! chat rooms was an 18-year-old freshman attending Brigham Young University who was very eager to share his faith with me. At that point in my life, I was attending an evangelical Presbyterian church which I loved. I had participated in a mission trip to Mexico over the summer and was about as “on fire for Christ” as a teenage girl can be: promise ring, WWJD bracelet, bumper sticker on my guitar case that said “REAL MEN LOVE JESUS,” and Supertones CDs. I had heard a few negative things about Latter-day Saints from various sources, but overall, my attitude towards Mormons was unwritten and as pure as the driven snow, kind of like Lindsay Lohan when she was in The Parent Trap.1
My new online Mormon friend encouraged me to start learning about his church, so I did. I read the First Vision story at the official LDS church web site and made friends with the Latter-day Saint kids at school. I ordered a copy of the Book of Mormon and started taking the missionary discussions. I suppose that the local Latter-day Saints who knew me thought I was well on my way to conversion, but something was not right.
I have often wondered why I turned to evangelical anti-Mormonism so early in my investigation of the LDS church. I harbor little doubt that my LDS friends were sincere in trying to share their faith with me, and for the most part they avoided attacks on my own faith. The best answer I can come up with is that I was offended by some of the basic principles of Mormonism. For example, when one of the missionaries was explaining why I needed to be baptized in their church, I objected, “But I’ve already been baptized. Why should I do it again?” His flippant response: “You didn’t get baptized, you went swimming.”2 It did not sit well with me to have someone belittle what I considered sacred, but even more unsettling was the logic behind that statement. When all is said and done, the LDS church teaches that evangelical Christianity is inadequate, evangelicals do not have the Holy Spirit, and evangelical baptisms are worthless no matter how sincere the intentions behind them. I had intuition enough to see the subtext behind the frequent attempts at conversion, and it angered me.
Like any good teenager, the first place I went when I wanted to hear about Mormons from someone other than the Mormons themselves was the Internet. I started plowing through anti-Mormon web sites and absorbing the information I found there, finding that anti-Mormon criticisms broadly fit into two categories: (1) criticisms from evangelicals (2) criticisms from atheists/agnostics/ex-Mormons. Sometimes you will see a bit of cross-over with ex-Mormons becoming evangelicals, but most of the evangelicals involved in counter-cult ministries have never been Mormon themselves, and very rarely do people who leave the LDS church become evangelical. Since the agnostic critics were just as critical of evangelicals as they were of Mormons, I mostly stuck with materials from various counter-cult ministries: Bill McKeever, Matt Slick, James White, the late Walter Martin, and the Tanners. I heard negative things about Ed Decker early on, but friends at my Presbyterian church still gave me one of his books and I read it. The God Makers was on the shelf at the church library, but I did not read it until much later. Books I owned or read near this period of time included Is the Mormon My Brother? and The Forgotten Trinity by James White, Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin, Blood on the Doorposts and Lucifer Dethroned by the Schnoebelens, Questions to Ask Your Mormon Friend by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Answering Mormons’ Questions by Bill McKeever, and What You Need to Know About Mormons by Ed Decker. I exchanged some e-mails with Bill McKeever and called in to his radio show once or twice.3
It took me all of a week’s worth of reading to discern in my 16-year-old mind that Mormonism was crazy and only crazy people believed it. “These people must be stupid,” I remember telling myself. My attitude turned from genuine curiosity to scorn and derision. If a web site made a cheap joke at the expense of Mormons, I laughed at it. If something was unspeakably offensive to Mormons, I tried to bring it up. I found a web site that had a transcript of the entire Mormon temple ceremony with pictures and illustrations of garments and temple clothes, and I read it all. I would sometimes fire off a line from the temple ceremony in a chat room with Mormons present, just to upset them and hurt them, and I did it with a smirk on my face. Yes, that’s right, I hurt people on purpose, and I enjoyed it. That’s what evangelical anti-Mormonism does to you.
People who support the counter-cult ministry would probably interject at this point that their intention has never been to culture that kind of behavior. I would reply that their intentions mean very little, it’s their results that matter, and I was one of their results whether they like it or not. I’ve heard the talk that goes on when evangelical anti-Mormons think Latter-day Saints aren’t in the room, the sneering and the condescension. You cannot spend major parts of your life thinking and preaching that the followers of a competing religion are deceived, blind and going to hell without looking down on them in some form, and condescension easily breeds hate and ridicule.
Seeds of Doubt
Later that year I began posting on Mormonism-themed message boards under the handle “Junia.” The first board I began spending time on was called “Answering Mormonism” and it was run by Larry Ingram.4 Posting there put me in touch with a whole new side of Mormonism: LDS apologists. There were several men posting there who were heavily involved in LDS apologetics or had web sites themselves: Wade Englund,5 Kevin Graham6 and Michael Fordham.7 Most of the other LDS posters there were pretty well-versed in LDS apologetics even if they did not have web sites themselves. When I would bring up a talking point or argument from an evangelical book or web site, they would easily point me to an LDS response at SHIELDS, FAIR, FARMS or another Mormon apologetics site. Mormon apologists had dismantled nearly every evangelical anti-Mormon book or web site I had read, and the ones that weren’t directly addressed still used arguments and material that had been debunked elsewhere. I would later expand my participation to the discussion boards at CARM and FAIR, putting myself into contact with even more LDS apologists.
I began to notice something about the evangelical counter-cult ministry which bothered me immensely: the evangelicals were not responding to the LDS fiskings of their arguments, they just kept peddling the same material as if it was the final word on the subject and no one had refuted it. I adamantly searched the evangelical web sites for responses to their LDS critics and came up almost entirely empty-handed. It had reached the point where LDS apologists weren’t even taking the evangelicals seriously anymore. Gary Novak had a web site which thoroughly mocked almost every anti-Mormon site there was, and Wade Englund had a site where he posted parody look-alike sites of the major anti-Mormon hubs.8 That was all very intimidating to me as a teenager trying to get a handle on why Mormonism was not true.
The realization dawned on me that in embracing the evangelical counter-cult ministry, I had joined the team that was riding the intellectual short bus, and I wanted off.9 But something else was making my stomach turn. Recall what I said earlier about my attitude towards Mormons during this time, and how I looked at them in condescension and ridicule. Could I really claim I was doing all that under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit? The more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that the Holy Spirit had withdrawn from my life at about the same time I got involved in the counter-cult ministry. That hurt more than anything else.
I began to distance myself from evangelical anti-Mormons, but disavowing them altogether was still to come.
About halfway through my senior year of high school, I began talking to Matt Slick from the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM), both at the CARM forums and on AOL Instant Messenger. I tried to call him out on his failure to respond to LDS critics of his work and eventually agreed to let him call me on the phone and talk to me about it. He managed to temporarily convince me that the LDS apologists were impossible to deal with and their criticisms were just more deception and petty games. He said that he was genuinely concerned about my involvement in Mormonism and was only trying to convince me of their deception because he cared about me. I did not feel like my intellectual doubts with the counter-cult ministry had been answered, but I was touched by his seemingly honest concern for me. By that time I was trying to get in to BYU, and I told Matt about that. Much to my surprise, he approved of that course of action. “Wow, you could make one heck of an anti-Mormon,” he told me.
In turn, Matt sounded tired and worn out. Running CARM was apparently a thankless job and he did not have a lot of people helping him at the time, so I agreed to serve as a moderator on his Mormonism forum. A lot of tension quickly evolved between Matt and I due to the fact that evangelicals were allowed to say anything about Mormons and were never disciplined or called on their un-Christ-like behavior, but if a Mormon apologist posted a response to Matt’s arguments and articles on Mormonism, Matt would just delete his post and ban him. I was constantly sticking up for the LDS participants on the forum and trying to reign in the nastier evangelical locals. The evangelicals were soon questioning my faith just because I wouldn’t let them get away with posting things like “Mormonism teaches that God raped Mary.”
An evangelical participant named Scott W. developed a particularly unhealthy obsession with me and began pouring through my personal home page for “dirt” on me. He criticized me for wanting to attend Brigham Young University (something Matt Slick was aware of and had approved of), saying that I was “dabbling in Mormonism.” He pointed out that I had links to pro-LDS sites like FAIR on my homepage; I had links to anti-LDS sites as well. I was just trying to represent both sides of the discussion. I had links to scholarly articles about the authorship of the gospel of John and Gnostic texts like the gospel of Mary, which he claimed meant I endorsed those views. He did not seem to care that I also linked to solid evangelical apologetics sites like Tekton and the Christian Think Tank.
I answered all of Scott’s criticisms of me when he raised them on the CARM forums, and instead of responding to my answers, he just re-posted the same criticisms as if I had never responded, claiming that I was “afraid” to answer him. A few days later, Matt Slick opened a chat with me on AIM and brought up the exact same set of criticisms that Scott had been pushing. Clearly Scott had been sharing his theories about me with Matt in private.
The next day Scott W. announced on the CARM forums that Matt had told him I would no longer be a moderator. I was stunned that Matt Slick, the guy who had claimed to have so much genuine concern for me, would boot me from moderating at his forums and not even have the decency to tell me himself. Sure enough, the passwords to the moderation part of the CARM forums had been changed with no forewarning from Matt. I e-mailed Matt to ask him what had happened and why he had made that decision. I tried talking to him about it when I saw him on AIM. He never answered my e-mails or responded to my AIM messages. It’s been over eight years since this happened, and I have yet to hear another word from Matt Slick. So much for all that genuine concern. Not treating Mormons hatefully enough got me thrown under the short bus.10
My experience with LDS scholarship and apologetics killed my confidence in the intellectual merits of the counter-cult ministry. My experience with Matt Slick and CARM killed my faith in the counter-cult talk of sincerity and concern for the lost. That was all I needed to say good-bye to the evangelical anti-Mormon movement forever. I do not doubt that there are sincere, well-meaning people involved in certain counter-cult ministries, but I will remain forever cynical of the fruits they are producing.
I believe that there is a need for evangelicals to expound on the differences between our beliefs and the teachings of Mormonism. I believe it’s fair game for us to say why we’re right and they’re wrong. I do not believe screeching about how Mormonism is a cult and Mormons aren’t Christians is the right way to go about it.
If you are reading this article and you do not know me, please do not kid yourself into thinking I am not a “real” evangelical just because the notion of an evangelical criticizing the counter-cult ministry makes you uncomfortable. Every belief I hold to concerning the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, heaven, hell, the church, the Bible, and soteriology can be backed up by the writings of a major evangelical teacher or author. I am not the bad guy here. It’s the counter-cult ministry that has been on the wrong path for years, so if you do not like something I’ve written here, I suggest that you take it up with them.
2 Dear Mormons: This is a very, very stupid thing to say to someone who is investigating your church. If you say this to an investigator from a traditional Christian background, you are very, very stupid.
3 I would just like to clarify that I never had anything but a positive experience with Bill McKeever. I haven’t kept up with his work since I was a teenager, but if any person in the countercult ministry has his heart in the right place, it’s him.
4 That message board is now defunct, along with what appears to be all of Larry Ingram’s web sites. I have no idea what he’s doing now.
5 I don’t believe Wade has a web site of his own anymore, or at least I can’t find it anywhere. He’s still active on the Mormon Apologetics & Discussion Board (a later incarnation of the FAIR discussion board).
7 Michael Fordham lived in the Tacoma area and I met him in person shortly after I began posting on “Answering Mormonism.” I don’t think he has ever had his own web site, but he has written some articles for FAIR, see here for example.
8 I don’t believe Wade’s parody site exists anymore either.
10 Years later, while I was attending BYU, Scott W. contacted me and apologized for the way things went down at CARM. I don’t think he was sorry for the underhanded tactics he used in getting me booted as moderator, but he was sorry he had turned his back on me altogether afterward. He went on to insist that I was not a true Christian nor saved, but the initial apology was a nice gesture.
UPDATE 2/09/2009: When I originally published this blog post, I listed Scott W.’s full name and linked to his testimony which he had posted on another evangelical blog. Part of me is glad that I did this since the owner of that blog immediately got in touch with him and he was allowed to come present his side of the story in the comments below. In hindsight, and in the interest of forgiveness, I’ve decided to remove his full name and the link to his testimony, though I stand by my story as I presented it. I’ve made minor edits to the comments below to conform to this.
UPDATE 12/05/2009: I have posted some new thoughts and reflections on this post.
Memoirs of a former evangelical anti-Mormon
Me, religion, Mormonism: The earliest experiences
The other Mormon guy I loved
Visiting the LDS Ward
The Missionary Discussions, Part 1
The Missionary Discussions, Part 2
The Book of Mormon, Part 1
Enter JP Holding
Trips to Utah
The Book of Mormon, Part 2
Things I like about the LDS church
And never the twain shall meet
And another thing…