Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Is Mormonism an Affinity Scam?

by Shawn Tucker (bio)

An affinity scam is a fraud where the victims are taken in because they share something in common. This affinity or commonality makes them more trusting, less critical of claims, and then more willing to give fraudsters both the benefit of the doubt and a possible "in house" solution to the problem. Once fraudsters gain trust, then the scam spreads very quickly through the group. The recent Madoff fraud is a recent and spectacular example of an affinity scam. Oh, and according to a report in the Economist, Utah is the affinity fraud capital of the United States.

It is easy to see how Mormons might be taken in by fraudsters. We are welcoming to newcomers and inherently trusting of those in the flock. And we are slow, very slow apparently, to see wolves in sheep's clothing. This has raised a very troubling question for me: is Mormonism an affinity scam? Are Mormons, for the most part, lulled into believing the church's claims for the same reasons that so many Mormon are taken in by fraudsters?

There seem to be good reasons to conclude that yes, Mormonism is an affinity scam. Children are carefully trained to understand and then repeat key doctrinal principles. They are very powerfully rewarded for adherence, and just as powerfully de-incentivized to deviate. Young people are encouraged to socialize and marry within the community. There is also a strong cultural norm toward marrying earlier than non-Mormons. Those young married couples seem to have children sooner and find their place strongly cemented into Mormon church congregations. As an Institution, the church does not seem particularly forthright about the unpleasant or at least human elements of its history, including its racism, sexism, and mistreatment of gays. Polygamy also seems to be frequently glossed over. A reading of Rough Stone Rolling gives one the sense that South Park's version of how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon is much closer to historical fact than what one might believe from church illustrations of that process. All of this lends credence to the idea that not only are Mormons easy victims of financial scams, but they may also be easily hoodwinked by other forms of intellectual, emotional, or spiritual duplicity.

I think the worst thing that Mormons can do is to just pretend that the above three paragraphs do not exist. Remember, affinity scams are effective because people of a group are too trusting and less critical. The best way, it seems to me, to avoid an affinity scam is to act as if one is not part of the group and try to develop an outsider's critical eye. Two things might be helpful in develop an outsider's critical eye: always having the faith to ask the hardest questions and missionary work.

When I attended BYU, my Biology professor was Dr. Bill Bradshaw. This was the only science class I took in college, but Dr. Bradshaw had a more powerful, positive impact on my faith than any other professor. As we talked about evolution, abortion, and gender in many of his classes, I found that these were complex and troubling issues. Dr. Bradshaw made them as complex and troubling as possible, or, better said, as they really are. He did not shy away from them in the least. One day in his class I had the startling thought that faith means being able to ask any question. It is cowardly and faithless to pretend to knowledge one doesn't have or to substitute an easy and partial answer where gaps and doubts should be.

Examples of faith like Dr. Bradshaw, faith with courage and a critical eye to honestly search, can be key as one develops confidence and perspective. And there is one place where such confidence is both tested and developed: in the presence of non-Mormons. Betsy VanDenBerghe has recently explored her service as a missionary and how that service brought her in contact with people she would never otherwise know. I wholeheartedly second those conclusions, and would only add that any missionary work that someone does allows (or forces) one to re-examine Mormonism's basic truth claims. As a missionary, I soon learned that the only honest way to ask others to suspend their beliefs and to be open to what I wanted to share was for me to be as honest and open to them and their beliefs. Whenever I have been open and humble in that manner, my views about God, His relationship and love of His children, and the role of Mormonism have all been clarified and strengthened.

For me, it has been helpful to struggle with the idea that Mormonism is an affinity scam. It has helped me see limitations that I would not recognize. It has also helped me develop a new appreciation for faith and missionary work.

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