Mission and missionary identity are closer to the spotlight in USAmerican presidential politics than they’ve been in a long time because of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s 2½ years as a Mormon missionary in France.
Closer to the spotlight but not in the spotlight, of course, for a couple of reasons: First, the issues that many USAmericans understand as clustering around the separation of church and state make most USAmerican politicians reluctant to stress ecclesial engagements beyond a generalized faith in God and a commitment to charity. Second, as commonly reported, the long history of skepticism and hostility about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has made Romney ambivalent about highlighting his Mormon faith, his work as a missionary (beginning in 1966) or his service as a Mormon bishop and president in Massachusetts.
Joanna Brooks, author of Mormon Girl: Stories of an American Faith, is reported as wishing that Romney would talk more about his missionary stint, the standard two years that every Mormon young man is expected to serve either in the USA or abroad. She was also a guest on today’s National Public Radio’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook, when the subject was “The Mormon Moment”:
There are things, Ann Romney said last night to an adoring crowd in Tampa, that Mitt Romney does not much like to talk about on the campaign trail. One of them is clearly his Mormon faith, at least not by name. Fair enough. We’re electing a secular, not a religious, leader.
On the other hand, we want to know our presidents. Mormonism has been very important to Mitt Romney, and Mitt Romney has been important to Mormonism. A bishop in the church. A big leader. And maybe soon, the first Mormon president of the United States.
This hour, On Point: Faith and politics. Mormons talk about their faith and Mitt Romney.
– Tom Ashbrook
Guest McKay Coppins, political reporter at Buzzfeed, said that from his experience of being such a missionary in the Seattle area the main thing the missionary learns is “to not take offense.” He recounted setting up a stand on a street with an invitational sign and also knocking on doors.
“What do you do?” in that kind of situation, Ashbrook pressed, and Coppins replied that he would tell people he wanted to talk with them about Jesus Christ and that he would offer them copies of The Book of Mormon. “It was a hard sell,” he said (or words to that effect) and noted that lots of people did not want to hear it, did not want to engage him in conversation. Getting up the next day and doing it all again – for two years – was possible, he suggested, only as one learns “to not take offense” at the rejection, indifference or even criticism one’s mission work prompts. Such learning not to take offense, said Coppins, accounts for what he sees as Romney’s perseverance in the face of the opposition he has encountered in his multi-year road to the Republican nomination.
“Not taking offense” – that’s an interesting take on missionary learning. Embedded in it, of course, is the fact that mission work can “give offense.” It can give offense in the theological sector of mission work where the emphasis is on evangelistic proclamation, as it clearly is in Mormon mission work and the work of many evangelical churches. In promoting a particular theological belief system the missionary can be perceived as challenging the hearer’s belief system.
One can also give offense in the “charitable” or “developmental” sector of mission work – education, healthcare, economic capacity-building – where assumptions from the missionary’s home culture get unconsciously and unnecessarily smuggled in with the “help” that is offered. This is where the self-criticism of many “mainline” churches’ mission work is currently focused.
“Not taking offense” is also embedded in the critique of some early Western Christian mission efforts. “Clothing the Hottentots” was one Episcopal critic’s favorite characterization of such efforts, where missionaries were offended, or took offense, at the nakedness of “natives” in various parts of the world and set about clothing them – or trying to change their table manners and the like. By learning “not to take offense” at the different that is otherwise neutral the missionary is also learning “not to give offense” by trying to change things that any fair-minded person would agree do not need changing.
On the other hand, clearly David Livingstone was offended by the slave trade that he encountered in Africa – not taking personal offense as such, but rather offense on behalf of humanity that such cruelty could be visited on fellow humans. A “crime against humanity” is our current term for such offenses not only conceptually but also in international jurisprudence, and no one would suggest not taking offense at such practices. Other missionaries rightly took a similar view of the oppression of women in some societies, as have others concerning the recruitment of child soldiers in the contemporary world.
“Not taking offense” at the offense expressed in how one is perceived as “giving offense” by, in turn, taking some kind offense at another’s theological beliefs or social practices – this is an interesting and important sequence of issues in mission work and missionary identity. Coppins’ remark, in short, has deep background in mission history and practice, deeper than he is probably aware.
Getting back to Mitt Romney, it is striking that, while his Mormon faith is receiving some discussion, his Mormon mission is still outside the spotlight. I agree with Joanna Brooks, herself a Mormon – it would be good to hear more about it.